Whether you’re a performance coach or even just a fitness enthusiast, you’ve probably heard of and played around with “MetCon” (Metabolic Conditioning) and “HIIT” (High-Intensity Interval Training). Many well know names in fitness such as CrossFit, Insanity, and Orange Theory base their workouts around this. Here I dive into how to make these techniques more effective.
People love instant gratification. That’s why the workout programs listed above are so popular. Most people want to feel like they crushed it in their workout, they want to feel validated for their hard work, they want to feel sweaty and exhausted like they just went all 5 rounds with a pro heavyweight UFC fighter. At NAKOA we work to teach our clients that fatigue should not be their only fitness goal. Pain does not equal gain, though it sounds good on a t-shirt. There actually is a method to the madness and that method aims to protect the body, prevent injury and simultaneously improve function and performance.
Don’t get me wrong! I am not suggesting that we shy away from high-intensity conditioning. After all, research consistently shows that high-intensity training is far more effective and efficient at burning fat, improving VO2-max and increasing anaerobic threshold compared to low-intensity training. High-intensity training may also have an indirect anabolic/hypertrophic (i.e. muscle building) effect, especially if it involves maximal muscle contractions. You can potentially recruit a higher amount and higher variety of muscle fibers at high intensity that would not be recruited at low-intensity training. What I am insinuating is that high-intensity training is a great method of choice to incorporate into our workouts, especially for athletes, but that special attention needs to be paid to how we go about this. All MetCons are not created equal.
What exactly is MetCon?
MetCon is a popular term used to describe a workout involving repeated and/or sustained high-intensity exercises, usually involving weight lifting movements with short rest periods in order to burn fat or create a “conditioning” effect. The majority of CrossFit workouts are considered MetCons. Here is an example:
Repeat three rounds for time:
- Row 1000 meters
- 20 Pull-ups
- 30 Box jumps (20” box)
Looking at this workout, it is clear that this would not be an easy workout, even if you had a lot of rest between rounds. How many people do you know who could do 20 pull-ups-period- let alone three sets of 20 with limited rest and combined with other intense exercises? You get the idea- pick several high-intensity exercises, group them together and do them for a lot of reps quickly to create a conditioning effect. While CrossFit has the right concept by using high-intensity conditioning to help people get fit, the concept needs a touch of refinement coming from a performance coaching standpoint. Here are 8 essential rules to consider when using MetCon training for performance results. I also have a couple awesome conditioning finishers for you to try as well.
Rule #1: Pick Simple Movement Patterns
The number one concern with MetCon is an injury. High-intensity training induces fatigue, and with fatigue comes a loss of proper mechanics and technique. So if your MetCon is filled with complicated movements like snatches, cleans, box jumps, handstand pushups, etc., you greatly increase your chance of injury because proper mechanics goes out the window when you get tired.
Instead, stick with safe, simple movement patterns. Rowing, sled pushes, push-ups, lunges, and even burpees are all great options. Just about anyone can learn these movements quickly and there is a much lower risk for injury when your mechanics start to break down.
I’m not saying eliminate CrossFit favorites like Olympic lifts, and kettlebell movements altogether, I’m just saying simplify. For example:
- 12” hurdle jumps instead of 20” box jumps
- Kettlebell swings instead of kettlebell snatches or clean and presses
- Barbell high pull instead of a power clean
Rule #2: Use Full-Body Movements
You can’t use single-joint movements, small muscle groups or low-intensity training and call it “conditioning.” The physiology doesn’t make sense. You have to use large muscle group movements like squats, lunges, and pull-ups. Full body and large muscle group movements like running and cycling create a systemic response throughout the entire body. Small muscle groups and simple exercises like curls, however, have a very localized effect. Also, think about the overall effect on your body. Doing 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off with some bicep curls might give you a real good arm pump, but isn’t going to do much for your lungs, your heart or anything else needed to create a “conditioning” effect.
Good MetCons use appropriately difficult, compound movements that create a full-body stimulus. If you’re looking to torch some fat or increase performance you have to get your largest muscle groups firing; get your legs, hips, and torso in the game.
Rule #3: Intensity Over Duration
There is an inverse relationship between intensity and duration. The harder an exercise is, the less time you can perform it. For example, sprinting at top speed is obviously a lot harder than a leisurely jog, that’s why you clearly jog for much longer than you can sprint. So for your MetCon consciously keep your intensity high and arrange the movements you choose in such a way that you couldn’t do it all day long.
Rule #4: Limit Eccentric Loading
Eccentric contraction is what creates most of the muscle damage and makes you sore. It may very well be necessary for muscle growth, but not for conditioning. Pick movement with little to no eccentric loading to reduce muscular fatigue and improve recovery for your next training session. Remember, we’re not training muscular endurance, but full-body conditioning. This is especially important for athletes, who need to be recovered for games and practices and can’t destroy themselves every time they step on the training floor.
Let’s take a look at some examples where you can modify to limit eccentric loading. Sprints are phenomenal for conditioning but have significant eccentric loading every time your foot strikes the ground. You can get the same conditioning effect with less eccentric loading by doing hill sprints (shorter strides and less foot strike impact), sprinting with a prowler, or dragging a sled. Jumps are about as eccentric-focused as it gets, so use them sparingly. If you use box jumps, use a low box, and step down for them instead of jumping down. Finally, another tip to limit eccentric loading, particularly with barbell exercises, is to lower the bar more quickly or drop the bar altogether on Olympic lifts.
So, that’s it, for now, to get the thoughts rolling. Stay tuned for next time when I finish up my four remaining tips for using MetCons in workouts.
Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon…