You may have heard about metabolic conditioning (or MetCon), a type of exercise popularized by programs like CrossFit, Insanity, Hyrox, and P90X. The marketing behind these workouts promises that metabolic conditioning can help improve the efficiency of your metabolism — i.e., the way your body uses and stores energy. But what exactly is MetCon, and how can you incorporate it into your fitness routine for weight loss and improved metabolic health?
What is metabolic conditioning?
Metabolic conditioning is a type of moderate-to-high-intensity workout designed to improve your endurance, strength, and body composition by increasing the efficiency of your metabolism . It involves a structured set of exercises, usually no more than 20 minutes per session, that target specific metabolic pathways (or energy systems), with the aim of strengthening them over time. But to understand how this works, it’s helpful to take a step back first and examine what these energy systems are, and how they’re activated.
Your body’s three energy systems
Your body transforms the food you eat into energy to power all the chemical reactions it needs to survive. This happens on a cellular level: the mitochondria in your cells turn glucose (a simple sugar that comes from carbohydrates) into ATP (adenosine triphosphate), an energy molecule that powers all chemical reactions in the body. Your muscles and brain require significant amounts of ATP, but exactly how much they need changes depending on the activity you’re doing .
When you exercise, your muscles need more energy than they do at rest, but the type of exercise affects how your body supplies your muscles with ATP — i.e., the energy system that gets activated.
There are three pathways that your body can use to supply energy to your cells :
- The long-term pathway (a.k.a., the oxidative/aerobic system). Your body uses this when you do low-intensity, continuous exercises, like cycling, jogging, or swimming.
- The short-term pathway (a.k.a., the glycolytic system). Your body uses this when you do moderate-intensity exercises that last between ~30-90 seconds, like lifting weights and slower resistance exercises, though the glycolytic pathway also plays a role in providing energy for high-intensity exercises (see below) .
- The immediate pathway (a.k.a., the phosphagen system). Your body uses this — and the glycolytic system as well — when you do high-intensity exercises in short, explosive bursts, like sprints, jumps, and HIIT.
In other words, metabolic conditioning workouts aim to target each of these pathways to gradually maximize their function — improving your ability to store and use energy. So while MetCon may resemble familiar aspects of HIIT, steady-state cardio/aerobic exercise, and circuit training, it differs in that it combines a variety of workout types (often using compound, functional movements) into one program in order to strengthen all three energy systems.
This variability is a key reason many people find MetCon to be so effective. If you’ve been working out regularly for a long time, you’re likely familiar with the experience of hitting a fitness plateau, where your body adapts to the volume or intensity of your workouts and your progress slows . Research suggests that periodization (i.e., intentionally switching up different exercise variables to “shock” the body), which is a key part of MetCon, can help you break past fitness plateaus, whether your goal is strength or muscle growth .
How does metabolic conditioning affect metabolic health?
Studies suggest that metabolic conditioning and MetCon-style training have promising metabolic health benefits. One small study of 13 overweight/obese adults with type 2 diabetes found that three weekly 8-20-minute sessions of functional high-intensity interval training led to lower fat mass and diastolic blood pressure, and improved insulin sensitivity, over the course of six weeks .
Another study looking at 26 active and healthy adult men and women found that 16 weeks of HIFT (i.e., MetCon training) at least twice per week led to lower body fat percentages across all participants .
While we don’t have a lot of research on the effects of metabolic conditioning specifically, exercise in general has well-documented benefits for metabolic health, including:
The takeaway? Metabolic conditioning combines all the aspects of aerobic, resistance, and HIIT workouts that can help you lose weight, improve your body composition, and increase your insulin sensitivity.
3 metabolic conditioning workouts for weight loss and insulin sensitivity
You don’t need to join a specific program that defines itself as “MetCon” to experience its metabolic health benefits — you can create your own workouts at home or the gym that improve your energy systems. Here are three workouts to incorporate into your routine, with tips on how often to do them and adjust the difficulty of each exercise.
1. AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) in 12 minutes:
- 10 burpees
- 3 kettlebell swings (choose a moderate weight, or use a heavy object you can safely grip)
- 10 side-to-side jumps
- 10 box jumps or step-ups (using a plyo box or sturdy bench)
Perform all three exercises back-to-back without rest. After completing one circuit, rest as little as possible (30-60 seconds) and start again. Your goal is to complete as many rounds as you can within the 12-minute window.
2. Bodyweight EMOM (every minute on the minute) in 9 minutes:
- 8 jump squats
- 8 pull-ups
- 8 pushups
- 8 bicycle crunches
- 8 jumping lunges
- 8 burpees
- 8 hanging knee-raises
- 8 Russian twists
- 8 lunges
To do an EMOM workout, set a one-minute timer or start your stopwatch. At the start of the minute, begin doing one of the exercises above (e.g., 15 squats). If it takes you 35 seconds to do those 15 squats, then you have 25 seconds (i.e., the rest of the minute) to rest. Once the minute is up, repeat with the second exercise, etc.
3. AMRAP/EMOM with weights in 12 minutes:
- 400-meter run
- 10 knee-highs
- 3 bench presses
- 20 jumping jacks
- 3 deadlifts
- 30 mountain climbers
- 3 squats
- 10 knee-highs
- 3 shoulder presses
- 20 jumping jacks
- 3 pull-ups
- 30 mountain climbers
Using either the AMRAP/EMOM format, do each of the above exercises, modifying the workout to your level and abilities. You can swap out specific movements if you want to target your upper body vs. lower body, or adjust the exercises if you prefer to use other gym equipment or weights like kettlebells, dumbbells, or clubs instead of a barbell.
MetCon workout frequency and modifications
If you’re just trying out MetCon or don’t already have a consistent exercise routine in place, start with one MetCon workout per week (8-20 minutes), see how you feel, and gradually work your way up to three per week. Since these workouts are moderate-to-high intensity, you want to make sure you’re giving your body enough time to rest in between sessions.
Once MetCon has become a part of your exercise routine, it’s easy to adjust workouts to meet your target activity levels or health goals. To make any of the above workouts easier or more challenging, you can try one of the following modifications:
- Adjust the number of repetitions.
- Make the total workout time shorter or longer.
- Swap out exercises for more challenging ones (i.e., instead of standard push-ups, do diamond pushups, single-leg pushups, or wide pushups).
- Add weights (body vest, ankle weights, etc.) or increase the weight of your dumbbells, kettlebells, or other equipment.
- Do modified versions of the exercises that work for you (i.e., instead of box jumps, do knee-highs or jumping jacks) if you find certain movements difficult or uncomfortable.
- Metabolic conditioning is a kind of circuit workout that combines aspects of HIIT, resistance training, and aerobic exercise with the aim of improving the way your body uses energy.
- Your body’s three energy systems are long-term (oxidative), short-term (glycolytic), and immediate (phosphagen). MetCon targets all three, especially short-term and immediate.
- Metabolic conditioning has been shown to improve body composition, help with fat loss, and increase insulin sensitivity over the course of 6-16 weeks.
- MetCon workouts typically follow an AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) or EMOM (every minute on the minute) format, with workouts lasting from 8-20 minutes.