Tom Wright is a personal trainer and Reflex Nutrition athlete who has competed in physique contests and squats 220kg, benches 170kg and deadlifts 250kg. He lives in London.
For most of us, if we’re honest, looking good is one of the main reasons we train. Yes, some people are more focused on aesthetics than performance (or vice versa) – but with focus on athletic ability making a return to the industry after a few years where physique alone dominated there’s been a huge increase in individuals looking to add some ‘go’ to their ‘show’.
Since the rise of the CrossFit Games, for instance, there’s been a dramatic rise in athletes who, while they might not want to compete, have found value in some CrossFit training methods – and on the flipside, almost everyone who ends up at the CrossFit Games is in enviable shape. And, however they train, there’s one thing every CrossFitter swears by: the metcon.
Metabolic conditioning or ‘metcon’ for short is a style of training made popular in recent years by the CrossFit community – although the style of training itself is nothing new. The term describes short bouts of higher-intensity training designed to increase metabolic demand and increase energy usage. Typically metcons follow either a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) format with short periods of intense exercise followed by similar length at a lower intensity, or circuit training with various different exercises performed one after the other. The goal of a metcon should be to achieve and sustain a high output over a short period of time, with as little rest as possible in order to make your body more energy efficient.
So why are they useful for burning body fat? Well, various studies have shown HIIT to be superior to steady state cardio for body composition, since even though more calories are burned in a longer, lower-intensity session, the overall fat loss tends to be greater using HIIT.
Although the exact reason why this happens isn’t fully understood, theories include increased fat oxidation, reductions in appetite, or the increase in muscular adaptations that follow HIIT and the subsequent increase in lean body mass. It’s important to note that EPOC or the ‘afterburn’ has recently been discounted as not having as great an effect as previously thought – but, whatever the mechanism, the effect remains. Do metcons, the evidence suggests, and you’ll get lean.
One downside to the recent popularity of metcons, unfortunately, is that they’re often misused – or mis-labelled. Metabolic conditioning should be used to take you to your training threshold with short rest times in order to improve metabolic pathways. Generally they should be under 15 minutes and push you past your previous limits. Spending a whole session on them is unnecessary, so focus on strength and movements finished with some high intensity work.
Longer workouts – such as CrossFit’s ‘Murph’ where a one-mile run is followed by partitions of 100 pull-ups, 200 press-ups and 300 squats and another one-mile run – fall outside the category of metcon, and also tend to be overused, with trainees beating themselves into the ground every single session. Given that they are fairly taxing on the body doing two to three metcons per week is usually sufficient on top of weight training.
HIIT it hard
So how should you use them? Because of their short nature they can easily be added in at the end of a workout as a ‘finisher’. If you’re trying to drop body fat whilst maintaining your muscle mass then stick to heavy resistance training, making sure not to decrease the volume of your workouts, and add a five- to ten-minute retcon at the end. Doing this three times a week will increase your metabolic output, helping you to get leaner over a period of a few weeks as well as increasing your fitness. An added bonus is that they tend to show increased muscular adaptations following a workout.
If you have spent a lot of your session working on pulling movements like deadlifts and barbell rows, for instance, then a metcon using kettlebell swings and rower intervals would be a good choice as they recruit the same muscle groups but with a different stimulus. Alternatively, you could use your metcon to get some extra work on areas you didn’t hit in your main workout: adding some pushing, pulling or hingeing to your squat day, for instance. The main message: hit it fast and hard: and you’ll be performing as well as you look.