Everything You Need to Know About Metabolic Conditioning

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Metabolic conditioning, also known as MetCon, is a method of training that involves a very high work rate, using exercises designed to burn more calories during your workout and maximize calories burned after your workout, or your afterburn. In other words, these are vigorous, high intensity circuit-type workouts that often involve challenging total body, compound exercises and very short recovery intervals.

MetCon is most recognizable in programs such as P90X, Insanity and CrossFit - Programs known for pushing the human body to its limits with fast-paced cardio and strength exercises to build muscle, strength and endurance. Plenty of people do these programs to get lean and lose weight, and most of them would tell you these are very advanced, very challenging workouts that aren't guaranteed to make you cry, but there's a pretty good chance you will.

There are different reasons we may try metabolic conditioning, including:

  • Tactical metabolic conditioning for firefighters, military or law enforcement personnel, etc.
  • Metabolic conditioning for performance - For example, a professional athlete might use MetCon to train for certain sports or events
  • For health and fitness - This is where most of us will fall when trying MetCon, and our purpose? Is most often to lose weight.

The term metabolic conditioning doesn't really describe a specific workout, but more a type of workout designed to challenge the two major energy systems that contribute to exercise.

Strength training often relies most on one type of energy system, ATP, which fulfills our immediate need for fuel. Moderate cardio uses glycolysis to fuel our bodies over longer, slower exercise sessions. Metabolic conditioning is able to target both of these energy systems in the same workout by using high intensity whole body movements along with a very short work-to-rest ratio.

That means you go from one (killer) exercise to the other with little or no rest in between for certain intervals to tax your body, your mind and your energy systems. Some examples of exercises you might do in a typical MetCon workout include burpees, lunge jumps, pushups or bear crawls, just to name a few.

Should You Try MetCon?

Whether you try MetCon is based on your goals, your fitness level and what you want out of your workouts. Programs like P90x, Insanity and CrossFit can help people lose weight - The sheer volume and intensity of the training will make sure of that. However, that kind of high volume and intensity is best left to people with a long history of exercise who can handle taking their bodies and training to the next level. Workouts that are too intense for beginners can lead to injury, burnout, severe muscle soreness and the strong desire to quit altogether.

However, that doesn't mean you can't try a version of MetCon in your own workouts. In fact, there are simple ways to bring this concept into your own training without the gut-wrenching intensity.

  • Practice basic circuit training. Circuit training, whether you're doing strength circuits, cardio circuits or a combination, embodies the very concept of MetCon, taking you from one exercise to another with either very short rests or no rests between exercises. Practice by doing your exercises one after another with 30 or more seconds between exercises. As your fitness improves and you get used to this kind of training, start reducing the rests each time, going down to 10-15 seconds or, eventually, removing them altogether. This simple act will increase the metabolic demand on your body and that's what MetCon is all about. 
  • Change different elements in your workouts. Changing the metabolic demand on your body can be as simple as lifting heavier weights, working a little harder during cardio sessions, trying interval training, doing combination exercises or even putting short bursts of cardio into your regular strength training program.

Sources:

McCall, Pete. "How to Get Real Results with Metabolic Conditioning." ACE Fitnovatives Blog, October 26, 2012.

American Council on Exercise. 2013. Metabolic Conditioning - How to Train for Real Results (Recorded Webinar). https://www.acefitness.org/continuingeducation/course/4a5287x6/metabolic-conditioning-how-to-train-for-real-results-recorded-webinar

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