5 Ways to Scale the Murph WOD: Options based on fitness level

A muscular man does chin-ups in the park.

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With the annual Murph Challenge right around the corner, many of us are making some last-minute additions to our weekly programs to prepare. It’s not uncommon at this point in a Murph training program to wonder about what options are available to scale the Murph WOD based on our fitness level. After all, the Murph Challenge is a notorious beast of a workout!

The most common ways to scale the Murph Challenge are to:

  • Skip the weight vest
  • Choose an easier variation of push-ups or pull-ups
  • Alter the set and rep scheme
  • Lower the total repetition count
  • Skip or substitute one of the exercises altogether

There’s no reason to feel bad about scaling the Murph Challenge. The point of Hero WODs is to honor our fallen heroes and participate in a tough workout, not to destroy ourselves physically or risk injury.

There’s nothing wrong with scaling the Murph Challenge

Debates rage online about what is the “proper” way to complete Murph (straight-through vs partitioned Murph, etc), but the reality is many people aren’t doing Murph “proper” when Memorial Day actually comes. There’s nothing wrong with that.

If you need to modify the Murph Challenge to make it fit your level of fitness or to work around an injury, here are some ideas to try:

Murph Scaling Options

1. Skip the weight vest

The original CrossFit workout calls for the use of a twenty-pound vest or body armor to be worn. One of the most obvious alterations to the Murph Challenge is to skip the weight vest for your squats, push-ups, and pull-ups altogether. For most people, this may be all you’ll need to do.

Not only does this make the challenge significantly more accessible to the average person, but there are challenges associated with running in a weighted vest that can cause issues if your vest isn’t set up for you in particular, or if you’re not used to it.

I have found over the years that, for some reason, adding weight to calisthenic movements seems to increase the difficulty exponentially, rather than linearly. This is a great thing if we’re trying to build muscle with weighted vest training, but not so helpful when we’re trying to complete 600 repetitions of calisthenic movements in a timed event.

Many CrossFit gyms even seem to recommend that if it’s your first Murph, then plan on skipping the twenty-pound vest. Regardless, there’s no shame in skipping the weighted vest altogether.

2. Choose an easier pushup variation or pulling exercise

The author of Lunch Break Fitness doing push ups in his minimalist garage gym.

If the thought of doing 100 strict pull-ups and 200 push-ups in one session makes you squeamish, you’re not alone. This is probably the single most common hang-up people have with the Murph Challenge, so much so that I wrote an entire article on how to do Murph without a pull-up bar.

Here are a few things you could try in order to satisfy the requirement:

Easier push-up variations:

  • Do knee push-ups
  • Do incline push-ups (hands elevated on a bench or box)

Easier pull-up variations:

  • Do kipping pull-ups
  • Do jackknife pull-ups
  • Do assisted pull-ups with a resistance band or machine (if you have access to one)
  • Do jumping pull-ups
  • Switch to a row variation (resistance band, dumbbell, or inverted ring rows)

Of course, you don’t have to commit to one style of push-ups or pull-ups for the entire workout. You could just as easily start with normal push-ups and then switch to the easier variation once you start to hit muscular failure halfway through.

Alternatively, you could start every set with normal repetitions, and then switch to the easier variation halfway through the set when it becomes too difficult.

You may be surprised how well you can complete the repetition requirements when you get a bit creative.

3. Alter the set and rep scheme

We’re all aware of the typical set and rep schemes commonly used in Murph (20 rounds of Cindy, or 4/8/12 for 25 rounds, etc.). However, if you find these typical Murph strategies schemes too difficult, there are a number of options you have to alter the set and rep schemes for the push-ups, pull-ups, and squats.

The cool thing about doing it this way is that it’s not technically a scaled Murph workout at this point – you’re simply breaking the reps down further to complete the regular Murph.

If you’ve got a good cardiovascular engine but struggle with strength, another good option is to utilize an atypical set and rep scheme.

Off the top of my head here are a few you could try:

  • 2 pull-ups, 4 push-ups, 6 squats x 50 rounds (if you’ve got the cardio but lack the strength)
  • 3 pull-ups, 6 push-ups, 12 squats x 33 rounds (similar to the above)

If you struggle with one exercise in particular, try splitting up just that one exercise. Here are a couple of examples:

  • 5 push-ups, 5 pull-ups, 5 push-ups, 15 air squats x 20 rounds (if you struggle with push-up endurance)
  • 3 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, 2 pull-ups, 15 air squats x 20 rounds (if you struggle with pull-up endurance)

4. Lower the repetitions

Two men and one woman doing air squats in a Crossfit gym.

This one is self-explanatory, and if you’ve never done an official Murph before, you may not realize how common it is to simply lower the repetitions.

The most common variants would be:

  • Half Murph – 800m run, 50 pull-ups, 100 push-ups, 150 squats, 800m run
  • Quarter Murph – 400m run, 25 pull-ups, 50 push-ups, 75 squats, 400m run

However, you don’t have to follow a set plan like the above. You can simply pick a repetition goal that makes sense for your ability level. Consider:

  • You could do a 60%, 70%, or 80% Murph with full one-mile runs before and after (simply do the math to get the repetition numbers)

You could lower the number of repetitions for just one exercise that you struggle with. Consider that you could do:

  • 50 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats (if you find pull-ups very difficult)
  • 100 pull-ups, 100 push-ups, 300 squats (if you find push-ups very difficult)

5. Skip or substitute an exercise

This probably most applies to individuals who are working around an injury. Maybe you’ve been rehabbing a shoulder injury from overdoing it on bench press, or you’ve got some tendonitis in your elbows from doing too much pulling.

If this is the case, there’s no need to reinjure yourself in the name of completing the Murph Challenge. Simply remove the problem exercise altogether and substitute it with something completely different.

If you simply can’t or don’t want to do pull-ups, push-ups, or endless air squats, simply remove the problem exercise and replace it with, situps, crunches, kettlebell swings, or whatever other exercise you desire.

Should you scale Murph?

If you can’t complete your chosen Murph variation in around one hour, it’s likely that you should choose from the Murph workout scale options above to make it easier. Similarly, if it’s your first Murph, you may want to choose a scaled-down version just to be on the safe side.

Lastly, if you’re working around an injury, you should likely scale or modify the Murph challenge as well.

It will be a rewarding experience regardless, and remember: the Murph Challenge isn’t going anywhere. You can always progress your Murph variation from year-to-year.

After all, the point is really in memory of Navy Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy as well as our other fallen heroes across the globe.

Good luck, and see you on Memorial Day!