What Is Metabolic Conditioning? Benefits, Types Of Workouts & Tips From Top Trainers
You might have seen metabolic conditioning noted on workout class descriptions or heard your favorite trainer talk about it on social media. Also known simply as metcon, the word gets tossed around a lot in the fitness world—and people use it to reference a whole range of workouts. So, what even is metabolic conditioning, and should you add it to your workout schedule? Here's everything you need to know about the training technique, including what it means, the benefits, and how to do it.
What is metabolic conditioning, really?
In short, metabolic conditioning involves work and rest intervals that train the body's energy systems more efficiently, says Liz Letchford, Ph.D., kinesiology specialist, certified athletic trainer, and coach for Tonal. So yeah, the definition is pretty broad. "The body uses several different strategies to provide energy to the working muscles," she explains. "These strategies are referred to as energy metabolism."
Because metabolic conditioning widely refers to work-to-rest ratios that can help your body perform better, it's become a sort of catchall term for higher-intensity workouts. In fact, metcon training includes everything from circuit-style strength training to high-intensity interval training (or HIIT) to endurance exercises like rowing, running, or biking for a period of time, with minimal rest, explains Noam Tamir, CSCS, founder and owner of TS Fitness in New York City. EMOM, which stands for "every minute on the minute" in which you try to hit a certain number of reps of a certain exercise in that minute, as well as AMRAP, or performing exercises for as many rounds as possible, both fall under the metcon umbrella.
Determining what you'll do during a metabolic conditioning workout, and how much work and rest time you'll have, comes down to your goals and which energy system you want to hone. "You want to structure the workout to get the most out of your body," says Kyle Prescott, M.S., CSCS.
Types of energy systems.
There are three energy systems of the body, all of which work to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to supply the body with energy, but they do so at different rates and with different fuel sources. Prescott breaks down how they all work:
- The phosphagensystem is involved in high-intensity work for a short burst of time, up to 10 seconds. This system kicks in immediately when you start moving fast and hard, using creatine phosphate to quickly produce ATP.
- The glycolytic system is involved in intense work for up to a few minutes. This one uses glucose (or carbs) to produce energy. Like the phosphagen system, this one initially works without oxygen, making them both anaerobic systems.
- The oxidative system, or aerobic system, accounts for longer, endurance events. It uses carbs and fat to produce ATP for energy and requires oxygen to do so.
While exercise duration and intensity will spark one of these systems more than the other, they all work in tandem, Prescott notes.
Keep this general rule in mind: "Longer periods of work combined with shorter rest periods will help improve the efficiency of the aerobic energy systems," Letchford says. "Shorter periods of work combined with relatively longer rest will help improve the efficiency of the anaerobic energy systems."
Benefits of metabolic conditioning.
You can do a metabolic conditioning workout in a number of ways, which means there's a long list of potential benefits:
It can improve your fitness performance.
Prescott says metcon workouts can be great for enhancing cardio performance. If you're training for power with quicker bursts of work and longer rest, it can also improve your speed or jumping ability. If you're training aerobically, metcon can improve your endurance or a goal like your mile time, Prescott says. Research backs up metcon's ability to improve the body's metabolic and cardiorespiratory response1, too.
It's super time-efficient.
"If you're smart about how you create your workout program, you don't need 45 to 60 minutes," Prescott says. In other words, metcon helps you make the most out of shorter sweat sessions2.
Because metcon often includes lifting, working multiple muscle groups at one time, you'll feel breathless and fatigued during that work period. "When your muscles experience fatigue, the body's hormonal response results in an increase in muscular strength and cross-sectional area (aka muscle size)," Letchford says. "While it is not the primary goal of the workout, it is possible to build muscle during a metabolic conditioning training program, especially for athletes who are new to strength training."
It can help you stay motivated.
To top it off, you can do a metcon workout in countless ways, so you always have options to spice it up, says Anthony Crouchelli, NCSF-CPT, creator of the .1method and founding trainer at Grit Boxing. That means you can squash boredom and find new ways to move and train.
Potential risks of metabolic conditioning.
In general, metabolic conditioning is a safe training method—as long as your doctor says it's OK to exercise at an intense effort, Letchford says. But as with any exercise program, there are some risks.
Because you're typically working quickly, you have to pay attention to form. "I would suggest those new to exercise make sure that they have been educated on proper form before doing a metcon workout," Tamir says. "Because it's a high-paced workout and the intensity is high, good form is essential to prevent injury."
Also, it's important to progress gradually in intensity, weight, and volume, Letchford says. That will help to keep you free from injury, too. "Be mindful of the risk for and symptoms of a very rare condition called rhabdomyolysis3 that is sometimes caused by working out at a very high intensity," she says.
What a metabolic conditioning workout may look like.
You can do metcon as a stand-alone session, or you can take on metcon training at the end of a strength workout—that means your metcon workout can be 40 minutes or 5 minutes, though most are typically about 20 minutes. Either way, you'll want to get your intensity up. The work-to-rest ratio will depend on your goals, so think about what you want to achieve in your workout, Prescott says. Also, metcons can be bodyweight-only, but you'll often see weight make an appearance. No matter what equipment you use, you'll likely aim to go at a fast pace and certainly at a high intensity.
How often should you do metabolic conditioning workouts?
Most experts suggest about three metabolic conditioning workouts per week should do the trick. But if you're just starting out, try once a week at first, and see how it goes, Prescott says. Then, slowly add more to your schedule. "I wouldn't do five days in a row," he adds.
Tamir also suggests 48 hours of recovery time after metcon workouts, unless you focus on a specific body part during those workouts; then you don't need as much rest. For example, if you do an arms metcon workout, you're good to take less rest before tackling a leg-focused workout.
Metabolic conditioning workouts to try.
To get started with some metabolic conditioning, try these workout plans:
24-Minute Strength Workout
Trainer: Liz Letchford, Ph.D.
Equipment: Two heavy dumbbells
Instructions: Do each move below for 30 seconds. Rest for 60 seconds between exercises. Repeat for 4 rounds.
- Dumbbell thrusters
- Box jumps
- Renegade rows
- Farmer's carry
20-Minute Kettlebell Circuit Workout
Trainer: Noam Tamir, CSCS
Instructions: Move through each of the following sections as noted.
Set 1: Do each move below for 40 seconds. Rest 20 seconds between exercises. Repeat for 3 rounds.
- Kettlebell swing
- Kettlebell goblet squat
- Bent-over kettlebell row
4-minute EMOM (every minute on the minute):
- Squat thrusts, 20 reps (start at the top of the minute; rest for remainder of minute)
6-Minute AMRAP (as many rounds as possible):
- Jump squats (10 reps)
- Pushups (10 reps)
- Mountain climbers (10 reps per side)
20-Minute Total-Body Dumbbell Workout
Trainer: Kyle Prescott, M.S., CSCS
Equipment: Two medium dumbbells
Instructions: Do each move below for 40 seconds. Rest 20 seconds between exercises. Repeat for 4 rounds.
- Squat + press
- Renegade row
- Floor press
- Romanian deadlift
- Plank shoulder tap
15-Minute Plyometric Workout
Trainer: Kyle Prescott, M.S., CSCS
Instructions: Do 5 reps of each exercise below, no rest between. Rest for 1 to 2 minutes after each round. Repeat for 3 rounds.
- 5 Box jumps
- 5 Broad jump with backpedal
10-Minute Total-Body Workout
Trainer: Anthony Crouchelli, CPT
Equipment: Two medium dumbbells
Instructions: Do each exercise below, for the designated reps, no rest between.
- Goblet squats (40 reps)
- Single-arm row (15 reps per side)
- Glute bridges (20 reps)
- Overhead shoulder press (10 reps per side)
Tips for getting started with metabolic training.
"While metabolic conditioning is intended to push you to your metabolic edge, you shouldn't leave feeling absolutely demolished," says Letchford. Keep that in mind if you're feel completed defeated throughout the workout, and lighten up on the intensity (weight, pace, or reps) if you need to.
Also, when selecting weights, make sure it's a set you can lift for a longer duration, Tamir says—and recognize when you need to go down in those weights (or reps), if you feel you're sacrificing form.
Prescott suggests avoiding something super heavy. "Weight isn't the biggest factor of the workouts," Prescott says. "It's more about performance and cardio health." It's also important to use equipment you already know how to use properly—because you'll be moving fast—not something that's new to you, he says.
Taking time to do a warm-up before and cooling down after is also important, Prescott notes. While working at an intensity that pushes you and challenges you is key, so is taking the designated rest time to actually bring your heart rate back down.
Crouchelli suggests easing into each metcon workout—if you're doing three rounds of certain exercises, for example, start with bodyweight, slowly increase tempo, then add weight when you're ready. "Build a baseline and explore progressions and regressions as you go," he says.
Finally, always make sure you are properly fueled before and after with water and nutrients, Tamir says. And get adequate sleep, too!
The most important thing about metcon workouts is focusing on the goal you want to achieve and then being consistent with the training, Prescott says. You want these workouts to be intense—but that doesn't mean sacrificing strong form, lifting super heavy, or feeling absolutely wiped by the end. Listen to your body and you'll gain all the advantages of a metabolic conditioning workout—an efficient, effective way to train.
Mallory Creveling, CPT is a freelance writer and ACE-certified personal trainer, based in Brooklyn, NY. Originally from Allentown, PA, she's a graduate of Syracuse University. She's been covering fitness, health, and nutrition for more than a decade and her work has also been published in Shape, Health, Men's Journal, Runner's World, and more. She also writes a fitness newsletter, The Final Rep.