When you join a Crossfit gym, you are inundated with tons of information. Not only is there a seemingly endless number of movements, but also a lexicon of acronyms and other Crossfit jargon that at times may seem like a language all its own. WOD? AMRAP? EMOM? What does RX mean? What is a Time Cap? What is Scaling? What is meant by “Stimulus”? What is the difference between a clean, a full clean, a squat clean, and a full squat clean (haha–that last one is a trick question. They are all the same thing). We often joke that the first three months of Crossfit is just trying to figure out what the hell everyone is talking about.

Today though, I want to talk about Scaling and Time Caps: What is Scaling, why do we cap workouts, and what you can do to help ensure you don’t become “The Chronic Time Capper.”

“Universal Scalability”

One of the most touted aspects of Crossfit, and the one that makes it truly amazing, is the idea of universal scalability: That is, anyone, regardless of age or fitness ability level, can walk into a box and complete the Workout of the Day. The beauty of Crossfit is that you could have an advanced athlete, an Average Joe, and your Grandpap all working out in the same room, just all on their own individual level. For instance, let’s say the workout is:

3 Rounds for Time:

  • 400m Run
  • 15 Burpees
  • 10 Deadlifts (225/155)

The intended stimulus for this workout is one that is short, fast, and intense. The advanced athlete will be able to complete this workout pretty quick, blazing through the run in less than 1:30 and hitting the burpees and deadlifts with relative ease without stopping or taking long breaks.

Our Average Joe may have decent running abilities and can burpee just fine, but in order to keep with the “short, fast, intense” stimulus, will have to scale the deadlift weight down in order to be able to rip off those sets of deadlifts without stopping.

Grandpap may have a bad hip so we will have him row to lessen the impact on his lower body–likely 150m or ~1:00 of rowing, perform 10 step-back burpees with no push up, and light weight deadlifts. In this 3-way scaled iteration of the workout, all three athletes will be finishing the workout within a few minutes of one another. That is universal scalability.

In any given workout, we will typically scale three things:

  1. Load
  2. Movement
  3. Rep Scheme/Distance

The first and most obvious reason for scaling is safety: If you cannot move a light load with perfect form, you don’t need to add weight to it. Loading dysfunction is a recipe for disaster.  Additionally, if you cannot move a heavier load with good form, it is probably too heavy.

Remember: Mechanics → Consistency → Intensity

First we want you moving with good mechanics. Can you perform a proper air squat? Great, you have good mechanics.

From there we want you moving consistently with good mechanics: Does rep 25 of your set of 30 air squats look like rep 1? Excellent! You are demonstrating mechanics with consistency.

Only then will it be time to increase the intensity first by moving faster, then by adding load. This applies to not only squats, but also deadlifts, snatches, and every other movement we do. Adding load dysfunction is like adding calculus to someone’s coursework who hasn’t mastered basic math. The better you can grasp the fundamentals, more efficient you will be. If you are moving with poor form just warming up for the workout, do NOT add weight thinking something magical is going to happen when the clock starts. Your form will only break down further under fatigue.

Which can leave you injured.

Which sucks.

Don’t be that person.

The second reason we scale is to preserve the stimulus. This can be a bit or a gray area for Crossfitters, so I wanted to expound on it a little bit, because this is where Time Caps come in.


Each workout that is programmed has a specific intent based on the energy system we are trying to train. This is what we mean when we refer to the “stimulus”. Sometimes it is meant to be short and light, sometimes short and heavy. Sometimes all lifty. Sometimes no lifty. Sometimes you it will be aerobic and not terrible..other days it will be anaerobic and you will stumble out the gym feeling like you got hit by a truck. Performing across this broad spectrum of stimuli is what we refer to as “fitness”. And with Crossfit, we aren’t just strong. We are also fast. We are also enduring. We are also skilled. As athletes, we are a culmination of the capacity and skills we acquire over time. Sometimes we are so eager to show what we are capable of that it can impede our progress, getting lost in the Rx Sauce. 

Most of us know the difference between jogging and sprinting. A jog is moving at a brisk, yet comfortable pace. If you hate running, maybe it isn’t comfortable–but you get the idea. A sprint on the other hand suggests more urgency, speed, and yes: Intensity. You are moving much faster and it is probably very uncomfortable.

What happens when a workout that is meant to be a “sprint” becomes a jog? Or worse, what happens when an intended sprint winds up being a jog where you stop to walk several times? The stimulus is lost.

To become the well-rounded athlete you wish to be, and eventually earn the ability to do workouts “As Prescribed”, you need to scale. Each day, your coach will explain the intent of the workout and give you options for scaling the workout based on your abilities. But an additional layer of scaling we add to make sure that the stimulus is met is to occasionally incorporate a Time Cap.

The time cap is NOT meant to cut you off from finishing or to make you feel “not fit enough”. The time cap ensures that the stimulus of the workout is preserved and that athletes scale accordingly. It is there to prevent 5 minute workouts from turning into 15 minute slogs. If you are time-capping often, the answer is NOT to extend the time cap. The answer is to scale the workout better.

In a workout like Fran, which is 21-15-9 Thrusters 95/65 and Pull Ups, the intent is to move as fast as you can through the workout with as few breaks as possible. For the advanced athlete, the thruster weight is less than 50% of their 1RM and they can blow through those reps along with the pull ups unbroken with elite times in the 2 minute range. You may look at Fran and say, “I can do thrusters at that weight!” But if 95/65 is closer to 75-80% of your 1RM thruster, you’ll likely wind up landing yourself a 10:00+ time because you could only do 3-5 thrusters before dropping the bar. In this case you are not really doing Fran as it was intended. You essentially did strength work against a running clock, which is far less intense than the desired “Fran Experience.”
The stimulus was lost.

“The goal is NOT to do workouts as RX’d. The goal is to get the appropriate stimulus everyday, work on mechanics and consistency, then layer in intensity to the point they are training at their Threshold. This is how the magic happens.” – Ben Bergeron

Once again, in a properly scaled workout, all athletes should be finishing within 3-5 minutes of one another. There WILL be days when we will have no time cap and will direct you to finish the work no matter how long it takes. There WILL be days that we say, screw it, use the heavy weight, do all of the pull up reps, or go ahead and run that mile even if it takes you 13 minutes. But if you truly want to get better, leave your ego at the door, detach yourself from the “RX Mentality” and work better at moving light loads faster. It’s ok if every once in awhile you underestimate the WOD or overestimate your abilities and the workout hits you like a bag of bricks to the face–it happens to all of us! Just don’t become the chronic time-capper or the “tries to Rx everything” athlete. 

So much of Crossfit is a learning experience. We say this often, but each workout you do, you have a chance to learn something about yourself. Some parts of that process are trial and error. It is ok to try a heavier weight or work outside of your comfort zone. But if you find that you are capping WODs or almost capping the WOD on a daily basis, take a few steps back and start scaling more. You will be better for it.

Train Smart.


Nicole Voelzke

Crossfit South Hills


Read More:

Zatsiorsky, Scaling, and Power – Again Faster