Understanding the Buzzwords: “Scaling” vs “Individualising”

There’s a constant stream of buzzwords that do the rounds of gyms and the fitness industry in general. It can often be a case of playing Chinese whispers with the latest health and fitness terminology. This isn’t helped by the saturation of coaching on social media and indirect communications from person to person. It can often lead to misinformation and confusion. In this blog, we’ll discuss the buzzwords “scaling” and “individualisation”. Is there a difference? What is the difference if so? Well it’s a yes and no answer and it comes down to the context in which they are used.

And another buzzword: “dose response”

Before delving deeper into the topic, it is important I explain the meaning of another buzzword that features prominently in this blog; “dose response”. This is a term for what is happening ‘under the hood’, otherwise known as ‘stress’. The dose response from a person doing push-ups could be as follows:

  • They have created minor muscle damage in their chest and arm muscles;
  • They have temporarily impaired the uptake of oxygen to the muscles and improved motor unit connections in the muscles.

This is all a result of doing the push-ups in a way that fatigues the muscles through an appropriate range of motion, reps and sets. This dose response (stress) creates a temporary recovery period in which the body needs to rebuild all of the things above. Then, if the stress was great enough, along with sufficient recovery, the person will be able to do more than they could previously.

The differences between scaling and individualising

Scaling is performing the same prescription of movement in a workout but with an alteration to the loading used. In some cases an entirely different movement might be given. Generally, scaling doesn’t take into consideration dose response and is usually prescribed in recognition of a persons’ inability for the given task.

Individualising is adjusting necessary techniques, tempo, reps and sets to create a dose response based on that person. When it comes to individualising, the coach has to know that dose response occurs through various scenarios that are based on a persons’ ability to express output. Differing levels of expression mean that different exposures are needed to elicit the dose response.

Knowing the best option

Dose response is the key indicator here to understanding whether a person should scale or have their work individualised. When it comes to mixed work (performing different movements during the same workout) it can be hard to know what is the best option. The unspoken rules are as follows:

  • If the aim of the game is to improve any strength endeavour, then individualisation should take place. This needs to reference previous experience, unless it’s following its natural progression (it’s the same reps as others but has been building week to week). If progression hasn’t occurred then it will likely need to be forced with an intervention, such as regressing a movement and prescribing more reps and sets.
  • If the aim of the game is to improve cardio-respiratory work then scaling is likely best. This is because individualising could then interfere with the dose response we’re looking for. To give an example, to improve an individual’s push-ups you could give them more push-ups. Great idea! But not so good if the idea of the workout is to improve breathing, and it just happens to have push-ups in it. This is because the push-ups could then become the limiting factor. This would result in a lack of improvement in either area due to insufficient workload of both breathing and push-ups.

This highlights the importance of understanding the intention of the session, along with the person, before we can make recommendations for altering the workout.

Beyond the buzzwords

At LiftOff gym, we recognise the needs of everyone. Our coaching team know how to help individuals move forward, instead of just doing what’s easy for them. We don’t just overload you with buzzwords and technical jargon. We understand their meaning and how it applies to your training needs. If you’d like more information then please get in contact.

Coach Mike