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A Metcon workout is the best way to pump up your whole body in 20 minutes

Zoe Weiner

Zoe WeinerApril 7, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images/ SrdjanPav

If there’s one thing the fitness world loves, it’s using a buzzy acronym to describe a workout. We’ve got HIIT (high intensity interval training), EMOM (“every minute on the minute”) circuits, and AMRAP (“as many reps as possible”), each of which you’ll likely hear thrown around in your usual strength-training classes. And one more term worth adding to your fitness glossary? Metcon workouts, which are one of the best ways to give your body exactly what it needs.

Metcon, which stands for “metabolic conditioning” is a catch-all term to describe any type of exercise regimen that helps to improve a person’s fitness and energy output. “These workouts consist of anaerobic weight training exercises with aerobic intervals in between, and this combination works to target multiple energy systems in one workout,” says Kristine Ciardiello, a Pilates and group fitness instructor at Privé-Swiss Fitness. The goal of the workout is to improve the delivery of the nutrients to the body so that the body works more efficiently.” 

What is a Metcon workout?

Metcon has been around for a while, but has become increasingly popular with the rise of CrossFit. According to Justen Sjong, senior director of route setting and programs at El Cap, these sessions involve creating “short, intense demands of the body’s use of energy,” similar to a HIIT workout. So, for example, you might do four or five rounds of push-ups, followed by a few rounds of squats, followed by an intense five-minute session on the treadmill. “The idea is to engage different muscle groups, for short spurts, that will keep your metabolism active and always anticipating what’s next,” he says. Generally, these workouts pair some form of conventional cardio exercise with bodyweight or loaded exercise so that you’re getting everything done in one fell swoop.

The benefits of a Metcon workout

1. They’re quick

Because of how intense they are, you can get a lot of bang for your buck from a Metcon workout in a short amount of time. The sweet spot for targeting aerobic endurance, lactate threshold, and VO2 Max (a measure of how much oxygen the lungs can hold at once) is 15 to 25 minutes, says sport performance coach Alex Harrison, PhD, of  Renaissance Periodization, but you can still get a good workout in in under 10 minutes if you use the method correctly.

2. They hit both your aerobic and anaerobic systems

There are two different types of exercises you can do—aerobic and anaerobic—and a Metcon workout falls into both categories. Aerobic exercises are characterize by the continuous, rhythmic movement of large muscle groups, while anaerobic exercises are “intense physical activity of very short duration, fueled by the energy sources within the contracting muscles and independent of the use of inhaled oxygen as an energy source,” according to the American College of Sports Medicine. By targeting the two systems in the course of a single session, a Metcon workout is essentially giving your body everything it needs.

3. They boost your VO2 Max

According to pros, your VO2 Max—which is the maximum amount of oxygen you have access to during intense forms of exercise—is one of the most important metrics for measuring your fitness goals, because it indicates your overall physical potential. Metcon workouts help to increase this number, says Dr. Harrison, and can thus increase your level of total fitness.

4. They work your whole body

Since the whole point of a Metcon workout is to keep your muscles guessing, they wind up targeting your entire body—and giving you a solid burst of cardio—in a short period of time.

The risks of a Metcon workout

There are risks to hurting yourself with any exercise routine, and things become compounded when you’re doing the type of ultra-intense moves that Metcon calls for. “You’re asking people to perform high-intensity, often technically complex movements under states of high levels of fatigue,” says Dr. Harrison. “Even the most well-trained athletes will have some degree of technical breakdown and be at an increased injury risk due to the pairing of exhaustion, loading, and technical complexity.” To combat this, stick with basic movements and remember that it’s not a race—do things as quickly as possible without sacrificing your form.

How to get started with a Metcon workout

First things first: You need to build up to the level of intensity associated with Metcon, so it’s important to start slow. “Start incorporating Metcon into your regular workouts, maybe twice a week, and not on consecutive days,” says Song. As you become more familiar with the way these routines work, you can start doing them for or five times a week. But, he cautions, there is a such thing as too much of a good thing. “With Metcon, if you do it too frequently you’ll start losing overall endurance and strength,” he says. That’s why it’s important to mix your routines up with longer form workout—think about supplementing your workouts with some Metcon, not the other way around.”

While having the ability to fully customize your Metcon workout is great, it’s important that you’re doing so the right way. “You might inadvertently be limiting your range by overemphasizing one muscle group while ignoring another,” says Song. He suggests consulting a trainer before trying it on your own, and learning proper form so that you can then do things independently.  “I’m a big fan of keeping routines simple, if challenging, by making the focus on the intensity and variety, not pushing yourself,” he says.

How to put together a Metcon workout

When it comes to creating a Metcon workout of your own, the most important thing to think about is balance. “You want to make sure you tone and strengthen your lower body, upper body, and core,” says Song. According to Dr. Harrison, a well-rounded routine should include each of the following:

1. An aerobic component

  • Running
  • Cycling
  • Rowing
  • Swimming
  • Jumping Rope

2. A gymnastic component

  • Burpees
  • Pull-ups
  • Handstand Push-ups

3. A continuous weighted component

  • Walking lunges
  • Sled drags and pushes
  • Tire flips
  • Carries

4. A heavier weighted component

  • Cleans
  • Snatches
  • Squats
  • Pulls
  • Presses

This apartment-friendly HIIT workout won’t disturb your downstairs neighbors, and this 20-minute Pilates session is perfect for when you just need to move.

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