People love instant gratification. That’s why the aforementioned workout programs are so popular. People want to feel like they went 10 rounds with Mike Tyson (pre-head tattoo and Hangover cameo) because they seek validation for the work they’ve done. They associate fatigue with effectiveness.
However, high intensity conditioning has its place and can be extremely effective for fat loss and improving fitness. Research consistently shows that high-intensity exercise is far more effective and efficient at burning fat, improving VO2-max and increasing anaerobic threshold compared to low-intensity exercise. High-intensity exercise may also have an indirect anabolic/hypertrophic (i.e. muscle building) effect, especially if it involves maximal muscle contractions. Therefore, it should almost always be the conditioning method of choice for athletes and lifters who value their hard-earned muscle.
Let’s define “metcon” real quick. “Metcon” is a popular term used to describe a workout involving repeated and/or sustained high-intensity exercises, usually involving weight lifting movements, with short rest periods in order to burn fat or create a “conditioning” effect. Most CrossFit workouts are metcons. Here’s an example:
CrossFit Workout of the Day – Monday, June 17, 2013
Three rounds for time of:
Row 1000 meters
30 Box jumps, 20 inch box
As you can see, this would not be an easy workout even if you had a lot of rest between rounds. How many people do you know who could do 20 pull-ups – period – let alone three sets of 20 with limited rest and in combination with other intense exercises? But you get the idea – pick several high-intensity exercises, group them together and do them for a lot of reps quickly to create a conditioning effect.
Don’t take this article as an anti-CrossFit rant. They’ve got the right idea by using high-intensity conditioning to help people get fit. But if you want to incorporate metcons into your workouts, you have to do so intelligently. In the first of a three-part article, I’ll explain four ways to make metcons more effective. If you stick with me through all three parts, I’ll reveal three awesome conditioning finishers that you can try right away. Here we go:
The number one concern with metcons is reducing the risk of injury. High-intensity exercise induces fatigue, and with fatigue comes a deterioration in technique. So if your metcon is made up of complicated exercises like snatches, cleans, push presses, box jumps, handstand push-ups, etc., you overwhelmingly increase your chance of injury because good form goes out the window when you get tired.
Instead, stick with safe, simple exercises. Prowler sprints, sled drags, push-ups, lunges and even the dreaded burpee are all great choices. Just about anyone can learn these exercises quickly and there’s not much of an injury risk if your form breaks down.
This doesn’t mean you can’t use CrossFit favorites like Olympic lifts, jumps and kettlebell movements. Just don’t use the complicated ones. Strip them down to their more user-friendly versions. For example:
- Kettlebell swings instead of a kettlebell snatch or clean and press
- 12″ hurdle jumps instead of 20″ box jumps
- High pull instead of a power clean
2. USE FULL BODY MOVEMENTS
Japanese researcher Dr. Izumi Tabata pioneered much of the research confirming the benefits of high-intensity conditioning, and his signature Tabata protocol is brutal:
- 20 seconds cycling at supra-maximal intensity (170% of VO2max)
- 10 seconds rest
- Repeat for 8 rounds (4 total minutes of exercise)
To put that in perspective, the average person can’t talk and exercise at the same time at about 50-60 percent of VO2max (a measure of the maximal amount of oxygen a person can use during exercise). So 170 percent? Yeah, that’s pretty intense.
Tabata’s research suggests that just four minutes of insanely hard exercise, five days per week (20 total minutes of exercise) is more effective for improving aerobic capacity than 60 minutes of moderate exercise, five days per week (five hours of exercise). Five hours versus 20 minutes? Naturally, Tabata sparked countless imitators, and unfortunately, almost all of them suck.
What you’re now seeing is the bastardization and dumbing-down of the Tabata protocol using exercises like push-ups, dumbbell curls, sit-ups and other exercises that are nowhere near as intense as pedaling on a bike as hard as effing possible.
What’s my point? You can’t use single-joint exercises, small muscle groups or low-intensity exercise and call it “conditioning.” The physiology is all messed up. You have to use full-body movements like sprints, squats and jumps. There’s a specific systemic response (i.e. throughout the entire body) associated with full-body and large-muscle group exercise like running and cycling. Small muscle groups and simple exercises like curls, however, have a very localized effect (i.e. contained in one area). It also has to be hard. Doing 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off with little pink dumbbell curls isn’t doing much for your lungs, your heart or anything else needed to create a “conditioning” effect. So you can’t just take any exercise, do it on and off for eight rounds and call it Tabata.
Good metcons use appropriately-difficult, full body movements that create a full body stimulus. Makes sense, right? Get your ass (and legs, hips, torso, etc.) moving if you want to torch fat and improve fitness.
3. INTENSITY OVER DURATION
This piggybacks on the previous point. There’s an inverse relationship between intensity and duration. The harder an exercise is, the less time you can perform it. For example, you can jog at a leisurely pace for much longer than you can sprint at top speed.
But as Tabata taught us, you don’t need to exercise for very long if the intensity is high. It’s much more efficient (20 minutes vs. 5 hours, remember?) to go balls-out for a short while than drag ass for a long while.
Choose exercises and arrange them in such a way that you couldn’t do it all day long. Or all hour long, for that matter.
“Eccentric” is a term used to describe the portion of an exercise where the target muscles are lengthened or stretched. Usually it’s the “lowering” phase. For example, lowering the bar to the chest during a bench press and landing from a jump are eccentric muscle actions.
Eccentric action is also what creates most of the muscle damage and makes you sore. You have to challenge a muscle in a lengthened position to break it down and in turn build it up again. It may very well be necessary for muscle growth, but not for conditioning.
Pick exercises with little-to-no eccentric loading to reduce muscular fatigue and improve recovery for your next workout. Remember, we’re not training muscular endurance, but full-body conditioning.This is especially important for athletes, who need to be recovered for games and practices and can’t destroy themselves every time they step in the gym.
Sprinting is a fine example. Sprints are phenomenal for conditioning, but have significant eccentric loading every time your foot strikes the ground. You can get the same conditioning effect with less eccentric loading by doing hill sprints (shorter strides, less foot strike impact), sprinting with a Prowler or dragging a sled.
Jumps are about as eccentric-focused as it gets, so use them sparingly. If you use box jumps, use a low box, and step down from them instead of jumping down.
You could also just lower the bar more quickly on barbell exercises, or drop the bar altogether on Olympic lifts. So instead of catching a snatch and then slowly lowering back down, just drop the bar from overhead. This works best if you have bumper plates and don’t lift at a commercial gym.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Next time, we’ll cover three more rules for killer conditioning workouts, including how many days per week you should do metcons and how to balance them with lifting. Until then, train hard and train smart.