Metabolic Conditioning: What You Need to Know

Metabolic conditioning: woman doing mountain climbers

Metabolic Conditioning: What You Need to Know

Metabolic conditioning workouts, also known as MetCon workouts or metabolic resistance training, are designed to optimize how your body stores and releases energy. They’re popular with personal trainers, and many fitness programs and methods use metabolic conditioning to produce results for those of all fitness levels.

Despite its hot status, metabolic conditioning is more than a passing trend. Instead, it’s an effective practice that uses intense workouts and targeted rest periods to improve your body’s physical performance. But, like everything in exercise science, there’s more to it than that.

This guide explores how and why metabolic conditioning works, as well as the pros and cons of adding metabolic conditioning workouts to your routine.

What Is Metabolic Conditioning?

Metabolic conditioning: man doing some hanging leg raises

You can find examples of metabolic conditioning in popular types of workout programs and systems like Insanity, CrossFit, P90X, and even high-intensity interval training (HIIT). However, metabolic conditioning workouts are generally about 20 minutes long — other programs and systems, like HIIT workouts, often use longer sessions.

Good metabolic training workouts make your body more efficient at using and storing energy in the energy pathways or systems that power your muscles for exercise.

Energy Systems

When you eat fats, proteins, or carbohydrates, your body breaks them down using cellular respiration to use them as energy. The subsequent oxidative reactions from this process produce a type of chemical energy known as adenosine triphosphate or ATP.

ATP is the primary carrier of chemical energy in your body. However, your body can only store a small amount of ATP, so it’s always making more. Once synthesized, ATP molecules are either stored or used via one of your body’s three energy systems: immediate, intermediate, and long-term. And they’re integral to fuel your muscles when you exercise.

Immediate Energy System

The immediate energy system, also known as the phosphagen system or the ATP-CP system, uses creatine phosphate (CP) to produce and use ATP quickly. As a result, the ATP is instantly available to fuel intense bursts of exercise and initial 10-15 seconds of any activity, and it’s quickly depleted.

The immediate energy system replenishes quickly, especially during short rest periods, breaking down more CP from your muscle’s stores to create more ATP. It’s one of the two systems targeted by metabolic conditioning.

Intermediate Energy System

The intermediate energy system — also known as the anaerobic, anaerobic glycolysis, glycolytic, or lactic acid system — provides a quick supply of ATP. It breaks down glucose to produce ATP, and in doing so, it makes lactic acid. (Side note: Lactic acid is responsible for the burning sensation in your muscles when you exercise.)

The intermediate energy system is used during periods of intense, quick physical activity, but this system produces ATP less efficiently than the immediate energy system. The intermediate energy system functions for approximately the first 120 seconds of intense physical activity. It’s also one of the two systems targeted by metabolic conditioning.

Long-Term Energy System

The long-term energy system, also known as the aerobic oxidative system, aerobic system, or mitochondrial respiration system, is one of the three that is not targeted by metabolic conditioning. Instead, it often kicks in to fuel steady-state cardio and extended low-intensity workout routines.

The long-term energy system creates the bulk of your body’s ATP by processing nutrients like proteins, carbohydrates, glucose, and fatty acids. Generally, fatty acids are used first, and carbohydrates are a significant fuel source during high-intensity exercise.

Targeting the Energy Systems With MetCon

Metabolic conditioning targets the immediate and intermediate energy systems. As such, most exercises targeting these energy systems involve high-intensity activities performed for short intervals (30-120 seconds) and short rest periods (30-60 seconds). Your body will become more efficient over time, using fuel during intense and moderate sessions. 

Benefits of Metabolic Conditioning Workouts

Metabolic conditioning: man and woman doing planks with dumbbells

Metabolic conditioning workouts offer a range of health and fitness benefits, especially if you want to improve your athletic performance. Here are some of the many reasons to give it a shot:

  • Lose weight more efficiently: Metabolic conditioning workouts are performed at a moderate or high intensity, which means they’ll elevate your heart rate and help you burn more calories. And caloric burn leads to fat loss. Plus, you’ll reap the benefits of excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC, which can aid weight loss by further increasing caloric burn during this extended period of elevated metabolism.
  • Finish your workout in less time: Metabolic conditioning workouts usually last 20 minutes or less. If you want a longer workout, extended sessions are around 36 minutes. If you’re worried that this isn’t enough time, don’t be — in this amount of time, you can burn more fat than you would with 60 minutes of steady-state cardio.
  • Build muscle and reach your fitness goals: Regular weight training, bodyweight exercise, and moderate- to high-intensity workouts will help build muscle and increase strength. More muscle means you’ll burn more calories at a state of rest, further aiding weight loss and giving you a leaner appearance. As you improve your metabolic conditioning, you’ll be able to increase the intensity of your training alongside your athletic ability.

While you can reap many of these benefits from other moderate to high-intensity exercise forms, metabolic conditioning is flexible enough to provide variety alongside results. You can mix several types of training into your metabolic conditioning workouts to direct the trajectory of your improvements.

Drawbacks of Metabolic Conditioning Workouts

Like most higher-intensity workout programs, metabolic conditioning doesn’t have many drawbacks. However, there are some to consider:

  • Risk of injury: Any moderate to high-intensity workout routine comes with the risk of injury, especially for beginners. Working with a professional is essential for learning proper forms and having a trained set of eyes to help you avoid injury. If you experience sharp or alarming pain, stop your workout immediately and consult a professional.
  • Increased difficulty: If you struggle to stick with challenging workout programs, metabolic conditioning might not be the right fit. With moderate to high-intensity workouts, you’ll feel the burn more often. Look for low-intensity forms of cardio exercise like light walking, hiking, jogging, cycling, swimming, and elliptical training to find something you’ll have an easier time sticking with.

It’s essential to consult with a professional before designing a workout routine. Consider finding a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) or any reputable, certified physical trainer to begin your fitness journey. A trainer can help you choose the right type of training and provide adaptations to cater your exercise program to your health, fitness level, and age.

How to Start Doing MetCon Workouts

Man carrying a plate while a coach is using a timer

Aside from finding a professional to provide a well-designed metabolic conditioning program, following safety precautions will help you get the most from your training. Here are some tips to get you started.

Start Slow

Begin your MetCon workouts with moderate-intensity training and work up to including high-intensity exercise multiple times per week. This gives your body time to adapt. Also, ask a professional how often you should work out and how many rest days you should take every week.

Always Do a Warm-Up

Don’t jump into moderate or high-intensity training without warming up your muscles for 5–10 minutes. Jumping jacks, light jogging, jump rope, and light cycling are good warm-up exercises. This keeps your muscles limber and reduces the risk of injury.

Rotate Your Muscle Groups

Try to train all major muscle groups (chest, shoulders, back, arms, core, and legs) each week to keep your progress even. You might divide this into upper body, lower body, and core, or break it down further. Some people also like to include a day just for cardio conditioning. 

Try Different Forms of Exercise

Metabolic conditioning can include several types of exercise, such as strength training, weightlifting, bodyweight training, and circuit training. From there, you can experiment with different activities in each form of exercise. For example, with bodyweight training, you might do pushups, pull-ups, lunges, burpees, and even sprints. You can also combine some of these types of exercise, like doing a strength training circuit workout focusing on kettlebell swings and upper body dumbbell exercises.

Think About Your Work-Rest Ratio

Metabolic conditioning works best with rest periods lasting 30-60 seconds and work periods ranging from 30-120 seconds. You might start with a 1:1 work-rest ratio, meaning you’ll rest and work for equal amounts of time (e.g., 30 seconds work, 30 seconds rest). From there, you can move to a 2:1 work-rest ratio, meaning you’ll work twice as much as you rest (e.g., 120 seconds of work, 60 seconds of rest). Ask your trainer about the best ratio for your current fitness level and goals.

Support Your Body With Supplements

Your body needs good nutrition to support intense workouts — without it, you might not have enough ATP to fuel your muscles for maximum performance. Your diet also needs quality nutrition to support muscle repair, growth, and full-body recovery. Dietary protein is the most critical nutrient and protein supplements can help you reach your goals. Consult a nutritional specialist to learn how much protein you should consume daily.

Get Ready to Transform Your Physical Fitness

Sweat dripping from a woman's face

Metabolic conditioning is a highly-effective way to train your body for intense workouts while encouraging muscle gain and fat loss. We recommend consulting a certified personal trainer and nutritionist to guide your fitness journey. And if you need help reaching your nutrient goals, don’t forget to add supplements to your diet. 

Here are some of our favorites:

Look for products that use Ingredient Optimized protein, designed for high protein bioavailability. Higher bioavailability means that your body can absorb the protein more efficiently, so you get the most from every scoop.