Metabolic conditioning, better known as metcon* is a form of fitness training that has grown in popularity over the past decade. Metabolic conditioning utilizes multiple exercises, with little to no rest, to burn as many calories as possible in a short period of time. Metcon workouts last on average around 15 minutes and can be as long as 30 minutes or as short as 7 minutes. Therefore, training this way creates an oxygen deficit within your body, leading to a greater post workout calories consumption.
Because of this high physiological demand in combination with shorter workout times, metabolic conditioning has grown in popularity. So much so that some gym goers regard it as the be all and end all of exercises.
That’s quite the statement, let’s find out whether or not metcon is all hype or is in actual fact, the real deal.
Red Flags and Contraindications
Let’s start off with the cons of metabolic conditioning. Because just like everything else in the world, metcon has it’s down side.
Despite the technical description used to define this form of exercise, most fitness enthusiasts still don’t fully understand the concept and more often than not, misuse the term metcon. Metcon is used as a generalized term to describe any moderate to intense aerobic or anaerobic exercises that follow some form of interval or circuit style layout. Which is, oddly enough, both right and wrong at the same time. Simply put, all metabolic conditioning programs are calorie burning exercises but not all calorie burning exercises are metabolic conditioning programs.
That being said, before we take a lot at what metcon is all about, please be warned that this style of exercise is not for beginners. Please heed this as a friendly warning, metcon workouts place a significant amount of stress on your central and peripheral nervous systems. And therein lies our problem as metcon is often seen as a “get quick results” training method by individuals that are in no physical condition to be attempting these types of workouts. Which quickly results in either over-training, injury and non-compliance.
Therefore, clients that are overweight or suffer from obesity, post-operative clients and athletes, geriatric population groups and people who are significantly de-conditioned should not attempt this style of training. Until such a time where you do not tick the above boxes and have access to supervised exercise sessions by an accredited professional.
Therefore we thought it best to address the contraindications with regard to metabolic conditioning. This way we fully disclose the potential pitfalls of metcon training and thus making sure we protect all potential clients and or athletes that are considering implementing metcon into their training.
What Exactly Does Metcon Do?
First and foremost, metabolic conditioning remains a form or type of exercise. If we take both words that make up the term and look at them individually, it’s actually a simple concept. Metabolic refers to our metabolis, and at the basis of metabolism is a tried and true concept well known to all avid exercise enthusiasts- calories in vs calories out. Ah, our old foe returns! The global obsession with calorie counting hit a high about 3-4 years ago, where it became the center focus around everything we did, with regard to our active lifestyles. Now any true fitness head would easily point out that calories and by extension, calorie counting is far from a novel concept or secret ingredient you can add to your regimes. I apologize for the short rant but someone had to just clear the air here!
Anyway, calories form the basis of metabolism, you consume calories and you expend them. If you consume more than you expend, you gain weight. And if you consume less than you expend you lose weight. I can keep going and reference the laws of thermodynamics, but I doubt anyone really wants to see how I go full alpha nerd here.
On the other hand, we have the concept of conditioning. In short, conditioning is derived from the word condition, yes I know some profound stuff, and this refers to not only your physical condition (how you look and feel) but also your physiological condition (how efficiently your body is performing). So your conditioning is your aesthetic appearance (body fat percentages and lean muscle mass) plus your physical state (cardiovascular and cardio-respiratory fitness levels).
And now if we combine the two we can quickly see why metabolic conditioning is growing in popularity. As it addresses the two main goals that active populations seek:
In most cases the average gym goer actually wants to achieve both of these targets, and usually in a accelerated time frame.
Now if we take a look at metcon programming, the main aim of all metcon style workouts is to burn as many calories in the shortest period of time. Usually very very and I say this with all the love in my heart… very little rest. This deadly combination creates an oxygen deficit, which in layman’s terms, simply means that your body is running low on oxygen and it needs to replenish this asap. This process usually occurs from the moment you put the last kettlebell down and drop to the floor, bathing in the pool of sweat you left behind. Up to 12 hours post workout! That means your body will be burning “extra” calories for that time period trying to restore your oxygen levels and maintain homeostasis.
Therefore, metcon uses an exercise technique that utilizes high intensity workouts, to consume copious amounts of oxygen that will in turn burn a significant amount of calories during and after your workout. Which, if done frequently, will add to increased fitness levels and a better body composition.
Examples of Metcon Workouts
Metcon workouts can be anything. No really, it can be done with weights as a form of resistance training, stationary cardio machines or even just body weight workouts. Or even a combination of all three. Exercises can be done as high intensity interval training, circuit training or a predetermined number of sets for example giant sets or supersets.
Effective metcon workouts are based on the perfect ratio of active to rest sets in the correct sequence.
What do I mean by that? Well, let’s say you set out the following exercises to be performed in circuit fashion. We have weighted back squats, jumping lunges, dumbbell bicep curls into shoulder presses, mountain climbers and battle ropes. The order of these workouts is ideal because you start off with a complex compound lift that utilities many muscle groups and end off with a much more cardio-centric exercise in battle ropes. This flow allows for optimal muscle recruitment and doesn’t fatigue your cardio-respiratory system from the get go, ensuring safe resistance training with good form. If you had done this circuit from the opposite end you would be sacrificing good form and safety for the sake of making it through the workout. Not only will you not be getting the desired benefits, you will also be putting yourself at risk to significant injury.
How to Successfully Implement Metabolic Conditioning into Your Workouts
So let’s say that you don’t tick any of the red flags mentioned above, and you’ve been given the green light to add some metabolic conditioning to your weekly training. Or maybe you’re looking for something different to switch up your training style. Whatever your current situation may be, adding in metcon needs to be as strategic as possible in order to get the best results.
Therefore, it might be best for you to identify where exactly you fall in terms of fitness levels. Categorize yourself as either a beginner, intermediate or advanced level fitness buff’.
If you’re a beginner it may be better to play it safe, by adding in 10 minutes of metabolic conditioning at the end of your workouts. Try doing this two to three times per week. And for progression you can add either more challenging exercise choices, decrease the amount of rest per set or add an extra two minutes to your total time. Just remember in this case less is more, don’t try and be overly ambitious.
For the intermediate guys and girls, you can go ahead and use the beginner’s programming as a sort of template to build on. The easiest progression for you would be to an extra session or two per week. Four to five sessions of 15 minutes per week is plenty enough to get your sweat dripping and your lungs racing.
And now for the experienced gym folk. Yes, the boys and girls that are described as “beastly” and “bad ass” in gym circles. We all know who we are referring to! Anyway, for you seasoned gym goers we are going to need a minimum of 6 sessions a week of 15-20 minutes. Now, yes this sounds crazy, but metcon isn’t your classic bodybuilding or 30 minute stationary cycle. Especially when done correctly.
All in all, being able to safely and effectively implement metabolic conditioning to match your specific training needs is the best way to go about it. Using metcon as an add on to an existing workout program as opposed to utilizing metcon as a stand alone training style will give you the most bang for your buck!
In conclusion, is metcon the real deal or all hype? Well, in our opinion it’s in actual fact a little bit of both. Let me explain, metcon isn’t the be all and end all of workout types despite what all the social media gurus will have you believe. But in the same breath it remains an extremely effective method of programming that boasts massive potential for conditioning gains. So yes, metcon is a bit hyped up at the moment, but for good reason because regardless of all the mainstream advertising by fitness advocates, metabolic conditioning just works. And as long as something works, nothing else really matters, right?
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