Whether you’re a runner, cyclist, walker, or gym rat, you probably know that it’s important to focus on increasing your overall fitness level to perform at your best. By combining strength training and cardio at varying levels of intensity, you’ll do just that.
Enter metabolic conditioning. Although this style of training is not new, it’s a trendy type of workout made popular in the recent past by CrossFit (1).
Read on to uncover the basics of metabolic conditioning, its benefits and risks, and even a sample routine to help you decide whether this type of workout is for you.
During a metcon workout, you moderately to intensely exert yourself for a prolonged amount of time. Basically, these types of workouts help increase and optimize your body’s energy output.
How, you might ask? These workouts recruit all three of your body’s energy pathways — phosphagen, glycolytic, and oxidative — which all take turns generating adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to fuel your muscles (2).
You’ll use each system at different points of the workout based on its length and intensity.
First, the phosphagen pathway provides energy immediately during the first few reps or seconds of a workout or for short bouts of work — think sprints or 3 heavy squat reps.
After about 30 seconds, the glycolytic system kicks in and produces ATP for activities that require a lot of energy for up to 3 minutes, such as a high intensity interval training (HIIT) workout.
Last, the oxidative pathway is used for longer endurance activities like a 3-mile run or a 20-minute cycle ride.
It’s important to train all three of these systems so that your body becomes efficient at using energy during a variety of activities. Varying your training, such as by incorporating metcon workouts, can help with this by improving your overall fitness level.
Metcon workouts, short for metabolic conditioning, recruit all three of your body’s energy pathways, helping improve your overall fitness.
Metcon workouts can take various forms.
First, although metcon, HIIT, and Tabata workouts seem similar, they’re not interchangeable. During HIIT workouts, you’re typically working at 80% of your max, and even higher during Tabata.
But a metcon workout doesn’t require such high intensity to be considered metcon. In short, both HIIT and Tabata workouts are considered metcons, but not all metcons are considered HIIT or Tabata.
Single-activity cardio can be formulated as a metcon — think a 1-mile run or an 800-yard swim during which you’re working at a moderate to intense level from start to finish.
The most common form of metcon, though, is a combination of resistance training and cardio via workouts like AMRAP (as many reps/rounds as possible) and EMOM (every minute on the minute).
In an AMRAP workout, you’ll complete as many reps or rounds of an exercise as possible within a given time frame.
For instance, pick four exercises — say, weighted squats, pushups, weighted lunges, and weighted rows — and complete as many reps of each as you can in 30-second rounds with 15–30 seconds rest in between exercises. Go for 3–4 rounds.
Alternatively, set the timer for 20 minutes and see how many rounds of 10 squats, 10 pushups, 10 lunges, and 10 rows you can complete.
In an EMOM workout, you’ll complete a set number of reps at the start of every minute, and the remaining time will count as rest.
For example, and using the same exercises above, start the timer and complete 10 weighted squats. If that takes you 20 seconds, you’ll have 40 seconds to rest. At the 1-minute mark, complete 10 pushups, then use the remainder of that minute to rest before starting on lunges.
Metcon workouts can take various forms, but the most popular are AMRAP and EMOM.
Strategically incorporating metcon workouts into your exercise routine may help you break through performance and weight loss plateaus.
While the most important factor in weight loss is your diet — specifically calories consumed versus calories burned — metcon workouts may help you increase your results.
That’s because metcon workouts increase excessive post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), which is an elevation in your metabolism after an intense workout as your body returns to its resting state (3).
The extra work your body is doing in these hours after a hard workout requires energy, so you’ll be burning more calories even after your workout ends.
While achieving a calorie deficit is the most important factor for weight loss, metcons can help tip the scale in the right direction. These workouts increase EPOC, which causes your body to continue to burn calories even after a workout is over.
Metcon workouts have benefits and risks, so be informed before you embark on one.
The benefits of a metcon workout include:
- Diversity. Use just your body weight, or spice things up with dumbbells, kettlebells, or barbells. There’s no set formula — you can use whatever is available and still complete an effective metcon workout.
- Time efficiency. Done in 20 minutes or less, metcon workouts are meant to be hard, pushing your body to the max.
- Progress. If you feel like you’ve reached a plateau with your performance, try a metcon workout — you’ll challenge your body in a different way.
The downsides of metcon workouts include:
- Difficulty. Metcons are great, but they’re not beginner-friendly. You’ll need a proper grasp on strength training’s basic movements — squats, deadlifts, rows, pushups — and some level of conditioning before you can attempt a metcon safely.
- Possible stall on strength gains. While metcon workouts may help you progress in your fitness and fat loss efforts, they’re not specifically tailored to increase strength. If gaining strength is your goal, incorporate sessions that focus on lifting heavy weights at low reps.
The benefits of metcon workouts include flexibility, time efficiency, and help with breaking through a plateau. The downsides include the required fitness level, as well as a potential stall in terms of strength gains.
The beauty of a metcon workout is that you can complete one with varying modalities and exercises. That said, compound movements will give you the most bang for your buck.
These exercises, which work more than one muscle group at a time, are super effective at increasing your overall fitness level.
Common exercises in metcons include:
Following an AMRAP format, try this straightforward metcon workout:
Set a timer for 20 minutes, and see how many rounds of the following exercises you can complete:
- 10 jump squats
- 10 pushups
- 10 reverse lunges (each leg)
- 10 dumbbell rows
Metcon workouts combine cardio and strength — as well as both aerobic and anaerobic exercises — to push your body to its limits in a well-rounded way.
Completing a metcon workout once or twice a week can help you challenge yourself, break through a performance plateau, and increase your overall fitness level.