The phrase metcon workout might sound like the U.S. Department of Defense has gone into the fitness business, but rest assured, this popular style of training has nothing to do with the military. It's an abbreviation for metabolic conditioning, and it's a great way to shake up your stale cardio routine.
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We brought the experts in to help break down what exactly metcon workouts look like, what you'll get out of them and how you can weave them into your fitness regimen.
Read more: 4 Benchmark CrossFit Workouts To Try
What Is a Metcon Workout?
At its most basic, "metcon more or less means cardio," says Ian Elwood, CSCS, CF-1, founder of Mission MVNT. But to really understand this type of workout, you have to get a bit science-y and dig into ATP production and the three metabolic pathways.
Adenosine triphosphate (ATP), is a molecule that fuels everything you do, from washing the dishing and walking up stairs to lifting and running. "The body has three different energy systems it can use to get ATP, depending on the specific demand," Elwood says.
One fuels the body with ATP during short-bursts of effort under 10 seconds (say, a one-rep max attempt). Another supplies the body with ATP for activities lasting between 10 and 90 seconds, like a 400-meter sprint. And the last one is required for any endurance work (think: half-marathon).
While one of the energy systems will be the queen bee during any given exercise, the other two pathways act as helper bees. "A workout may focus on one of the three pathways, but it's still using the other two to some degree," Elwood says.
So, what does this have to do with metcons? According to Elwood, "a metcon is any workout that builds up your capacity in one or more of these three energy systems."
If that sounds really general, that's because it is. "HIIT can be a metcon, a 5K row can be a metcon, a long chipper workout can be a metcon, a lifting session and a couplet or triplet can all be considered metcons," he says.
The Benefits of Metcons
Considering almost any type of workout can be categorized as a metcon — and exercising has been shown to improve brain health and heart health, reduce risk of stroke and many types of cancers, lower blood pressure and support weight loss — it shouldn't be surprising that metcons offer many of the same benefits.
"Better cardiovascular capacity one of the main perks of metcons," Elwood says. Yes, that means a healthy, happy heart, but it also means a greater capacity to do work in and out of the gym, he says. Things like climbing stairs, walking the dog and putting away groceries all become easier with regular metabolic training. And of course, improved cardio capacity can help you crush any run race, CrossFit class or mud run.
"Taxing your energy systems in the way metcons do is going to cause your body to high amount of calories in a short amount of time," says Debra Atkinson, CSCS, CEO of Flipping 50, an online platform dedicated to helping folks over the age of 50 reach their fitness goals.
In fact, she says that these workouts increase excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), which is science-speak for "you're burning a lot of calories even after you leave the gym." (This is sometimes called the after-burn effect.) The result, long-term, is improved body composition and reduced body fat, Atkinson says.
Tony Carvajal CF-L1, an RSP Nutrition Athlete adds that many metcons include weighted exercises that can build lean muscle mass. "Muscle is a metabolically active tissue that helps you burn more calories even at rest." Building muscle compounds the fat-burning benefits of this kind of workout, he says.
How to Tailor Metcons to Your Fitness Goals
Because as Elwood says, "there are many different ways to 'do' a metcon workout," the best metcon workouts for you depends on your goals.
Build strength: If you want to increase the amount of weight you can lift in one attempt (your one-rep max or 1RM), you'll need a workout that has you lifting 1 rep at 95 to 98 percent of of your current 1RM every 3 minutes for 15 minutes.
Increase sprint speed: If you're training for a 400-meter run race, or 100-meter swim, you're going to want to prioritize something like one minute of maxed-out barbell thrusters, then four minutes of rest, followed by one minute of maxed-out front squats, and four minutes of rest.
Improve endurance: Do one activity (rowing, running, ski erg, jump rope) for a prolonged period of time, Elwood says.
What Make CrossFit Metcons Different
If you're looking for a workout that's going to give you the biggest bang for your buck, opt for workouts that emphasize multiple systems. Workouts that place equal emphasis on two or more energy systems are often known as "mixed-mode metcon workouts," or "CrossFit metcons."
CrossFit metcons, according to a July 2008 issue of The CrossFit Journal, are metabolically demanding combinations of full-body, multi-joint, high-power movements that typically challenge all muscle fiber types and all energy systems at once.
Most CrossFit Benchmark workouts like Fran (21-15-9 reps of thrusters and pull-ups), Cindy (20-minute AMRAP of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, 15 air squats) and Grace (30 cleans and jerks for time) tap into multiple energy system and fall into this category.
Does that mean there's a difference between a CrossFit metcon and a metcon? Kind of. While all CrossFit metcons fall under the umbrella of metcons, a regular metcon doesn't always meet the CrossFit criteria — a CrossFit metcon always uses all the energy systems equally.
The best way to incorporate CrossFit metcons into your routine is to join a CrossFit box, Elwood says. "Trained CrossFit coaches know how to program to vary the movements, intensity, work-to-rest ratios and weights to keep you injury-free."
"Just make sure to rest at least two days a week to allow your body to recover from metcon training," Carvajal says.
Read more: 3 Challenging CrossFit AMRAPs to Try ASAP
So Which Is Better: Regular Metcons or CrossFit Metcons?
If you're an Olympic Lifter, 400-meter sprinter or triathlete, a workout routine that primarily features metcons that prioritize the energy system your event taps into is going to be the most beneficial.
However, if you're looking to become an overall fitter, healthier, more well-rounded athlete, Elwood says, "instead of biasing one energy system over the other, your focus should be on building capacity overall." And for that, CrossFit metcons are best.
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