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Metabolic conditioning is becoming a catchy phrase in the fitness industry that is both more simple than by-the-numbers personal trainers would have you believe, and still complex enough–when properly understood–that it’s possible to get it wrong, depending on your goals. Context is everything for this discussion.
“Metabolic” just means something that describes an organism’s metabolism. “Metabolism” is simply the sum total of all of the processes that must occur within a body to keep it alive. So, what would metabolic conditioning mean?
“Conditioning” has more variables. When you think of someone who is well-conditioned, you might picture a sprinter, or a distance runner, or a crossfitter who’s putting up big numbers and has insane endurance; or you might just picture someone who’s really lean. Think of conditioning as the act of bringing about a change in a body, or forcing an adaption. You are trying to condition a certain response.
Consider the word “fitness.” When most people say they want to get more fit, they’re thinking of having more muscle, less fat, looking better naked, and so on. However, fitness, in order for it to be a meaningful term, requires context. Fitness is the ability to perform a task. If you’re a ballerina, you want to increase your fitness for ballet. Powerlifters need to be fit to squat out of a monolift. People who want to lose fat need to improve their fitness–or conditioning-to burn fat more efficiently.
In the fat loss context, a metabolic conditioning workout, or “Metcon,” is simply the act of manipulating work to rest ratios in order to bring about a specific result: reduced fat. Work to rest ratios just means the length of your rest periods. If you’re a powerlifter, you might rest for up to five minutes between heavy sets of low-rep deadlifts. That’s still a metcon workout of a sort, it just wouldn’t result in a body that was set to torch fat.
Circuit training is a popular example of metabolic conditioning. A circuit is when you move between several exercises in a circuit without resting. The heart rate ramps up with this increased work time, inducing a thermogenic (fat burning) effect in the body. Then you rest and resume. Every single workout involves conditioning. It’s your job to decide whether your conditioning is pertinent to your goals.
Metabolic conditioning, to be optimal, should be as specific as possible. For instance, the Tabata protocol involves choosing an exercise like a kettlebell snatch. You set a timer and then perform 20 seconds of all-out work followed by 10 seconds of rest. That would equal one round. Do this eight times and the whole exercise is complete in four minutes. This is a painfully–by design–exact work to rest ratio that is one of the purest examples of metabolic conditioning. In a 2015 study in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, doctors found that, while the Tabata protocol was amazing for fat loss and pulmonary strength, it was not exactly an enjoyable experience, so, not for the faint of heart. The post-Tabata feeling will follow you through the day, and your body will show the results.
High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT, works on the same principle. For instance, if you sprint for 20 seconds, then walk for 10, or vice versa, you are working at a high output for a brief interval. Interspersed with brief rest periods, HIIT can give you a huge boost when it comes to fat loss.
There’s no need to get hung up on the specific numbers. Like anything, improving your metabolic conditioning requires you to diligently track your workouts and rest periods, evaluate your results over time, and adjust accordingly. If you can find your sweet spot (and you can if you’re willing to pay attention and keep a training and body composition log) you’re going to be way ahead of the curve. Metabolic conditioning is essentially teaching your body how to work, and how to respond to the work. Done right, it’s an invaluable tool when performed in the right mindset.