How to Use Metabolic Conditioning to Supercharge Your Workouts

This is your Quick Training Tip, a chance to learn how to work smarter in just a few moments so you can get right to your workout.

Hang around the weight rack long enough and you’ll hear plenty of buzzwords—HIIT, muscle pump, functional training, bro split. But by far one of the most misunderstood ones is metabolic conditioning.

Also known as metcon—thanks in no small part to CrossFit, which popularized and practically coined the abbreviated term—it has become almost synonymous with high intensity, cardio-focused training. But the truth is that metabolic conditioning has a much broader definition.

The term refers to any form of exercise that increases the efficiency of any energy system, of which there are three: phosphagen (most active during short, high intensity efforts lasting up to 10 seconds); glycolytic (emphasized during high intensity efforts lasting from 30 seconds to 2 minutes); and oxidative (your body’s go-to system during sustained low to moderate intensity activity lasting more than 2 minutes).

As such, weightlifting, interval training, and steady state running are technically all examples of metabolic conditioning—but let’s not get bogged down in technicalities. As mentioned previously, in today’s fitness culture, metcon is used to describe high intensity, cardio-focused workouts. And you know what? Sometimes it’s okay to give focus to a broad term, so we’ll run with that definition.

High intensity interval training (HIIT) is one way to go about metcon, but it’s not the only way. My favorite method is AMRAP, which stands for “as many rounds as possible” or “as many reps as possible,” and usually takes the form of circuit training (i.e., performing a series of exercises back-to-back). You’ll burn a ton of calories in a short period of time, and if you’re smart about your exercise selection, you’ll also build muscle and boost strength from head to toe.

Your move: First, decide how long you want to work out. Metcon is supposed to be crushingly intense, so 20 minutes is a good place to start. Next choose four or five compound (multi-joint) exercises to cycle though (e.g., chin-up, squat jump, explosive push-up, hip thrust, and rotational dumbbell reverse chop) and decide on an AMRAP protocol. You might do as many rounds of 15 reps of each exercise as possible in 20 minutes, for example. Or you could do four rounds of those five exercises, performing each move for 30 seconds (as many reps as possible) in each round, resting 30 seconds between moves.

Either way, you’ll very quickly start to feel your muscles burn, heart pound, and breathing become heavy. By the time you’re done, you should feel strong and energized, but on the brink of being completely spent. That’s how you’ll know that you’ve hit exactly the right intensity to optimize your results.

But you need to be careful to avoid overdoing it. You shouldn’t take on metcon workouts more than a few times a week. Any more than that, and you’ll increase your risk of overtraining and injury.

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