If you’ve dabbled in CrossFit or interval training, you may have heard of metabolic conditioning. Called metcon for short, it’s a type of workout built of structured sequences of strength and cardio exercises. Metcon kicks your cardiovascular and energy-burning systems into high gear to burn tons of calories and develop muscles and endurance. So why is this gritty workout so beloved in high-intensity fitness circles, how does it work, and should you give it a try? We talked with fitness experts to find out.
Meet the Expert
- Heather Hamilton, MS, ACSM, is a certified personal trainer, fitness educator, and competitive powerlifter with degrees in exercise and health science. She’s the director of fitness at the Colorado School of the Mines and co-owner of Barpath Fitness in Golden, CO.
- Dan Lyons, PT, DPT, is a Chicago-based physical therapist who specializes in sports medicine.
- Donna Walker is a certified personal trainer, certified fitness nutrition specialist, and group fitness instructor in Chicago.
What Is Metcon?
CrossFit, a brand of high-intensity strength training and conditioning, popularized metcon for its ability to efficiently build muscle and endurance. A combination of cardio and strength exercises at varying intensities change the metabolic demand on your body throughout the workout, which optimizes your ability to store and burn energy while torching calories. Metcon is extremely tough, and can incorporate anything from running intervals on the treadmill to circuits of strength-building floor exercises like jump squats, burpees, kettlebell swings, and more.
Type of Class: Sustained Moderate-to-High-Intensity Interval Training
Metcon’s mix of moderate- and high-intensity exercises raise your heart rate and activates your body’s different energy systems: the phosphagen, glycolytic, and aerobic pathways. The phosphagen system is your body’s first source of energy, and it kicks in when you do bursts of activity like sprints by quickly converting food to energy. The glycolytic system is the second line of defense that sustains your body for slightly longer periods of exercise, like weightlifting or mid-distance running. The aerobic system runs on oxygen and fat, and fuels your body long-term for activities like distance running.
“A well-rounded metabolic conditioning class, when done regularly but not too often, can turn your body into a machine,” says Hamilton. “The work should target specific energy systems and help you burn calories after the workout, but a great program will also incorporate stability training, muscle building, and strength training.”
Best for: High-Calorie Burn and Maximizing Energy Efficiency
Turning your body into a machine burns serious calories both during and after your workout, sometimes 800 calories in a session alone. “This higher-intensity method of training can also bring about an oxygen debt that produces an effect called EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption), a temporary increase in your metabolism that allows your body to recover from the workout,” says Hamilton.
A metcon workout taps into each of your energy systems due to the range of exercises and intensities performed. That variation forces your body to use both oxygen and stored energy to keep moving, which trains you to replenish energy more effectively, says Lyons. This improved energy efficiency can help you accomplish a variety of fitness goals like improving endurance, building muscular strength, or enhancing sports performance.
What to Expect During Metcon
Metcon workouts vary based on where you’re training, the instructor, and your fitness goals, though most sessions include cardio and strength elements. Workouts can take the form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT),with strict work to rest intervals, circuits where you move from one exercise to the next without rest, or a combination of the two, says Hamilton. Other metcon programs will first focus on a skill, like achieving a certain number of reps or lifting a specific amount of weight, and then move into a conditioning or circuit phase to add cardio into the mix, she says. Metcon is often just one component of a well-rounded workout—for instance, adding a metcon section to the end of a strength-training class to finish strong, says Walker.
Two popular metcon formats are EMOMs (every minute on the minute) and AMRAPs (as many reps/rounds as possible). In an EMOM workout, you do a specific amount of reps at the beginning of every minute. Once you finish the reps, you rest until the minute ends, so work-to-rest ratios vary from person to person based on how quickly you perform. During an AMRAP drill, you do as many reps of a particular exercise as possible in a set amount of time, like squatting as many times as you can in a minute.
The exercises you’ll do depend on the focus of the workout, but expect multi-directional movements. Our bodies are used to forward and backward motion, like running. Metcon also incorporates side-to-side, or lateral, exercises like skaters or side lunges to encourage balance and stability.
Metcon workouts range from 10 minutes to an hour depending on what energy systems you’re targeting, but typically takes less time than a lower-intensity fitness program given how efficiently it increases your heart rate and burns calories.
Equipment likewise varies, so you might use anything from cardio machines like rowers or bikes to tools like weights, barbells, kettlebells, and more, says Hamilton. Plan to wear athletic clothing that you can sweat in and that doesn’t restrict your mobility since you’ll likely be doing a variety of exercises, says Walker. This includes a comfortable and supportive pair of athletic shoes to accommodate high-impact activity and heavy lifting.
Though metcon workouts vary, they all have one thing in common: They’re fast and furious, says Walker. “Expect to work very hard and push yourself beyond your limits to really achieve the goals a metabolic conditioning class would have you focus on,” says Hamilton. “Metabolic conditioning is utilized to burn an enormous amount of calories after the workout by targeting a specific energy system in the body. In order to do so, the work has to be hard and you have to progress over time to improve your ability to tap into this.”
Benefits of Metcon
- Burns calories: Metcon gets your heart pumping, which burns calories while you're working out. Maximum-effort intervals can also drive you into an oxygen debt, which causes a temporary bump in your metabolism and calorie burn while you replenish during the hours after a workout, says Hamilton.
- Improves endurance: Metcon circuits such as longer intervals with minimal rest train your body’s aerobic energy system to work more efficiently, which can improve your endurance.
- Increases muscle mass: Research shows that regular moderate- and high-intensity interval training can reduce body fat and develop lean muscle.
- Boosts metabolism: Metabolism is how you convert food to energy. Conditioning your metabolic systems—those energy pathways—to work more efficiently boosts your metabolism’s ability to break down food into fuel.
- It’s time-efficient: Because metcon workouts can incorporate HIIT, it’s possible to achieve maximum results in less time.
Metcon challenges even seasoned athletes, so ease into it. “Metcon is not typically for beginners and should not be done seven days per week,” says Hamilton. “You should have a solid base before performing these types of workouts. If you're interested in trying them, start with a simple interval training protocol and build your way up to this type of class.”
Lyons also recommends taking baby steps. “To avoid burnout and reduce chance of injury, it's important to build your exercise tolerance. Someone who has been sedentary for years and decides one day to jump into these high-intensity workouts is going to be very sore for some time after,” he says. “I always suggest a nice warm-up before any exercises, especially intense ones.”
Metcon can quickly cause fatigue, which can lead to bad form and possible injury. Overuse injuries are common, which is why Hamilton advises trying metcon with the aid of a fitness program or trainer to help you avoid overdoing it. A trainer or other fitness professional can also help you nail proper technique during your workout to prevent injury.
If you have ongoing cardiovascular issues, says Lyons, check with your doctor before trying metcon or other interval training programs.
At Home vs. In Studio
You can try metcon at home, especially with the help of a cardio machine or weights. However, Hamilton cautions to be sure to use a program or hire a coach who can help tailor these workouts to your goals and fitness level. In-person classes with trained instructors provide the opportunity to learn proper technique and timing while making safety adjustments in real time.
Metcon vs. HIIT
Though metcon and HIIT are sometimes used interchangeably, there are a few key differences. All HIIT is metcon, but not all metcon is HIIT. That’s because metcon incorporates both moderate- and high-intensity exercises, while HIIT is specifically high-intensity. In certain forms of metcon like EMOMs or AMRAPs, work to rest ratios depend on the person, whereas HIIT typically involves fixed time intervals, like 30 seconds of work followed by 30 seconds of rest.
Metcon is a style of workout that blends cardio and strength exercises into challenging HIIT circuits, maximum-effort weight training, and more to condition your body to store and replenish energy more efficiently. You can use metcon to burn tons of calories and accomplish a range of fitness goals, like running faster or farther, lifting heavier weights, or building a more muscular physique. Metcon is not for beginners, though--if you’re interested in trying, ease into it with lower-intensity interval training so your body can adjust.