Metabolic Conditioning for Weight Loss

Athletic woman exercising with kettle bell on a class in a health club.
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Metabolic conditioning (MetCon) is a special combination of cardio and strength workouts. It's not the long, slow cardio we've spent the last 20 years doing, nor is it the boring old straight-set strength training workouts, either. Popular types of MetCon include P90X, CrossFit, Insanity, or high-intensity circuit training,

There are people who think that metabolic conditioning is the most time-efficient way to burn fat and build endurance, but is that really the case? And if so, is all that high-intensity exercise really good for most people? Find out what's so great, or maybe not-so-great, about MetCon.

Why MetCon Gets Results

MetCon, like a lot of fitness jargon such as fat burning zone or toning up, is a bit of a misnomer. You don't really have to exercise to 'condition' your metabolism. Your body is metabolizing all the time and, if it ever stops, that means you've stopped, too.

However, according Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit and one of the premier experts in high-intensity training, metabolic training is about increasing "the storage and delivery of energy for any activity."

His well-written article goes into great detail about this, with discussions about the energy pathways of the body and how MetCon, unlike traditional cardio or strength training, targets each of them in a more effective way. All of that is important and his article is well worth reading, but what MetCon is really about for the average person is one thing: getting results.

Watch any P90X or Insanity infomercial and you'll see those hard, gleaming muscles of a lean, fat-free body that many of us dream of. So what's the secret behind these results and can we all have them? That depends on what you want and how hard you're willing to work.

The Good

The real secret to MetCon isn't about what you do, it's about how you do it and if you do it right, you can:

  • Burn more calories for weight loss
  • Increase the calories you burn after your workout, also called the afterburn
  • Teach your body how to use different energy systems more efficiently, including the phosphagen system (immediate energy required), glycolysis (intermediate energy required) and the aerobic system (extended energy required). While this isn't always a priority for the average exerciser, this can be a tremendous boost for athletes.
  • Build strength, endurance, and fitness for almost any activity—competing in races, going into the military or law enforcement, sports, marathon yard work sessions, etc.

So, if you can get all that from MetCon, why aren't we all doing it? For one, it's a complex way of exercising and we often need expert instruction, guidance and motivation to do it safely and effectively. For another, it's often much too intense for the beginning exerciser or even the average exerciser. Just ask my husband how many days he was sore when he did P90X. His answer? All of them.

Pros and Cons

Despite the great results you can get from this high level of exercise, there are things to consider before investing your time and energy in this type of training.

  • Good for losing fat and gaining muscle

  • Builds strength, power, and endurance

  • Builds a high level of fitness

  • Workouts have a lot of variety

  • Workouts are short

  • High quit rate

  • High rate of injury

  • High amount of delayed muscle soreness

  • May suppress your immune system

  • High rate of misery

Advantages of MetCon:

  • Fat loss/Muscle gain: The most attractive thing about MetCon is the fact that the high levels of intensity help you burn more calories during and after your workout. The exercises, which usually include whole body, compound movements, help you lose fat and gain muscle more quickly and more efficiently than cardio or strength training alone.
  • More strength, power, and endurance: Because you're targeting all of your energy pathways in one workout, you're conditioning the body on every level.
  • High level of fitness: If you can work at that high level of intensity, you can probably kick butt in just about every other activity in your daily life.
  • Variety: People enjoy MetCon workouts because they have so much variety. You're not slogging on a treadmill for 45 minutes to nowhere. You're doing a variety of exercises that will keep both your mind and body engaged.
  • Short and sweet: You have to work very hard, of course, but the payoff is you only have to do it for 10 or 30 minutes.

Disadvantages of MetCon:

  • High quit rate: Some experts have suggested that more than 50 percent of exercisers will eventually quit workouts that are too intense. With the exception of one person, everyone I know who's tried P90X or CrossFit got amazing results...and quit after a certain period of time because of burnout, injuries, exhaustion, and boredom.
  • High rate of injury: These workouts cause fatigue and fatigue leads to bad technique and bad technique often leads to injury. The fact that many beginners start at an intensity that may be too high for them is also a major contributor to injuries.
  • Debilitating muscle soreness: While these workout programs should include enough rest days for your muscles to recover and minimize soreness, many times they don't, leaving you sore day after day.
  • May suppress your immune system: Studies have shown that very high-intensity exercise, particularly without enough recovery time between exercises or workouts, can actually increase our risk of infections like colds or viruses. This may be due to the fact that, under stress, your body produces a stress hormone, cortisol, which has an immunosuppressive effect on the body.
  • High rate of misery: Some people like to challenge themselves at a high level of fitness. For others, this level of exercise will just feel miserable.

The Basics of a MetCon Workout

So what makes a workout MetCon as opposed to something else? There aren't official guidelines, but there are some basic rules when setting up MetCon workouts.

  • It's set up in a circuit format. That means you do each exercise one after another and repeat the circuit 1 or more times.
  • It usually involves non-competing exercises. That means exercises that allow one muscle group to work while the other muscle group rests. For example, doing a lower body exercise (e.g., squats) followed by an upper-body exercise (e.g., pushups).
  • You work at a very high intensity for 10-120 seconds. That means you need to be anaerobic or around a Level 9-10 on the perceived exertion chart during the work sets. You need challenging exercises, such as whole body, compound movements, working as hard as you can during the time you've chosen. The amount of time you work will depend on your goals:
    • For power, you might do sprints for 10 seconds and rest for more than a minute.
    • For endurance, you might do 2 minutes of high-intensity cardio followed by 30 seconds of rest.
    • For fat loss, you might be somewhere in the middle—30 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest, for example.
  • Your rest intervals are very short. Again, the rest interval you choose is based on your goals and fitness level. The general rule is to rest only as long as you need to push hard with the next exercise. This is different for everyone, so you'll have to practice to find the right rest interval for your body.
  • Your workouts are short. To really generate a high level of intensity, you'll want to keep your workouts between about 10-30 minutes. More than that may compromise your form and energy.
  • You should only do this workout a couple of times a week. This workout is very hard on the body, so try incorporating more moderate training during the week—lower intensity cardio and regular strength training.

Work up to MetCon Training

This level of training is not for beginners. Even if you already exercise, you still need time to condition your body to work anaerobically if you're not already doing that in your workouts. You should start with basic fitness, such as an exercise program for absolute beginners, and gradually incorporate higher-intensity workouts into your routine such as:

Sample MetCon Workout

  • Warmup - Any cardio activity for 5 or more minutes
  • 30 seconds - Burpees
  • 10 seconds - Rest
  • 30 seconds - Squat Press
  • 10 seconds - Rest
  • 30 seconds - Mountain Climbers
  • 10 seconds - Rest
  • 30 seconds - Squat Jumps
  • 10 seconds - Rest
  • 30 seconds - Burpee with Renegade Rows
  • 10 seconds - Rest
  • 30 seconds - Plyo Lunges
  • 10 seconds - Rest
  • 30 seconds - Bear Crawls
  • 10 seconds - Rest
  • 30 seconds - Froggy Jumps
  • 10 seconds - Rest
  • 30 seconds - Pushup to Side Plank
  • Repeat 1-3 times.
  • Cool-down
2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Feito Y, Hoffstetter W, Serafini P, Mangine G. Changes in body composition, bone metabolism, strength, and skill-specific performance resulting from 16-weeks of HIFTPLoS One. 2018;13(6):e0198324. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0198324

  2. Claudino JG, Gabbett TJ, Bourgeois F, et al. CrossFit overview: systematic review and meta-analysisSports Med Open. 2018;4(1):11. doi:10.1186/s40798-018-0124-5

Additional Reading
  • Davis WJ, Wood D, Andrews R, et al. Concurrent training enhances athlete's strength, muscle endurance, and other measures. J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Sep;22(5):1487-502.

  • Glassman, G. "Metabolic Conditioning." 10 June 2003.

  • McCall, P. "How to Get Real Results with Metabolic Conditioning. In ACE. 26 Oct 2012.

  • Methenitis S. A brief review on concurrent training: From laboratory to the fieldSports (Basel). 2018;6(4):127. doi:10.3390/sports6040127

  • Powers S, Howley T. "Exercise and the Immune System." Exercise Physiology. McGraw Hill. 2012.

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."