Metabolic Conditioning for Better Health
Metabolic condition (METCON) combines cardio and strength training to tap into multiple energy pathways and improve how well your body burns calories.
Metabolic conditioning (also called Metcon) is a form of exercise that packs a lot of action into a small window of time. Most people only complete three short Metcon sessions per week, and include a mix of medium and high-intensity exercises. Alternating between these intensities can boost your metabolism, improve your blood sugar levels, and reduce the inches around the waist. Ready to learn how you can start Metcon?
By Julia Zakrzewski, RD
Basics of Metabolic Conditioning
Metabolic conditioning is a unique form of exercise that combines both cardio and strength training workouts. The dynamic circuits prompt your muscles and organs to tap into several energy pathways at once to get enough fuel (starting with energy from glucose molecules) to complete your exercise.
These types of workouts can be very effective for people who have a limited window of time to exercise, but want to achieve maximum results. Start with ten minutes of Metcon training, and slowly increase to up to 30 minutes. Because Metcon workouts are meant to be (really) intense, it’s best not to go much longer than 30 minutes.
Let's take a look at some examples of Metcon workouts you can do at home.
What is The Purpose of Metabolic Conditioning?
The purpose of metabolic conditioning is twofold. The first goal is to tap into different energy pathways in your body and the second goal is to improve how efficiently your body burns through your energy stores (calories supplied by your body). Too many calories without adequate levels of exercise can result in weight gain.
All types of exercise require energy and will burn calorie stores to varying degrees. Most aerobic exercises (cardio-based) will burn through your glucose stores first and then move into fat stores. When you incorporate strength training, you continue to burn through fat stores long after your workout has ended.
Is Metcon the same as HIIT?
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) shares similar attributes found in metcon workouts, but not all metcon workouts are considered HIIT.
The key difference is that HIIT pushes you to work at an intensity level that surpasses some metcon exercises.
What is HIIT?
HIIT includes explosive bursts of exercise that push you to work out at a minimum of 80% of your maximum heart rate.
A small study completed with young obese men in Taiwan found that hitting the max heart rate target in your workouts over 3 months contributed to successful weight loss, reduction of body fat, and trimming your waist circumference.¹ More research should be completed for people of different ages and demographics, but these findings are compelling.
Decreasing your waist circumference is critical to reducing excess abdominal fat.² Extra inches around the midsection have been linked to increasing your risk of metabolic syndrome, a series of symptoms that negatively impact your health and increase your risk of stroke, diabetes, and coronary heart disease.³
The HIIT intervals vary in length but the average workout can be anywhere from twenty to thirty seconds, with shorter periods of active rest in between exercises. Active rest means that your body is still working and your muscles are still engaged but only at 50% of your maximum heart rate.
How to Calculate Your Maximum Heart Rate
Your max heart rate is calculated using age and gender. There are a few equations you can follow to find your max heart rate:
- Subtract your age from 220.
- A 40-year-old would have a max heart rate of 220-40 = 180.
- The Tanaka calculation is more accurate for older adults: 208-0.7 x age.⁴
- For example, the max heart rate for a 75-year-old (208-0.7x40) = 155.
Following your heart rate during your workout (sometimes called heart rate training) can help you track workout intensities. Depending on your health and fitness goals, you will want to target different levels of intensity:
- Lower levels of intensity burn fat stores.
- Higher levels of intensity burn through both carb and fat stores faster.
Metcon combines a mixture of medium and high-intensity workouts to target the most energy output possible.
Benefits of Metabolic Conditioning
As with any exercise, you will see benefits after long-term commitments (at least three months). Here are potential benefits you can experience after doing Metcon, keeping in mind some of these may be more visible after a few months:
- Improves blood glucose levels and decreases insulin resistance: creeping levels of blood glucose can increase your risk of diabetes, and poor insulin response can increase your risk of weight gain.⁵
- Increases lean muscle mass: Metcon workouts won’t make you bulky (most training programs won’t unless you are eating with the goal of bulk in mind), but they will help increase lean muscle mass. People with lean muscle tissue tend to have less body fat (which can be hormonally active, especially fat around your abdomen).⁶
- Burns energy (calories): working out at different interval intensities makes your heart and muscles work harder and burn more calories. Burning calories will help you manage your weight.
- Drives up your metabolism: a faster metabolism can help you meet your weight loss goals quicker. Even after exercise, your body will still be burning through energy stores while it recovers from your workout.
- Limited equipment is required: A lot of the exercises can be done without any equipment, and you don’t need a gym membership to do this form of exercise.
All forms of exercise (including Metcon) have been shown to reduce your risk of stroke, cardiovascular health, cancer, and brain health.⁷ Metcon workouts can complement the rest of your workout routine and help keep things fun!
Getting Started with Metabolic Conditioning
The first thing you need to do is set aside ten minutes for exercise. Metcon exercises are designed to target several muscle groups at once so you will need some space to move around. The most common types of exercises in a Metcon:
- Kettlebell swings.
- Bicycle kicks.
- Leg lifts.
Below is an example of a Metcon circuit you can complete at home with no equipment. Do one to three rounds of the workout with little (or no) rest in between exercises:
- 10 jump squats.
- 10 pushups.
- 20 walking lunges.
- 20 leg lifts.
If you have access to gym equipment you have different workout options. Aim to complete the following circuit one to three times without resting in between workouts:
- 10 box jumps.
- 10 kettlebell swings.
- 10 weighted step-ups.
- 20 pushups.
- 10 ab rollouts.
Depending on your comfort level doing different workouts, you may benefit from booking time with a personal trainer or signing up for local Metcon classes to get you started. Once you feel confident in your ability to work out (safely), you may prefer to break out on your own. The best health outcomes will be seen in people who are consistent, so keep at it!
How Often Should You Do Metcon?
Your muscles and body will need to rest and recover in between workouts, so avoid doing Metcon exercises every single day. Most people take one or two days to recover in between workouts.
Pushing yourself beyond your limits and overexercising can actually increase your risk of injury, which can put you on the sidelines for longer than anticipated.
Should You Try Metabolic Conditioning?
You should try metabolic conditioning if you’re interested in condensing your workout routine and getting the most metabolic response out of a small window of time.
You can start exercising at home by yourself, or you may opt to work with a professional, depending on your comfort level. Certain people should seek support right away before trying Metcon. This includes people who: :
- Have an existing injury that limits mobility.
- Are pregnant.
- Experience frequent lightheadedness (there are a lot of up and down movements in the workout which can make you dizzy).
- Are not already regularly active (Metcon is not recommended for beginners).
With the right guidance, you can safely incorporate Metcon into your existing workout routine.
All beginners should consider getting a bit of exercise experience under their belt before starting Metcon circuits. This might include booking solo time with a trainer or joining a Metcon class.
The workouts are designed to be physically challenging in a short amount of time. Switching between intermediate and intense exertion increases the efficiency and rate of your metabolism, which helps you burn more calories.
People who do Metcon can lower blood sugar levels, increase metabolic rate, and contribute to a smaller waist circumference. All of these changes contribute to your overall health.
- Chiu, C. H., Ko, M. C., Wu, L. S., Yeh, D. P., Kan, N. W., Lee, P. F., Hsieh, J. W., Tseng, C. Y., & Ho, C. C. (2017). Benefits of different intensity of aerobic exercise in modulating body composition among obese young adults: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Health and quality of life outcomes, 15(1), 168. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12955-017-0743-4
- Ross, R., Neeland, I. J., Yamashita, S., Shai, I., Seidell, J., Magni, P., Santos, R. D., Arsenault, B., Cuevas, A., Hu, F. B., Griffin, B. A., Zambon, A., Barter, P., Fruchart, J. C., Eckel, R. H., Matsuzawa, Y., & Després, J. P. (2020). Waist circumference as a vital sign in clinical practice: a Consensus Statement from the IAS and ICCR Working Group on Visceral Obesity. Nature reviews. Endocrinology, 16(3), 177–189. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41574-019-0310-7
- What Is Metabolic Syndrome? (2022, May 18). NHLBI, NIH. Retrieved September 13, 2022, from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/metabolic-syndrome#:%7E:text=Metabolic%20syndrome%20is%20a%20group,also%20called%20insulin%20resistance%20syndrome
- Tanaka, H., Monahan, K. D., & Seals, D. R. (2001). Age-predicted maximal heart rate revisited. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 37(1), 153–156. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0735-1097(00)01054-8
- Nieuwoudt, S., Foucher, J. A., Scelsi, A. R., Malin, S. K., Pagadala, M., Cruz, L. A., Li, M., Rocco, M., Burguera, B., & Kirwan, J. P. (2018, June 28). Functional high-intensity exercise training ameliorates insulin resistance and cardiometabolic risk factors in type 2 diabetes. Experimental Physiology, 103(7), 985–994. https://doi.org/10.1113/ep086844
- Wewege, M., van den Berg, R., Ward, R. E., & Keech, A. (2017). The effects of high-intensity interval training vs. moderate-intensity continuous training on body composition in overweight and obese adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 18(6), 635–646. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12532
- Benefits of Physical Activity. (2022, June 16). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 3, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/pa-health/index.htm