I get the question almost every day. "What weight should I do?"
Typically, there is a certain stimulus that your coach is trying to achieve when programming a workout. When I design a workout with a load, I placing it in 1 of 6 categories: very heavy, heavy, moderate to heavy, light to moderate, light, very light. Obviously, as the weight goes from heavy to light, the reps should change. Same goes for gymnastics: difficult, moderate, simple. When programming for competitors, an example would be strict deficit handstand push-ups (difficult, lower reps depending on deficit), muscle-ups (moderate, medium to high reps), pull-ups (simple, high to very high reps).
Moving forward in this article, I will be talking about modifying for a CrossFit competitor rather than a regular class athlete. With a competitor, I need to keep in mind what they are going to see in competitions, whereas with someone wanting to be fit and healthy, I will always chase the designed stimulus of the workout.
Now back to the question. Should you scale? There are two major factors to consider. The most obvious is the athlete's abilities. The second is the athlete's goals.
The Athlete's Abilities
So last week you hit a new personal record on deadlift by pulling 405 pounds. Awesome! This week, your coach has programmed "Marston," a CrossFit hero workout.
1 Deadlift, 405 lbs
15 Bar Facing Burpees
Now is your chance to bask in the glory of the 400-pound club! Sorry. In no universe is it a good idea for you to pull on that bar for 20 minutes. Hopefully you came to this conclusion yourself. If not, I'm sure your coach would help you. There's not much to it. If you cannot do it safely, you make a smart decision and move on.
Now the slightly more complicated answer...
The Athlete's Goals
Let's say you have a 6:55 "Helen" time and 30 rounds on "Cindy". Wow! Fantastic. Now, let's say you, with that stellar engine (and I assume pretty good gymnastics), also have a 255-pound clean (or 170 pounds if you're a female). In the sport of CrossFit, you and I both know that your engine is in great shape, but your strength is going to be a major limiter for you at this point.
Today your coach programmed:
12-9-6 for time:
Squat Cleans, 225/155 lbs
Although this workout is designed to be on the faster side (completed in 7-8 minutes), as your coach I would give you the go ahead to trudge through this one "prescribed" because I know that you need more heavy barbells in your life to be competitive.
I usually get these question regarding weights or high-skill gymanstics. Those things I treat very similar with my competitors. If you need to get stronger, I'm going to slow you down and have you do the most difficult version possible for you to help you gain strength.
"Conditioning takes months to develop. Strength takes years." -Ben Bergeron
Above are only two examples of how I approach the answer when athletes ask, "Should I scale?" or "What weight should I do?" But my method is similar in almost every scenario. Of course, other minor factors can come into play like injuries, pregnancy, time of year (near the Open?), what the rest of the training day looks like, etc.
I am more than happy to help my athletes with questions like these. However, I believe if you take a step back and look at where you are and where you want to go, you can almost always answer these on your own and verify with your coach. Either way, these conversations are always fun to have and I love teaching athletes my process.