What You Should Know About Metabolic Conditioning

Metcon, or metabolic conditioning, is a term that you have probably heard about in relation to a class that offers circuit training. This allows you to simultaneously build strength, muscle and cardiovascular conditioning.

However, metabolic conditioning can encompass a variety of approaches to building cardiovascular fitness. These include low-intensity steady-state (or LISS), high-intensity interval (or HIIT) training, and the Tabata Protocol which is a particularly fiendish approach for HIIT that can leave elite athletes in a puddle.

Here are some guidelines on how they work.

What is Metabolic Conditioning?

Metabolic conditioning, also known as “cardio” or cardiovascular training, is a broad term that refers to a variety of exercises that focus on improving your heart health and performance. It is designed to increase your ability and speed up your ability do large amounts of work quickly.

What is the point of so many forms of cardio conditioning available?

You may have noticed in biology class that there are three main ways your body supplies energy to your muscles. These are the oxidative and glycolytic pathways or energy systems.

Although all three systems are nearly constant in operation, different activities can cause your body favor one system over another.


Man hiking outside for exercise

The oxidative or aerobic pathway is the slowest but most durable of all three energy pathways.

We are fundamentally aerobic creatures. This system runs in the background even as you read this sentence! Regardless of what activity you choose.

The oxidative system can be emphasized with low- to medium-intensity activities such as walking, cycling, and hiking. However, it is also active during strength training exercises, where you are able to recover between sets.

Oxidative workouts are ranked around a six- or seven on a scale of one to ten effort — with 10 being the most difficult.


The glycolytic system, which is faster and more exhaustible, is most active when you do medium-high-to-high-intensity activities such as sprints lasting 30 to 90 seconds, lap swimming of 20-50 metres, high-intensity strength training circuits or other forms HIIT.

The effort level is around eight to nine out of 10.


The phosphagen pathway is, in short, the most efficient and powerful energy path, and it’s the fastest to exhaust.

This is especially true if you do all-out efforts that last less than ten seconds: a 50-meter sprint, a 10-second shuttle run or a high-jump or long-jump or any other single-and-done activity.

The effort level is 10. Go as fast as you can.

A comprehensive conditioning program must include at least some work on each of these energy systems.

How to work your different metabolic pathways

Man doing kettle bell swings

These workouts can include a variety of activities such as cardio training, jumps, throws and strength-training exercises.

There are two things that should be considered: that the movements you choose put a significant strain on your heart and lungs. Also, that you can safely perform the movement even when fatigued. Bear crawls are better than heavy deadlifts.

Coaches and trainers often describe met-con exercises with work-to rest ratios. The shorter the rest period, and the longer the work period, the more your body favors your oxidative system.

Your body will emphasize the phosphagen side of the spectrum the shorter and more difficult the work period and the longer the rest periods.

Workouts that focus on the glycolytic pathway are somewhere in the middle.

Some examples:

A 10 minute work session at 70% effort followed by a one-minute rest would be an “oxidative” workout that is good for building endurance.

These are only guidelines. These are not the only energy systems that work in isolation. Different people will respond to different types of exercise.

A marathon-distance race is primarily oxidative for the average person. However, for elite runners who are trying to break the personal record, it would be heavily metabolized.

A walk around the block for most people is low-level oxidative exercise.

However, if you are very heavy, or have been sedentary for a while, it might become quickly glycolytic to take a walk.

Different types of exercises also put different demands on your ability and speed to recover.

Although you can do oxidative (LISS), workouts multiple times per week without any side effects are possible, glycolytic (HIIT), and phosphagen (PHS) workouts put greater demands on your body.

Many trainers suggest that you limit your HIIT workouts to two per week. There should be a few days of recovery or other types of work in between.

Metabolic conditioning does not really increase your metabolism’s speed.

These workouts increase your metabolic flexibility by forcing your body on different energy systems.

Circuit Training

A young female athlete running up stairs

You can do any type of metcon workouts by doing one cardio-type exercise, such as swimming, sprinting, or jumping rope. But you can also work your cardiovascular system more effectively with multiple movements done in a circuit that has little rest.

This is the first thing most people associate with “met-con.”

Although there are many classic met-con workouts that fitness professionals talk about and compete in, it is easy to make your own based on your preferences and what equipment you have.

Here’s how…

1. For large muscles, you can choose a set of simple or compound exercises.

These moves could include:

Free-weight exercises include dumbbell overhead pressesbodyweight movements like air squatsjump variants, such as skater jumpsor box jumpsthrows.

You shouldn’t do high-skill moves like deadlifts, barbell snatches or cleans, isolation moves such as dumbbell curls and lateral raises, or any other move that you are unable to safely perform when fatigued.

2. You can arrange the moves in a way that makes sense. For example, you could alternate between moves that target the upper and lower bodies, between moves that are performed on a mat or those that you do standing, or between cardio-type and strength-focused moves. Or, you could place them on a scale that ranks from the lowest to the highest intensity.

3. The workout can be arranged using time parameters (say 45 seconds for each station) or reps (20 reps per movement, for example).

You can choose how long you will rest between circuits (either 10 seconds, 20 seconds or 30 seconds –ideally, it’s very short). Next, choose the total number of circuits that you will perform.

This is what makes metcon workouts flexible and challenging.

The harder your workout will be if you do more reps per move and move faster between exercises.

Metcon Workout Examples

Women doing kettle bell swings

There are a few special approaches to met-con circuits:

EMOM, or “every minute on every minute”

This system allows you to choose one move or a series of moves and then perform a set amount of reps for each move at the end of each minute of your workout.

Let’s assume that your moves include the kettlebell swing and bodyweight squat.

A 70% effort is recommended for each move.

Let’s just say that you do ten swings and fifteen squats. You also do eight pushups on the knees.

You can set up your gear — mat, kettlebell, towel, water — so that you are able to reach all you need easily.

You can place a digital or secondhand clock anywhere you can see it.

Perform ten swings using the timer. Next, take ten swings with the kettlebell and then rest for the remaining minute.

Perform 15 bodyweight squats when the next minute starts.

Next, do eight push-ups on the knees.

For a challenging 21-minute workout, rest for the remainder of the minute and then repeat the entire sequence seven more times.

You can choose the exercises, reps, and timeframe that you want. Just make sure you are performing exercises with perfect form using resistance levels you can manage but still challenge you.

EMOM has some advantages:

You can change the intensity of the circuit at any point.
MRAP, or “as many as possible”

This approach allows you to set a timer that will be set for a specified period of time, such as 20 minutes.

You would perform the following: ten rounds of swings, 15 pushups, and 15 squats. Rest as necessary.

Even when you are asleep, the clock continues to tick.

It can be brutal, but you have the option to rest at any point — even in the middle of the set — and continue your pace.

You can easily track your progress with AMRAPS, just like with EMOM exercises. Simply note how many rounds (or portions thereof) you have completed and then try to beat it the next time.

Another variation on AMRAP is “as much reps as possible”. This means that you do each exercise for a time (say 30 seconds) and try to complete as many good-form reps within that time period.

What is metabolic conditioning and HIIT different?

Man pushing sled at gym

HIIT (high-intensity interval therapy) is a type of metcon where you only do one exercise throughout the session. This includes hill sprints and burpees as well as Airdyne sprints and stair sprints.

You’ll again be working with a specific distance, number or time constraint — for example, 300 yards (for a sprint), twenty reps (for burpees), 45 second (for an Airdyne Sprint).

You must rest after each sprint for a set amount of time, usually 2-4 hours, and then you can go faster or slower with each set.

What is metabolic conditioning like Tabata?

Tabata Protocol, an unusual method that doubles your rest time, has a work period of 20 seconds.

This means that you cannot fully recover between work periods.

The classic Tabata protocol requires you to sprint (or cycle or row) at 100% effort for 20 seconds.

You then rest for 10 seconds and continue the cycle six to eight more times, totaling four minutes.

You’ll be amazed at how much time it takes to complete this task.

In just four minutes, a group elite speed skaters was exhausted by the original study of this technique (performed in Japan in 1996).

Why you shouldn’t do high-intensity metcons too often

When they are at their most intense, met-con workouts may feel like a cup of strong coffee. They can wake you up and keep you awake for hours.

They are fast, efficient, and fun. You might find yourself tempted to try them five days per week.

Do not do it.

Your muscles and cardiovascular system are being pushed into the red zone repeatedly. You’ll eventually stall, or worse, get hurt.

This type of exercise can be done twice a week.

High-intensity workouts can make you sore and stiff. Therefore, spend some extra time after your workout practicing recovery techniques like deep breathing and foam rolling.

These movements will help relieve tension and flush metabolites from your muscles. They also aid in downshifting after all the intense thrashing.

What You Need to Know About Metabolic Conditioning. The Beachbody Blog.

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About the Author: Joseph