Why Do We Scale? When Do We Make Movement Modifications?

A smart athlete knows when to scale a movement. I am going to teach you why it is important to scale and when to make movement modifications.

We scale or modify a movement for the following reasons:

  • Injury/pain
  • Level of metabolic conditioning
  • Skill level
  • Strength level


In CrossFit, our three main barbell squats are the back squat, front squat, and overhead squat. Each variation is increasingly difficult (i.e: The overhead squat demands more trunk and shoulder stabilization than the front squat).

If holding a barbell overhead causes you shoulder pain, it is best to stay away from that movement. 

Our coaches would suggest that you front squat or back squat instead of overhead squatting. There is no reason to work through the pain and our coaches would never advise you to work through pain or injury. It is best practice to modify until our injury is healed. Then, we can safely and progressively increase the load to build our strength back.

Level of Metabolic Conditioning

Our level of metabolic conditioning can determine the appropriate amount of volume for a workout. Let’s use the following as an example:

3 Rounds for Time
25 Overhead Squats (95lbs/65lbs)
400m Run

A well-conditioned athlete will be able to complete this workout in 8:00-10:00. With the prescribed reps, a de-conditioned athlete will take over 10:00. You can reduce the number of reps to achieve the workout’s intended stimulus. So, instead of doing 25 overhead squats, you can perform 15 reps. Additionally, we can lessen the running distance, which will make this workout much more attainable for a de-conditioned athlete.

Skill Level

Compared to the back squat and the front squat, the overhead squat requires the greatest amount of midline stabilization. We also need a considerable amount of shoulder stabilization to hold the barbell over our heads. This version of the squat is extremely difficult and it should be performed under the watchful eye of a coach. While performing an overhead squat, our coaches will look for the following:

  • Safely unracking the barbell from the rig
  • Efficiently transferring the barbell from the back rack to the overhead position
  • Maintaining proper shoulder stabilization with the barbell while performing a full-range squat
    The overhead squat is a demanding movement and it isn’t for everyone.

During our On-Ramp Program, we teach the different squat variations a provide you with an assessment of your squat form, so you can effectively scale your squats during our class workouts. 

Strength Level

As mentioned earlier, the overhead squat demands a lot of shoulder and core strength. To hold a barbell in the overhead position, we need to squeeze our core tight and maintain shoulder stabilization throughout a full-range squat. If we do not have the strength to hold the barbell over our heads, it wouldn’t be safe to descend into a squat, as the weight of the barbell would carry us forwards. Instead, we can practice our form with a PVC pipe or front squat. Both are fine options, but as always, make sure you talk to your coach to ensure that you are on the right track.

Our most important priority is your safety. Our coaches provide movement modifications as needed to ensure that you are moving as safely and effectively as possible.

We hope this guide to scaling helps to empower you throughout your workouts💪