top of page
  • Writer's pictureFarran Mackay

Unlock your coaching potential: How differentiation in a lesson can be a win-win

Differentiation simply means adjusting the training to meet the needs and abilities of each individual participant, with an eye to the long term goals of the participant, and as such how much support an individual may need. In other words it is scaling within the context of a long(er) term goal with an awareness of the effort needed from the coach. It is not about making things easier or harder, but rather about creating a workout that is challenging and rewarding while working towards a specific goal. It is at the core of the CrossFit® methodology.

And just to make sure we are all on the same page, let's have a look at why differentiation is so important in a CrossFit® lesson.

Why differentiate?

First of all, not everyone who walks into a class is going to be at the same fitness level. Some participants may be seasoned pros, while others may be brand new to fitness altogether. By differentiating the workout, coaches can ensure that everyone is able to participate at their own level and make progress towards reaching their fitness goals.

Secondly, differentiation allows participants to work on specific skills or movements that they may be struggling with. For example, if an member is having trouble with pull-ups, a coach may provide a progression or modification that allows them to work on building strength and/or technique.

Thirdly, differentiation can help prevent injury. By ensuring that participants are using proper form and technique, coaches can reduce the risk of injury, and help athletes achieve their fitness goals safely.

Finally, differentiation creates a sense of community and support within the CrossFit class. When members of different levels are able to work together and support each other, it creates a positive and motivating environment that can help everyone achieve their fitness goals.

So now the question is how can you actually differentiate in the lesson?

How to differentiate?

Step 1: Know your members

As a coach, you know that each member is unique, with their own strengths, weaknesses, and fitness goals. By taking the time to get to know your members, you can better understand their individual needs and tailor your lessons to meet them.

So, how can you get to know your members? Here are a few tips:

  1. Start with a conversation: Take the time to talk to each participant. Ask them about their fitness goals, any injuries or limitations they may have, and what they enjoy most about CrossFit®.

  2. Observe their workouts: Watch your members as they perform movements and take note of any areas where they may need extra support or guidance.

  3. Ask for feedback: Don't be afraid to ask your members for feedback on the training. What did they find challenging? What did they enjoy? Use this information to adjust your lessons accordingly.

  4. Keep track of progress: Use a system to monitor each member's progress over time. This can help you identify areas where they may be improving or struggling with.

By taking the time to get to know your members, you can differentiate your lessons in a way that is both challenging and rewarding for everyone. Whether it's providing modifications for members with injuries, providing progressions to master a high skill movement, or adjusting the intensity of the training for beginners, you can create a workout that meets the unique needs of each member.

Step 2: Plan, plan, and plan some more


As a CrossFit® coach, you know that progressions are an essential part of helping your members reach their fitness goals. Progressions are a way of breaking down a movement or skill into smaller, more manageable steps, allowing athletes to gradually build up to the full movement.

But progressions aren't just about helping beginners - they can also benefit more advanced members who are looking to master a particular skill. That's why it's important to plan your lessons with not only the progressions in mind but also WHEN you would use them.

So, how can you plan your lessons with respect to progressions? Here are a few tips:

  1. Start with the end goal in mind: Think about the movement or skill you want your athletes to achieve, and break it down into smaller steps. What are the prerequisites that need to be mastered before moving on to the full movement?

  2. Identify progressions for each step: Once you've broken down the movement, identify progressions for each step including identifying any prerequisites for the progression itself. The progression may also involve modifying the movement or using equipment to make it more manageable.

  3. Build progressions into your lessons to evaluate participants: Incorporate progressions into your lessons in a way that makes sense, and gives you an opportunity to evaluate participants. For example, if handstand push-ups are in the training, start with a warm-up that focuses on upper body strength and stability. By observing the participants, you can already identify which progression may be suitable for each individual.

  4. Offer guidelines on progressions: In your explanation of the training/workout give explicit guidelines on progressions. For example, if a participant has 0-3 strict unbroken pullups, they should perform negative pullups in the workout. Providing clear guidelines to the participants also supports their development as a more autonomous athlete (more on that another time!)

By planning your lessons with progressions in mind, you can help your members achieve their fitness goals safely and effectively. Not only that, progressions can also help keep your members engaged and motivated, as they see themselves making progress over time.


By modifications I'm specifically referring to adjustments made to the prescribed workout movements and/or progressions to accommodate for individual injuries, or physical limitations. Modifications can be made to any movement in a training. Prior to the lesson coaches should consider common injury and/or physical limitations members may have, and what modifications would be suitable for each case.

Here are some examples of common modifications you can consider for injury and/or physical limitations:

  1. Scaling weight: Reducing the weight used for a particular exercise to accommodate for strength or ability level.

  2. Adjusting reps: Decreasing the number of reps in a set or workout to accommodate for fitness level or fatigue.

  3. Substituting exercises: Replacing a prescribed movement with a similar exercise that is more appropriate for a particular individual.

  4. Modifying range of motion: Adjusting the range of motion for a particular movement to accommodate for an injury or physical limitation.

By planning for possible modifications to the lesson, you can provide participants with a "fast" solution to their issue. Not only does this mean you can give timely support to your members, but it also means they are less likely to feel like they are a burden to the coach, and are therefore more likely to continue training.

Create opportunities

Supporting participants on an individual level requires communication, and to communicate you need to create opportunities with the participants to actually discuss any possible progressions or modifications. For example, as part of the warming up, plan 2 minutes on a cardio machine to give you the chance to check-in with everyone. Or making sure the amount of time you assign for the WOD prep is also sufficient for you to discuss any progressions or scaling that is needed.

Another approach, especially useful in high skilled gymnastic movements, is to explicitly divide the class into 3 different progressions, and allow them to work together and alongside each other. This way it easier as a coach to observe and give feedback (both individual and to the group) if all those doing the progression are physically next to each other.

Step 3: Execute

Creating a plan is an important first step to achieving your goals, but it's not enough on its own. To truly succeed, you need to know how to execute your plan to differentiate effectively. Here are some tips in executing your plan.

  1. Break it down into smaller steps: One of the most effective ways to execute a plan is to break it down into smaller, more manageable steps. This can help to make the plan feel less overwhelming and more achievable. For example, you may want to first check-in with all your participants, then communicate the guidelines on the progressions (as well as demonstrating and explaining), then you can ask any participants who have any questions or issues to stay, and you can then address any modifications that may be needed.

  2. Set "deadlines": Another key to executing a plan is to set deadlines for each step along the way. For example you aim to check-in with all the participants before the end of the warming up, or you want to discuss any modifications within the first 2 minutes of the WOD preparations. This can help to create a sense of urgency and accountability for you as a coach, and can also help to ensure that you stay on track. Just make sure your deadlines are realistic and achievable!

  3. Stay flexible: While it's important to have a plan in place, it's also important to stay flexible and adaptable. As a coach we simply cannot prepare for all eventualities. Sometimes unexpected things will come up, and you may need to adjust your plan accordingly. Be prepared to pivot if necessary. The more flexible you can be, the more likely you are to succeed.

  4. Employ dynamic scaling were appropriate: Dynamic scaling can be considered as an advanced coaching technique. Dynamic scaling refers to adjusting a workout in real-time based on an individual's current abilities, limitations, and goals. Unlike traditional scaling, which involves making a fixed adjustment to a workout prior to starting, dynamic scaling allows for greater flexibility and customization. More information on this to follow in an upcoming blog!

  5. Stay motivated: Successfully executing differentiation can be a challenging process, especially across multiple lessons, so it's important to stay motivated along the way. Find ways to keep yourself engaged about differentiation in your lessons, whether it's by seeking out support/feedback from others, or reflecting on how it (would have) felt for you being supported in this way by your coach.

  6. Celebrate yoir successes: Finally, make sure to celebrate your successes along the way. Every milestone or achievement is worth celebrating, no matter how small. Take the time to acknowledge your hard work and progress, and use these successes as motivation to keep going.

Executing differentiation in a lessons is a crucial unlocking your coaching potential, but it requires a combination of strategy, flexibility, and motivation. By breaking your plan down into smaller steps, setting deadlines, staying flexible, staying motivated, and celebrating your successes, you can execute differentiation in the lesson in a way that is not only achievable, but also rewarding and fulfilling.

Step 4: Reflect

Reflection is an important aspect of teaching and coaching, as it allows us to assess what worked well, what didn't, and what changes we can make in the future. When it comes to differentiation in a CrossFit lesson, reflection is especially important, as it can help us to improve our approach and create a better experience for our members. Here are some tips on how to reflect on differentiation in a CrossFit lesson:

  1. Assess individual progress: One of the first steps in reflecting on differentiation is to assess individual progress. Take the time to review the progress of each participant, paying attention to areas where they have improved or struggled. Ask yourself if you were able to effectively differentiate for each participant, and if there were any missed opportunities for differentiation.

  2. Review training objectives: Another important aspect of reflection is to review the training objectives. Did the training objectives align with each participant's individual goals and needs? Were the objectives challenging yet achievable? Were there any modifications or adjustments that could have been made to better meet the needs of each participant?

  3. Seek feedback: Feedback is crucial when it comes to reflection. Seek feedback from your participants (and fellow coaches) on what worked well and what could have been improved. Consider implementing a feedback system, such as anonymous surveys or focus groups, to gather feedback in a more structured and systematic way.

  4. Identify areas for improvement: Based on your assessment of individual progress, review of lesson objectives, and feedback from participants, identify areas for improvement. Are there any specific modifications or progressions that you could make to better meet the needs of each client? Are there any areas where you could improve your ability to differentiate effectively?

  5. Develop a plan: Finally, develop a plan for how you will improve your approach to differentiation in future lessons. Consider implementing new strategies or techniques, seeking out additional training or resources, or collaborating with other coaches to improve your skills.

Reflection is a crucial aspect of effective coaching, especially when it comes to differentiation in a lesson. By assessing individual progress, reviewing lesson objectives, seeking feedback, identifying areas for improvement, and developing a plan for the future, coaches can create a more personalised and effective workout experience for their members


But it's not just about creating a personalised training - differentiation can also help build a sense of community and support within your CrossFit® lesson. When members feel like they are understood and valued, and that their training needs are met, they are more likely to stick with the program and achieve their fitness goals. In other words, increase member retention!

Take your coaching to the next level

At Virtuous Coach Development we can support you in all aspects of coach development at affiliate, team, or individual levels. By relying on our expertise and experience, you will gain the knowledge and skills specific to your needs to bring your (or your teams) coaching to the next level.

Feel free to schedule a call to have a chat over coffee (or whatever you want!) about your affiliate, team, or your own coaching.


bottom of page