MetCon is shorthand for Metabolic Conditioning. Think training modalities of the aggressive, sweaty, heart-pounding persuasion. Traditionally we think of MetCon circuits – 2 to 3 (to 2 million) resistance exercises done in sequence with little (read: no) break in between.
- It’s challenging.
- It’s effective.
- It’s awesome.
By sequencing short, aggressive exercise at uber intensity and repeating multiple times, we accumulate fatigue. This leads to impressive metabolic disturbance. Remember that your metabolism is the sum of all of the chemical reactions required to sustain life. During a MetCon circuit (ie when you’re working your ass off) your metabolism is going ape-shit. Work impressively hard and you literally disturb your metabolism enough that it takes a long time to return to baseline (up to 72 hours long which can account for 100’s of additional calories burned.)
Impressive metabolic disturbance = Shredville.
There is no better form of exercise to burn fat while simultaneously maintaining lean muscle development.
WO. That’s powerful.
You’re damn right it’s powerful. SO powerful, in fact, that MetCon is often overprescribed by eager young trainers, Type-A athletes, and, you know, CrossFit.
Intensity over volume – the MetCon blessing/curse
Intensity and volume are inversely proportionate. Always. You can sprint 40 yards lightning fast (right?) but run a marathon and you’ve gotta slow down. So if we’re going to chart exercise on an intensity/volume graph, at one end of the spectrum would be walking. Forever. Walking a marathon (kill me.) At the other end of the spectrum would be a 1 rep max (*man smile*).
Back in the day we realized that proportionally, we burn more calories from fat at LOWER intensities. We aptly named this the “fat burning zone.” Get on an old-school piece of cardio equipment and you’ll see that the lower heart rate zone is labeled “fat burning.” But we made a colossal mistake. It’s not that we were wrong, necessarily, it’s that we were looking at the science through a straw. YES – we burn more calories proportionately from fat at lower intensity, but we burn far more calories, period, at higher intensity AND we create a whole hell-of-a-lot more metabolic disturbance at higher intensity. In other words, if you want to burn fat and get shredded, the most effective “fat burning zone” is, oh shit, higher intensity training.
Now, of course, there’s a sweet spot. A one rep max, for example, while extremely intense (and awesome), isn’t the best way to get you lean, shredded, and sexy. Because you need some volume.
Smart MetCon (henceforth known as SmetCon) sits at the ideal crossroad of intensity, volume, and technique – which is to say that technique is flawless (always), intensity is rockstar and volume is challenging but reasonable.
SmetCon – perfect form, incredible intensity, tough volume.
A Tabata analysis and what it teaches us about MetCon
Let’s take Tabata for example – one of MetCon’s most well known protocols:
Usually performed with one, relatively simple exercise – such as a fan bike:
- 8 rounds
- 20 seconds of work
- 10 seconds of rest
- at what would equal 170% of your Vo2max
Do you have any idea how fuckin hard that is?
Let’s put this in perspective: V02 Max is the maximum amount of oxygen you can consume during intense exercise. It is commonly measured on a treadmill where by you gradually increase the speed/incline until you damn near fall off the machine. THAT’S your Vo2max (ie – 100% of your V02max.)
Now, of course, oxygen is not the only way the body produces energy. In her infinite wisdom, mother nature gave us another energy system – sans oxygen – that is more powerful but far less resolute, capable of producing shorter bouts of impressive, explosive energy.
Imagine all systems go…the whole kit and caboodle…the baby, the bathwater, and the kitchen sink – producing a max effort at what would equal 170% of your Vo2max.
Now imagine sustaining that for 20 seconds.
Now imagine resting for 10 seconds, which by some magical time-warp continuum ends up feeling like 1/10th of a second. And imagine repeating that 7 times.
Everything. You’ve. Got. (In a modality that allows for this type of energy production to be performed safely.)
Tabata is intense.
And the only way to pull-off that type of intensity is to keep the volume relatively short – again, 8 rounds (4 minutes, start to finish) – which even for an elite athlete is ball busting. (Have I driven that point home yet? MetCon protocols, such as Tabata, are effective because of their intensity?)
CrossFit built a workout around doing the Tabata protocol for 32 rounds (“Tabata This”).
The problem with this isn’t that it’s too difficult. Difficult is lovely. I LIVE for difficult. The problem with this is that it takes a training protocol that is effective because of it’s intensity and it dilutes it with volume. This decreases the intensity (did I mention that that’s the best part?) and almost universally leads to a breakdown in technique. CrossFit has effectively made the protocol less effective and more dangerous.
Ain’t that a bitch.
Now I’m all for high intensity training.
Let me rephrase.
I ADORE high intensity training.
And I also respect that CrossFit can construct these workouts as fitness tests, which by nature need to be unreasonably difficult in order to measure the limits of the fittest folks on earth.
But if you want to approach this type of workout intelligently, first you need impeccable technique across the board. Then you need to chase intensity. Only final phase do you start to crank up volume.
That’s Smart MetCon – injury-free kick-ass training with a hell-bent emphasis on technique AND intensity and a progressive emphasis on volume. Now that’s a recipe for badassdome.
*This article was originally written for Schwarzenegger.com. Published April 10th, 2013.