Is Metabolic Conditioning the Most Effective Workout?

MetCon gets results...but can you pay the price?

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We love catch phrases in the fitness industry, particularly those that involve words like

'burn' and 'shred' and 'tone.'

An uninitiated person might think we're all a bunch of masochists, but shredding, burning, sculpting and toning is exactly what we want from our workouts. So, what's the magic workout that will finally give us the perfect body?

It's not the long, slow cardio we've spent the last 20 years doing, nor is it the boring old straight-set strength training workouts, either.

So if it's not that, then what is it?

And The Answer Is...

It's actually a combination of both.  This special combination of cardio and strength is called Metabolic Conditioning and, if you've ever heard of or tried P90X, CrossFit, Insanity or high intensity circuit training, then you know what I'm talking about.

There are people who think that metabolic conditioning, or MetCon, as the cool people call it, is the most time-efficient way to burn fat and build endurance, but is that really the case? And if so, is all that high intensity exercise really good for us? Find out what's so great, or maybe not-so-great, about MetCon.

Why MetCon Gets Results

MetCon, like a lot of fitness jargon such as fat burning zone or toning up, is a bit of a misnomer. You don't really have to exercise to 'condition' your metabolism. Your body is metabolizing all the time and, if it ever stops, that means you've stopped, too.

However, according Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit and one of the premier experts in high intensity training, metabolic training is about increasing "the storage and delivery of energy for any activity." (Glassman,"Metabolic Conditioning")

His well-written article goes into great detail about this, with discussions about the energy pathways of the body and how MetCon, unlike traditional cardio or strength training, targets each of them in a more effective way.

All of that is important and his article is well worth reading, but what MetCon is really about for the average person is one thing: Getting results.

Watch any P90X or Insanity infomercial and you'll see those hard, gleaming muscles of a lean, fat-free body that many of us dream of. So what's the secret behind these results and can we all have them? That depends on what you want and how hard you're willing to work.

The Good

The real secret to MetCon isn't about what you do, it's about how you do it and if you do it right, you can:

  • Burn more calories for weight loss
  • Increase the calories you burn after your workout,, also called the afterburn
  • Teach your body how use different energy systems more efficiently, including the phosphagen system (immediate energy required), glycolysis (intermediate energy required) and the aerobic system (extended energy required). While this isn't always a priority for the average exerciser, this can be a tremendous boost for athletes.
  • Build strength, endurance and fitness for almost any activity - Competing in races, going into the military or law enforcement, sports, marathon yard work sessions, etc.

    So, if you can get all that from MetCon, why aren't we all doing it? For one, it's a complex way of exercising and we often need expert instruction, guidance and motivation to do it safely and effectively. For another? It's often much too intense for the beginning exerciser or even the average exerciser. Just ask my husband how many days he was sore when he did P90X. His answer? All of them.

    So as effective as it can be, there are some things you should know before you try it.​

    Despite the great results you can get from this high level of exercise, there are things to consider before investing your time and energy in this type of training.

    Pros

    • Fat loss/Muscle gain - The most attractive thing about MetCon is the fact that the high levels of intensity help you burn more calories during and after your workout. The exercises, which usually include whole body, compound movements, help you lose fat and gain muscle more quickly and more efficiently than cardio or strength training alone
    • More strength, power and endurance - Because you're targeting all of your energy pathways in one workout, you're conditioning the body on every level
    • High level of fitness - If you can work at that high level of intensity, you can probably kick butt in just about every other activity in your daily life
    • Variety - People enjoy MetCon workouts because they have so much variety. You're not slogging on a treadmill for 45 minutes to nowhere. You're doing a variety of exercises that will keep both your mind and body engaged
    • Short and sweet - You have to work very hard, of course, but the payoff is you only have to do it for 10 or 30 minutes

    Cons

    • High quit rate - Some experts have suggested that more than 50% of exercisers will eventually quit workouts that are too intense. With the exception of one person, everyone I know who's tried P90X or CrossFit got amazing results...and quit after a certain period of time because of burnout, injuries, exhaustion and boredom.
    • High rate of injury - These workouts cause fatigue and fatigue leads to bad technique and bad technique often leads to injury. The fact that many beginners start at an intensity that may be too high for them is also a major contributor to injuries
    • Debilitating muscle soreness - While these workout programs should include enough rest days for your muscles to recover and minimize soreness, many times they don't, leaving you sore day after day. After day
    • May suppress your immune system - Studies have shown that very high intensity exercise, particularly without enough recovery time between exercises or workouts, can actually increase our risk of infections like colds or viruses. This may be due to the fact that, under stress, your body produces a stress hormone, cortisol, which has an immunosuppressive effect on the body.
    • High rate of misery - Some people like to challenge themselves at a high level of fitness. For others, this level of exercise will just feel miserable.

    So what makes a workout MetCon as opposed to something else? There aren't official guidelines, but there are some basic rules when setting up MetCon workouts.

    The Basics of MetCon

    • It's set up in a circuit format. That means you do each exercise one after another and repeat the circuit 1 or more times.
    • It usually involves non-competing exercises. That means exercises that allow one muscle group to work while the other muscle group rests. For example, doing a lower body exercise (e.g., squats) followed by an upper body exercise (e.g., pushups).
    • You work at a very high intensity for 10-120 seconds. That means you need to be anaerobic or around a Level 9-10 on this Perceived Exertion Chart during the work sets. You need challenging exercises, such as whole body, compound movements, working as hard as you can during the time you've chosen. The amount of time you work will depend on your goals:
      • For power, you might do sprints for 10 seconds and rest for more than a minute.
      • For endurance you might do 2 minutes of high intensity cardio followed by 30 seconds of rest.
      • For fat loss, you might be somewhere in the middle - 30 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest, for example.
    • Your rest intervals are very short. Again, the rest interval you choose is based on your goals and fitness level. The general rule is to rest only as long as you need to push hard with the next exercise. This is different for everyone, so you'll have to practice to find the right rest interval for your body.
    • Your workouts are short. To really generate a high level of intensity, you'll want to keep your workouts between about 10-30 minutes. More than that may compromise your form and energy.
    • You should only do this workout a couple of times a week. This workout is very hard on the body, so try incorporating more moderate training during the week - Lower intensity cardio and regular strength training.

    Sample MetCon Workout

    Warm up - Any cardio activity for 5 or more minutes
    30 seconds - Burpees
    10 seconds - Rest
    30 seconds - Squat Press
    10 seconds - Rest
    30 seconds - Mountain Climbers
    10 seconds - Rest
    30 seconds - Squat Jumps
    10 seconds - Rest
    30 seconds - Burpee with Renegade Rows
    10 seconds - Rest
    30 seconds - Plyo Lunges
    10 seconds - Rest
    30 seconds - Bear Crawls
    10 seconds - Rest
    30 seconds - Froggy Jumps
    10 seconds - Rest
    30 seconds - Pushup to Side Plank
    Repeat 1-3 times
    Cool down

    Sources:

    Davis WJ, Wood D, Andrews R, et al. Conclurrent training enhances athlete's strength, mucle endurance, and other measures. J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Sep;22(5):1487-502.

     

    Glassman, G. "Metabolic Conditioning." Crossfit.com. 10 June 2003. Crossfit.com. 20 August 2013. <http://www.crossfit.com/journal/library/10_03_metab_cond.pdf>.

    McCall, P. "How to Get Real Results with Metabolic Conditioning . In ACE. 26 Oct 2012. 20 Aug 2013. <http://www.acefitness.org/blog/2936/how-to-get-real-results-with-m"etabolic>.

    Powers S, Howley T. "Exercise and the Immune System." Exercise Physiology. McGraw Hill. 2012.

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