Metabolic Conditioning and Exercise

Group of Women Working-Out

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If you've been following anything related to exercise, you're probably familiar with the latest trend: High-intensity interval training. This kind of workout offers two significant things that other activities don't: Shorter workouts and more calories burned than you would find with most traditional cardio or strength training workouts.

Also known as MetCon, this type of training involves a very high work rate while using exercises that burn more calories during your workout and maximize calories burned after your workout or, as that period is often called, the "afterburn". Learn more about metabolic conditioning and whether it's right for you.

What Is Metabolic Conditioning?

The term "metabolic conditioning" doesn't describe a specific workout. It instead refers to a type of workout designed to challenge the two major energy systems that contribute to exercise effectiveness. Strength training relies most on the ATP phosphocreatine energy system to fulfill our immediate need for fuel.

These challenging, high-intensity circuit-type workouts often involve total-body compound exercises and short recovery intervals. Quicker recovery time allows you to spend more time in your anaerobic zone, a level at which you should stay for around 2 minutes before stopping and resting.

It's important to note that all HIIT is considered MetCon, but not all MetCon is classified as HIIT. MetCon uses a mix of high intensity and more moderate exercises, whereas HIIT focuses specifically on higher-intensity movements.

Benefits of Metabolic Conditioning

Metabolic conditioning pushes the human body to its limits with fast-paced cardio and strength exercises designed to build strength and endurance. Although it won't build strength as a well-designed progressive program will, it is excellent for anyone interested in essential physical functional strength.

You may also build lean muscle, which increases your metabolism, contributes to healthy aging, and protects you from injuries. Combining cardiovascular work with resistance training-based movements is an excellent way to burn fat, increase cardiovascular fitness, and maintain muscle.

These types of high-intensity workouts will not only burn calories during the activity but can increase your metabolic calorie burn for several hours afterward. This process is called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) and is one of the biggest draws to metabolic conditioning exercise.

Types of Metabolic Conditioning

MetCon training comes in various forms. The one you choose should depend on your goals and, in some cases, your job.

  • Tactical metabolic conditioning for firefighters, military or law enforcement personnel, and others who regularly engage in demanding physical activities. 
  • Metabolic conditioning to enhance athletic performance. For example, a triathlete might use MetCon to train for upcoming events. 
  • For everyday health and fitness, which is how most of us will utilize the training.

Precautions

Whether MetCon is for you depends on your goals and fitness level. If you concurrently follow a balance nutrition plan tailored to your needs, MetCon programs like P90x, Insanity, and CrossFit may help you to gain muscle, lose body fat, and improve cardiovascular health. The sheer volume and intensity of the training ensure that.

However, the high volume and intensity of the exercise are best suited for people accustomed to taking their bodies and training to the next level. Workouts that are too intense for beginners can lead to injuryburnout, and severe muscle soreness. If you don't work your way up to the workouts, you may find them so complex that you'll quit altogether. 

So, if your workouts haven't been particularly challenging, you must gradually build up your endurance and strength before tackling the MetCon challenge. 

Additionally, always speak with a health care provider prior to starting an exercise routine. MetCon is an extremely taxing form of exercise that may not be appropriate for all people.

How to Prepare for MetCon

Suppose you're not ready for the intensity of the exercises you'll find in CrossFit or P90X. In that case, you can adopt a workout program that will prepare you for the more rigorous demands of metabolic conditioning.

Practice Circuit Training

Whether you're performing strength circuits, cardio circuits, or a combination, circuit training replicates one element of MetCon by compelling you to move from one exercise to another with either short rests or no rests in between. Practice your exercises one after another with 30 or more seconds between each set.

As your fitness improves and you become accustomed to the rigors of the training, start reducing the rest each time, decreasing the rest intervals by 10-15 seconds, or, eventually, removing the breaks altogether. This simple act will increase the metabolic demand on your body, and that's what MetCon is all about. 

Change Workout Elements

Changing the metabolic demand on your body can be as simple as lifting heavier weights, working slightly harder during cardio sessions, adopting interval training, performing combination exercises, or introducing short bursts of cardio into your regular strength training program.

A Word From Verywell

Metabolic conditioning is a very efficient and effective form of training that can boost calorie burn, increase cardiovascular capacity, and maintain muscle while building functional strength. However, it is very challenging, so it is vital that you speak to your health care provider before starting.

3 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. Ho SS, Dhaliwal SS, Hills AP, Pal S. The effect of 12 weeks of aerobic, resistance or combination exercise training on cardiovascular risk factors in the overweight and obese in a randomized trialBMC Public Health. 2012;12:704. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-704

  2. Villareal DT, Aguirre L, Gurney AB, et al. Aerobic or resistance exercise, or both, in dieting obese older adultsN Engl J Med. 2017;376(20):1943-1955. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1616338

  3. Greer BK, O'Brien J, Hornbuckle LM, Panton LB. EPOC comparison between resistance training and high-intensity interval training in aerobically fit womenInt J Exerc Sci. 2021;14(2):1027-1035.

Additional Reading
  • American Council on Exercise. 2013. Metabolic Conditioning - How to Train for Real Results (Recorded Webinar). https://www.acefitness.org/continuingeducation/course/4a5287x6/metabolic-conditioning-how-to-train-for-real-results-recorded-webinar
  • McCall, Pete. "How to Get Real Results with Metabolic Conditioning." ACE Fitnovatives Blog, October 26, 2012.

By Paige Waehner
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."