7 Rules for Effective “Metcon” Workouts, Part 2

snow prowlerIn Part 1 of this article, we learned what metcons are, why people love them and why you might want to do them. We also discussed four rules to make metcons more effective. To recap:

  • Pick simple exercises
  • Use full body movements
  • Utilize high-intensity, short-duration workouts
  • Limit eccentric loading

Here are three more rules to get the most out of your conditioning.

5. PICK A GOAL AND STICK TO IT

Your conditioning workouts must reflect your overall fitness goal. Otherwise you’ll just spin your wheels. You can’t gain 50 pounds of muscle, shred to single-digit body fat, set a powerlifting world record and win the CrossFit games all at the same time. However, you can pick a single goal and dial in your conditioning to help you reach that goal faster.

If your number one goal is gaining muscle or getting strong as an ox, you can’t get carried away with metcons. You should do just enough conditioning to keep fat gain at bay and maintain work capacity (i.e. not get winded climbing stairs or need 20 minutes rest between sets). For my personal goals, it’s a minimum of 10 Prowler sprints of 40 yards, twice a week every week. However, too much conditioning and you’ll stunt your strength and muscle gains.

If it’s fat loss you seek, metcons can take on a starring role in your weekly training plan. That said, lifting volume and frequency has to come down. As Eric Cressey says, you can’t just keep adding components to a training plan because there’s a finite amount of stress your body can handle. Keep adding stress beyond the point where your body can recover, and you risk sabotaging your fat loss AND losing muscle.

foot fires

Somebody should have told Denzel that foot-fires and up-downs are lousy conditioning drills for football.

And if you’re an athlete, you have to be more careful than anyone else. Your conditioning has to reflect your athletic demands. If you’re constantly moving, like a soccer player or field hockey player, you probably need to move for 20-30 seconds at a time with short rest breaks. If your sport has lots of stops and starts like football or hockey, your metcons should too – go all-out for shorts bursts, rest longer than you worked, and repeat. If you play a pure power sport like baseball, golf or powerlifting, your sport is almost 100 percent anaerobic (e.g. hardly uses oxygen during exercise) and alactic (e.g. does not produce lactic acid). So your work intervals needs to be very short (less than 10 seconds), recovery needs to be long (2-3 times as long as your work intervals) and intensity needs to be damn-near-maximal.

There’s nothing worse than seeing a baseball pitcher go out for a long run, a football player doing 60 seconds straight of up-downs or a basketball player doing endless suicides. Stop and think about what happens on the field or the court – do these conditioning methods make any sense considering what the athlete actually does when he or she plays?

6. DON’T NEGLECT YOUR STRENGTH TRAINING

Even if fat loss is your number one goal, don’t put weight lifting on the back burner. Or even worse, don’t turn your strength training into one big, messy metcon-fest. You still have to do big, compound movements and you still have to go relatively heavy (3-8 reps per set). Maintaining muscle mass is critical to the fat loss process, so you still have to train with weights even if you’re trying to get sliced and diced.

The more conditioning you do, the lower your lifting volume has to be. But that’s OK, because you don’t really need a ton of volume to maintain strength. Say for example you wanted to do a metcon finisher at the end of your lower body day. Instead of doing five weight lifting exercises for 20 total sets over the course of 60 minutes, maybe you knock it down to three exercises for 12 total sets over 45 minutes of lifting. That way, you have some time and energy left to do 15-20 minutes of metcon work at the end. It could look something like this:

1A. Trap Bar Deadlifts – 5 sets x 6 reps

2A. Reverse Lunges – 2 sets x 8 reps per leg (really 4 sets total)

3A. Weighted Planks – 3 sets x 30 seconds

4A. Metcon – As many rounds as possible in 15 minutes

– Dumbbell High Pulls x 10 reps

– Rest 10 sec

– Low Hurdle Jumps (12″) x 10 reps

– Rest 10 sec

– Dumbbell Farmers Walk x 30 yards

– Rest 30 sec and repeat

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Another option would be to do metcons on non-lifting days. If that’s the case, use methods that won’t interfere with your next lifting workout. For example, if you lift four days per week and alternate between upper and lower body, your metcons shouldn’t fatigue the muscles you’re going to train with weights the following day. It might look like this:

Monday: Upper body lifting

Tuesday: Lower body lifting

Wednesday: Metcon workout (lower body focus)

Thursday: Upper body lifting

Friday: Lower body lifting

Saturday: Metcon workout (full body focus)

Sunday: Off

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So on Wednesday, your metcon should focus on lower body movements like sprints and sled drags so you don’t fatigue the upper body and reduce the quality of the next day’s lifting session. Then on Saturday, you can hit a full body metcon because you have an off-day on Sunday to recover.

Whatever you do, structure your weekly training plan so that your metcons don’t interfere with lifting. Staying strong is vital, even if fat loss is your goal. Honestly, what’s the point of getting shredded if you have to sacrifice your strength and performance?

7. CLEAN UP YOUR DIET FIRST

You’d better get your diet in check before you even think about adding in a ton of conditioning to your training plan. No amount of over-the-top metcon workouts is going to make up for months or years of crappy eating.

Remember, the primary goal of a metcon workout is to create as big a metabolic disturbance as possible. This means you do so much work in such a short time that your body is forced to expend more calories than usual over the next couple hours to help you recover. So constantly eating more calories than you burn – especially in the few hours post-workout – can negate your exercise efforts.

Honestly, you don’t burn a ton of calories during metcons. That’s because when you perform high-intensity exercise, you don’t consume a ton of oxygen. The body’s ability to consume oxygen and deliver it to muscles can’t keep up with demand, so we go into what’s called “oxygen debt”. This is the “afterburn” that so many trainers go on and on about, claiming that you’ll keep burning calories long after you stop exercising. It’s kinda-but-not-really true.

The scientific term is “excess post-exercise oxygen consumption” (EPOC), and it describes the extra oxygen you consume after you stop exercising in order to “repay” for the hard work you did. Think about it – you go for a jog, stop and catch your breath pretty quickly. Sprint for 100 yards at top speed, however, and you’re huffing and puffing for a few minutes even after you stop. That’s EPOC, plain and simple.

Unfortunately, EPOC is never really going to account for more than a couple hundred calories at the very most. And that’s if you’re doing absolutely insane Tabata-type stuff. So on a day-to-day basis it’s not doing much for fat loss, but over the course of weeks, you can get yourself a significant caloric deficit that will help you shed fat.

san gennaro

That said, you can’t crush a metcon workout and say “Oh yeah, I’m burning fat for hours, so I’ll go pound some Taco Bell and Coldstone!” Sorry dude, doesn’t work that way. Unfortunately, a lot of intermittent fasting and Carb Backloading disciples fall into this trap too often and severely hinder their progress.

Metcons can certainly deplete a lot of glycogen and require a lot of carbs to refuel. And I’ve certainly indulged in some epic cheat meals to do just that, as seen above in my Italian food rampage at last year’s Feast of San Gennaro. But big meals like these are going to grossly overshoot the calories you burned during exercise, so you can’t live and die by the gargantuan junk food refeed. And the inflammation and digestive issues associated with crap food won’t do you any favors either.

Using metcons to fix a bad diet is treating the symptom, not the disease. Get your eating habits in check before you hit up the high-intensity conditioning.

TO BE CONTINUED…

There you have it. Seven rules to help make your metcons more effective. Next time, I’ll share three awesome conditioning workouts to help you burn fat and improve performance.

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