With the entire craze about cardio training today, the term metabolic conditioning ( METCON for short) gets thrown around because people think its what burns fat and makes you sweat.
But what is metabolic conditioning and how can you use it to build muscle and burn fat?
In order to understand the specificity of metabolic demands of exercise on the body, one must first understand the basics of energy systems.
Your Metabolism and Energy
According to ACE(1), the term metabolic conditioning refers to any exercise that increases the storage and delivery of energy for physical activity.
Your metabolism is the body’s ability to convert food into fuel that allows muscles to perform work. The fuel that your muscles run on is a molecule called Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), and without adequate supplies of ATP, muscle activity and growth would not be possible. (2)
This is what your metabolism is all about, and now that you understand the basics of your metabolism, lets talk conditioning.
For athletic development, conditioning refers to how well an athlete is able to meet the energy production demands of their sport. (3) Some sports require more power and less endurance while others require the opposite. A power lifter’s conditioning requirement is a lot different than a running back in the NFL.
Check out some of my lifts from a combination of training both systems…
If you don’t play a sport, it’s your ability to perform under a certain amount time. The better conditioned you are, the more fuel your muscles have and the longer you are able to perform for a training session or a run. The more active you are, the more your body will have to work and the more energy it will require.
If you have done any sort of training, then you are probably aware of the aerobic and anaerobic systems.
People often associate conditioning with the aerobic and anaerobic systems and think of aerobic as slow cardio and anaerobic as fast intense exercise. Well that may be true to an extent, conditioning is a lot more complex than one may think.
Without getting into crazy detail and to keep things sweet and simple, the aerobic energy system utilizes oxygen to produce ATP and is responsible for long-term energy production. The anaerobic system does not rely on oxygen for energy production and can produce tremendous amounts of power but only for short bouts before fatigue sets in. (3)During longer exercise the aerobic system begins to provide the majority of energy supply within the first few minutes, and the anaerobic system fatigues much faster than the aerobic system. (3)
Check out this graph from Joel Jamieson and The Ultimate Guide to MMA Conditioning
Which is why it is important for athletes to understand how the aerobic system can help for long term athletic development and success. On the general side of conditioning, it is important to note that the aerobic system is far more than just jumping on a cardio machine for 30 minutes and calling it quits.
Now that you understand the basics of conditioning lets talk about how to train the systems.
Training The Cardio System
Last year I had the opportunity to get coached by some of the best endurance athletes in the industry by the team over at Complete Human Performance. One of the most important aspects of my training aside from lifting when I decided to compete in a powerlifting meet was training the cardiovascular system.
As you can see per the photo, the most useful method was training at a constant heart rate for 45-90 minutes in order to improve the efficiency of my heart.
Why is this important?
The less work your heart has to do to pump blood, the better your energy production will be due to the airflow of oxygen.
How can you do it?
Anything that will keep the heart rate at a low constant pace will work, however the key is to keep the heart rate at around 120-130 for a steady time. Most people will do just fine with walking up a steep hill, riding a bike, or pushing a sled at a lower rate, but there are many ways you can train at a slow steady rate.
The only stipulation is that you should perform an exercise or a combination of excercises at a very low intensity that lasts around 30-90 minutes and keeps the heart rate steady at or around 120-140 beats per minute.
Trust me when I say this, if you are use to being competitive and not teaching yourself to go slow at something this is very challenging to do.
Now that we covered the basics of the aerobic system lets talk anaerobic system.
As with the myth associated with cardio and the aerobic system, I’m sure you’ve probably heard that high intensity training (HITT) crushes the anaerobic system and is the best for conditioning.
While that may be true to an extent, the anaerobic system is a lot more complex.
Your body has two anaerobic systems: the anaerobic lactic system and anaerobic alatic system. (3)These systems can regenerate energy much faster than the aerobic system but fatigue a lot faster, which is why some boxers or fighters appear better conditioned than others.
Without getting too geeky and sciency on you, your aerobic alactic system can produce energy for around 10-12 seconds before it can no longer produce ATP, and the alactic system can go for just about 1 minute before fatigue. (3)
Because a lot of sports require more than just one minute of conditioning, it is important as an athlete to understand the difference. Even if you are not an athlete, understanding what happens when the body is fatigued is also an integral part of a successful training program.
No matter what you do in life, the more conditioned you are the more power you will be able to generate and the more energy you will have when you are at that last point of exhaustion.
How Do I Improve Anaerobic Capacity
There are many methods one can use, but I like to use it in a form of strength training. Essentially what you will be doing is max effort compound lifts which will help improve both fast and slow twitch fibers by increasing the nervous system and function of muscle fibers.
While there are a bunch of different ways to get conditioning in, here is one of my favorites and some guidelines that I have found to be the most useful and successful.
Choose mulit-joint movements like the squat, deadlift, bench press, pull-ups ect. You’ll want to choose 2-3 exercises per workout and perform the routine no more than 2x’s a week. The weight you will want to choose will be a weight you can lift for 3-5 reps, and you will want to rest for at least 5 minutes between each set.
Lifting heavy causes the the production of hormones which is a common benefit often overlooked with strength training. The thing here to note is that this type of training can be taxing on the joints and nervous system so it is only recommended to do once or twice a week for maximum effect .
Something like this Front Squat Chin-up Combo for 5×5
Wrapping Things Up
Cardio confusion is all over the place. Research shows that the more conditioned your aerobic system is, the better you are able to perform. Being conditioned is a lot more than just running for hours on end, or performing sprints for days. If you want to go that extra edge, a combination of both aerobic and anaerobic training will help keep you healthy and ready for that next edge.
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- ACE Fitness. When is Metabolic Conditioning The Right Choice. https://www.acefitness.org/certifiednewsarticle/2913/when-is-metabolic-conditioning-the-right-choice/
2. Half., G. , Triplet, T. Essentials of Strength and Conditioning 4ed. National Strength and Conditioning Association.
3. Jamieson. J. Ultimate Guide to MMA Conditioning.