When you do squats, your heart pounds because your muscles need oxygen, just like when you do intense cardio. When you run, sprint, or cycle hard, your legs ache because you drain your cellular fuel stores and accumulate metabolic waste products, just like when you crush them with squats. So the question is, do you really need separate workouts for “strength” and “cardio”?
Depending on your goals, the answer might be “no.” For maximum results and minimal loitering, you might want to try metabolic conditioning — or MetCon workouts.
What Is Metabolic Conditioning (MetCon)?
Your body has three distinct systems for producing energy: one for short bursts of effort, like a max squat (phosphagen system); one for medium-length efforts, like a 400- to 800-meter sprint (glycolytic system); and one for long-term efforts, like a 10K run (oxidative system).
“Metabolic conditioning is any form of exercise that increases the efficiency of any energy system,” says Trevor Thieme, CSCS, senior fitness and nutrition content manager for Openfit. So strength training, 400-meter sprints, and steady-state cardio are technically all examples of MetCon, as they all strengthen specific energy systems.
However, most trainers use the term MetCon to refer to fast-paced workouts typically built around compound (multi-joint/muscle) strength- or power-building exercises. A good example: three rounds of a circuit consisting of the jump squat, inverted row, push-up, and 10-meter shuttle run, doing each exercise for 30 seconds, and moving as fast as possible from one to the next.
“These workouts crank up your heart rate and keep it beating hard until you crush your last rep, combining the benefits of cardio and strength training into a single session,” says Thieme. “They’re sweaty. They’re tough. And they shift your metabolism into fifth gear, helping you burn more calories both during the workout and afterward.”
Why compound movements? Biceps curls and other isolation moves are great for targeting specific muscles, explains Corinne Degroot, stuntwoman and trainer in Openfit’s upcoming program Rough Around The Edges. “But compound moves are more relevant to sport and life. Squatting, carrying, pressing, lunging — you’re using your whole body, including your brain, just like you do in any sport.”
Because they involve more muscles across more joints than isolation moves, compound exercises also carry higher energy demands, and thus typically exact a higher caloric “cost.”
MetCon is not easy — the first time you try it, you may be surprised by how much you sweat and pant — but that’s the point. “Intensity is the number one factor in a good workout,” says Ben Bergeron, head coach at CrossFit New England in Natick, Massachusetts. “It’s the short cut to the good stuff (more muscle, a smaller waist, and greater athleticism).”
What’s the Difference Between MetCon and HIIT?
If you’re up on your fitness trends — and fancy abbreviations — MetCon may call to mind another popular workout strategy: high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, which alternates between brief bursts of high-intensity effort and equally short periods of rest. HIIT is one way to do MetCon, but it’s not the only way.
“HIIT falls under the MetCon umbrella, but the two terms aren’t synonymous,” says Thieme. “Any sustained, high-intensity effort — whether it’s based in intervals, circuits, or another advanced training modality that combines cardio and strength training — can be categorized as MetCon.”
Benefits of MetCon Workouts
Besides cardio conditioning, strength building, and fat burning, MetCon workouts are packed with perks.
1. They save time
Traditional strength-training programs can require more than three minutes of rest between sets of a single exercise. Steady-state cardio workouts can last an hour or more, depending on your pace and distance. But by stacking strength moves back-to-back, and keeping rest periods brief, MetCon workouts give you many of the same strength and cardio benefits in a fraction of the time in a single muscle-burning workout.
2. You can do them anywhere, with and without equipment
Because MetCon workouts use full-body, multi-joint exercises, you don’t need a lot of equipment to do them. You can do MetCon in a fully equipped gym or in a hotel room without any equipment at all. That makes them the perfect do-anywhere option for busy people on-the-go.
3. They can be simple
Most MetCons are plug-and-chug: four to six moves (one upper-body, one lower-body, one total-body, and one cardio move) performed back-to-back with a rep or time scheme that’s easy to remember. They don’t take a master’s degree to understand or an athlete’s coordination to perform. If you’re ever overwhelmed by all the choices in the gym, MetCon workouts make it easy.
4. You can tailor them to different fitness levels
Let’s say the workout calls for push-ups. An elite athlete might choose to do a minute of them explosively with their feet elevated while a weekend warrior might do them more slowly with their hands elevated. Both will get a workout that’s suited to their abilities working from the same template. That also means you can scale up a MetCon workout with more rounds, a faster tempo, or longer sets on days when you have more time and energy, and down on days when you’re feeling less than 100 percent.
5. They’re fun AF
Want a workout program you’re likely to stick to? Most people find MetCon — with its blend of fast-paced action, dynamic movement, and ever-changing strength-and-cardio challenges — a lot more interesting and engaging than slower-paced strength and steady-state cardio workouts. If you look forward to your workouts instead of dreading them, you’re much more likely to stick to your program and give every workout your all. Both factors are essential to getting results.
MetCon Workouts on Openfit
T-MINUS 30 is a four-week program designed to get you ready to crush a Tough Mudder obstacle course. Don’t plan on competing? No problem. Four-time Tough Mudder champion Hunter McIntyre will help you get in the best shape of your life as he leads you through 30-minute workouts designed to challenge, build, and hone every skill that a 5- to 10-mile obstacle race demands: strength, power, endurance, coordination, mobility, and mental grit. It’s tough, but by the time you’re done, you will be, too.
Created by trainer Devin Wiggins, 600 Secs is a series of 42 workouts — each one lasting just 10 minutes — in which you hit all of your major muscle groups while working up a sweat and boosting cardiovascular fitness with a variety of different exercises using little to no equipment. Looking for some fast, intense metabolic conditioning? Check out workouts in the Cardio, Total Body, and Bands series.