Author: Raj Chandler • Fact checked by: Tara D. Thies • March 25, 2021
Metabolic conditioning trains the systems of the body that deliver energy, both in short bursts as well as sustained periods over time. These energy systems are sometimes classified as aerobic or anaerobic, based on whether or not they use oxygen.
Metabolic conditioning is a method of training that focuses on making either or both of these systems more efficient. Because of its broad definition, there are many different kinds of exercises at varying intensity levels that can be included as a metabolic conditioning program.
This article will provide an in-depth explanation of metabolic conditioning, help you determine if it’s right for you, and provide tips and a sample workout for incorporating it into your training routine.
According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), metabolic conditioning is a type of training that uses both the "immediate and intermediate energy pathways, which can be achieved with a variety of different modes of exercise."
Any time the body performs a movement or exercise, it requires energy. There are two main systems in the body that can provide us with energy: aerobic and anaerobic. Aerobic exercise uses air – specifically oxygen – to produce energy for the body. Common types of cardio exercise, like jogging, biking, or walking, all fall under the aerobic category of movement.
The other common type of exercise is anaerobic. Anaerobic movements are quick, high-intensity movements done in short bursts. Many of the exercises you might do during a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout would be considered anaerobic – things like sprinting, or explosive strength training movements like a clean and press or other popular CrossFit lifts.
Both types of energy systems involve the body's use of a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to fuel movements of the muscles. As you may guess, anaerobic exercises generate ATP without oxygen, while aerobic exercises use oxygen to fuel your muscles. There is also a third "intermediate" energy system that fuels the body by creating ATP through a metabolic process called glycolysis.
Metabolic conditioning (or Metcon) simply refers to the improvement of one or both of these systems. Many people associate these workouts with high-intensity interval training programs designed to maximize the heart rate for short periods. However, this is only one example of popular metabolic conditioning workouts.
The specific way that you implement metabolic conditioning workouts into your current exercise program depends on a few things: your current cardiovascular fitness level, your goals for your fitness routine, and how much physical activity you're doing currently.
HIIT workouts are one example of metabolic conditioning. These exercise programs involve short bursts of very high intensity – typically 15 to 60 seconds – followed by 30 to 120 seconds of rest. Battle ropes, rower machines, treadmills, and all types of other traditional cardio machines can be used for HIIT – it's just a matter of properly programing rest periods along with higher-intensity intervals.
A circuit workout typically refers to a particular set of exercises that are done consecutively – typically somewhere between five and eight different movements. When all the exercises have been completed, one circuit is completed. Circuit exercise programs will typically prescribe a certain number of circuits to complete or a certain amount of time in which to complete each circuit.
These are broad examples that can be applied to all types of different workouts and movements. Here's a specific example of a metabolic conditioning workout that can help improve the efficiency of your body's energy systems:
This is a total body workout that hits multiple muscle groups. Perform these exercises immediately after one another. You can rest for 30 to 45 seconds after each circuit. For a warm-up, stretch and perform low-intensity cardio for 5 to 10 minutes.
Squats (bodyweight or dumbbells) - 8 reps
Kettlebell swings - 12 reps
Push-ups - 10 reps
Pull-ups (regular or assisted) - 6 reps
Burpees - 5 reps
Remember, after you complete one exercise, go immediately into the next one, only resting after you complete the entire circuit of five exercises. Always use proper form and don't rush through any of the movements. Feel free to adjust rep counts and weights to make it more or less challenging, depending on what type of working out you are used to.
Besides the specific workouts you do, there are a few different general principles of metabolic conditioning to keep in mind:
It's not necessary to perform a metabolic conditioning workout every single time you hit the gym or get ready to exercise. While metcon workouts are a great way to save time, improve your metabolic rate and burn fat, overdoing it with metabolic conditioning workouts could lead to some serious side effects or injuries. Make sure you mix in a healthy amount of low-intensity or moderate-intensity workouts to give your body a break.
The above sample workout is just one example of metabolic conditioning – there's an infinite number of varieties that can be created depending on which muscle groups you want to train and how often you're hitting the gym. To prevent your body from getting used to a specific set of movements, you should change things up once in a while when your workouts start to feel stale or repetitive. For best results, remember to incorporate activities you actually enjoy!
If you're going to be performing high-intensity workouts, you need adequate fuel for your body. Whether your fitness goals are related to athletic performance or body composition, getting the right amount of protein is important because of the way protein supports muscle growth.
As you may have heard, more muscle mass means your body burns more calories at rest. And while both cardio and strength training workouts can be valuable for metabolic conditioning, research indicates that the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption – sometimes called "EPOC" or the "afterburn effect" – is greater after resistance training than after a cardio workout.
Increased EPOC combined with a higher level of resting calorie burn means building or maintaining muscle mass should be part of almost everyone's workout program. By getting enough protein each day, you'll help contribute to your body's preservation of muscle mass, which in turn will get you closer to your goals.
Remember to consult with a fitness or medical professional before making any major changes to your regular workout program. A medical expert or personal trainer will be able to provide specific guidance on the broad field of Metcon workouts to ensure that you plan one that is best for your requirements.
By incorporating metabolic conditioning into your normal exercise plan, you can help make your body's generation and use of energy more efficient. And whether you are hitting the gym or exercising regularly to help improve your competition in a sporting event or simply to change your body, making your energy systems work more efficiently will help you get more out of each session.
As long as you are safely working in this type of exercise, providing your body with adequate nutrition, and giving yourself enough time to rest and recover between workouts, metabolic conditioning can be a valuable tool to help on your fitness journey.
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