Rx gone wrong

Not finishing a workout under the time cap is scaling.

Sorry. Please wipe “Rx” from beside your name.

I can’t take credit for this piece of wisdom. That goes to Karen Katzenbach of 30A CrossFit, who shared it with me when modifying a workout for a fictional but all-too-real athlete in the Journal’s “60-Second Scaling” series.

The stubborn athlete, Drake, wanted to do a workout as prescribed despite the fact that it called for 10 rounds of 10 handstand push-ups and 3 clean and jerks at 185 lb.—30 lb. off his one-rep max. The time cap was set at 16 minutes, leaving 96 seconds per round.

Clearly, this is meant to be a challenging conditioning workout that requires an athlete to lift a relatively heavy barbell quickly. For an athlete to finish under the time cap, he or she must be able to cycle a significant but submaximal load swiftly and perform a large amount of handstand push-ups without a lot of rest.

Our boy Drake, of course, wants to “Rx it” even though he’s going to need 40 seconds of rest between each clean and jerk. He’s going to plead and negotiate and smile, and a lot of trainers would cave and let him completely miss the point of the workout. He’d then complete about 5 of the 10 rounds and proudly walk over to the whiteboard to scrawl “Rx” beside his name.

Katzenbach wouldn’t let him.

“I would point out that going over the time cap is as much of a ‘scale’ as using a lighter load—and it’s less preferred,” she wrote.

This is one of the best ideas I’ve heard in recent years, though I’ll admit that sometimes coaches need to allow athletes to reap the psychological benefits of struggling through something that challenges their capacity and determination. But in this case, I’m with Katzenbach 100 percent.

ALT TEXTThis dragon is very Rx. Missing the time cap by 10 minutes is not. (Adam Bow)

We all know how powerful “Rx” is. We’ve seen athletes bleed, vomit and pass out for two letters squeezed out of a dying dry-erase marker. On the less-noble side, we’ve seen athletes lie and cheat their way to the letters. Every CrossFit trainer in the world has watched an athlete write Rx on the board after a chest-to-bar workout in which the C did not hit the B even once.

So I’d suggest a new rule for consideration: Miss the time cap, lose the Rx.

This rule, of course, requires careful planning so appropriate time caps can be applied to clever rep schemes and loading produce the intended result. Program Fran with 225 lb. and you’d best jack up the time cap and recognize you’ve assigned strength work, for example. When deciding on caps, rely on experience, testing and Appendix 1 in Jeremy Gordon’s excellent article “Scaling CrossFit Workouts,” in which Gordon shows you how to guesstimate completion times for WODs.

Solid programming should then be paired with excellent class management. Trainers must take time before the workout to explain its intent and why the athletes are doing it. This speech alone is often enough to bump moderately stubborn athletes back on track, and a minute of personalized attention in warm-up allows the trainer to recommend or approve loads so each athlete can finish under the time cap and truly benefit from the workout.

But the really stubborn people and the ones who tie Rx to self-esteem won’t listen at the whiteboard. They’re already planning their rest breaks, thinking about Instagram and mad-dogging rivals across the room. They can’t hear you. These athletes will even ignore direct instructions in warm-up, either blatantly or with the sweetest smile in the world and a lot of cajoling. Some, the worst of them, will lie to trainers and change loads when the coach isn’t looking—and these sneaky lone wolves should likely be kicked out of your gym.

For the Rx’d-or-die crowd, you must wield the dry-erase marker like Gandalf’s staff. Lay out the rules of engagement in advance and enforce them in the interests of health, safety, fairness and fitness.

ALT TEXTScale wisely: Know when you’re working on strength and when you’re working on conditioning. (Brian Malloy)

“Hey, Drake. This is a conditioning workout, not a heavy day. Our top athletes clean-and-jerk 325, and they’re going to touch-and-go 185 for 10 triples. They’ll probably finish in about 13 minutes. You should use 135 and move quickly. Using 185 is not appropriate for you in this conditioning workout. You’ll miss the time cap and the point.”

“But I want to Rx it.”

“Missing the time cap is scaling, and you don’t get to write Rx on the board if you miss the time cap. First and foremost, I need 30 clean and jerks and 100 handstand push-ups from you in less than 16 minutes. If you do that at 185, you can write Rx on the board.”

It’s really very simple when you think about it, and, in true CrossFit fashion, it’s tremendously elegant.

Think about it: What’s really more important in the workout described above: the load or the volume and intensity?

Clearly, the volume and intensity are the keys, and the load is just a means to an end. If your load selection produces 5 rounds of work when 10 are required, you’ve missed out on 50 percent of the intended repetitions. What’s the point of that? If an athlete needs almost a minute of rest between barbell reps in a conditioning workout, his or her fitness would likely be better served if the load were reserved for a heavy day dedicated to building strength and power.

So I’m with Katzenbach: Do not argue or negotiate when it comes to Rx. Just use common CrossFit sense:

Finish under the time cap and improve your fitness or drop the marker and admit you’ve modified the workout and altered its intent.

About the Author: Mike Warkentin is the managing editor of the CrossFit Journal and the founder of CrossFit 204.

Cover image: iStockphoto.com/fstop123