Metabolic Conditioning

In my previous post, I discussed the use of interval training to increase the intensity of cardio workouts.  Today, I’ll give an example of interval training used to add a cardio aspect to strength training.  There have been numerous examples of conditioning intervals in past posts, but a definition hasn’t been given.  Here it is:

Metabolic conditioning is the use of conditioning exercises to increase the storage and delivery of energy for any exercise.  The body uses three energy systems; the oxidative, the glycolytic, and the phosphagen.  The oxidative system creates energy for low-powered activities that last more than a few minutes, the glycolytic system produces energy for mid-powered activities lasting up to a few minutes, and the phosphagen system produces power for high-powered activities lasting up to 10 seconds.  When relating this systems to running activities, the phosphagen system would be responsible for a 50 yard dash, the glycolytic system responsible for a 400m sprint, and the oxidative system provides power for the half marathon.

Making these relations to resistance training is a little more difficult.  Considering high-powered activities, great examples would be a 1RM deadlift or an barbell snatch.  Low-powered activities can be stereotyped as the folks on the hip abductor doing sets of 50 while reading People magazine.  Now without the sarcasm, it’s hard to describe an example of a strength training exercise that uses the oxidative system on it’s own, but I suppose that a 3 minute set of crunches would count.  (Not that you should be doing crunches anyway, right?!)  It’s harder, however, to assess the contribution of the glycolytic system.  The example that most people can relate to the easiest would probably be using small rest periods between sets; eventually, that ‘burn’ that builds up, due to lactate, is evidence of glycolysis.

With metabolic conditioning, we’re targeting the glycolytic system.  Anaerobic respiration, specifically.   Now, I’m sure that very few people want an entire explanation of this, so I’ll keep it concise.  If you train your body to do more work without oxygen, you’ll also increase your ability to do work with oxygen.  Now here’s a cool looking picture that explains glycolysis:

The main rules of Metabolic Conditioning are fairly simple.  Essentially, you’re in a battle with your body.  To reap the benefits of this form of cardio exercise, you need to do one thing:  Work at an intensity higher than your  VO2 Max.  Did you just say “How the hell do I know what my VO2 Max is?!”  Well without going into a lab and getting it tested, you don’t really know.  However, you can use the following numbers:  For the untrained individual, anaerobic threshold is approximately 60% of your maximum heart rate; for the trained it’s approximately 85%.  If you’re working at levels of intensity higher than that, your body is producing lactate faster than it can clear it, meaning that that level of work is unsustainable.  This is exactly what we want!

We’re training the body to get better at clearing lactate.  From an athletic standpoint, this is very beneficial.  From an everything-else standpoint, it’s equally as good!  Metabolic conditioning programs are notoriously good at stripping fat, increasing lean muscle mass, and increasing athleticism.  However, a huge part of this is in exercise selection.  Exercise selection is obviously important overall, but I think it’s extra important in metabolic conditioning.  If we’re trying to use a method of training that is the most efficient out there, why would we want to use exercises that don’t compliment this goal?  It makes perfect sense.  In light of this idea, I have an example of a metabolic finisher that I performed on Friday afternoon, using three exercises; the reverse lunge, the swing, and jumping rope.  In 15 minutes, I did 4 sets, which comprised of 12 reverse lunges (6 per leg), 20 dumbbell swings (40lb dumbbell), and a minute of jumping rope.

The reverse lunge, with a 95lb barbell in the rack position, is a great exercise.  Firstly, it’s unilateral, so it’s functional because we’re working one leg at a time.  By using a reverse lunge, we don’t deal with the decelerative forces of  the forwards lunge, and the bar position, across the clavicles, provides a great postural cue; you either keep your chest up, or you dump the bar forward.  Additionally, by alternating the leg that’s stepping back, there’s a high cardiovascular demand to this exercise.

The swing is a staple of exercise of kettlebell classes.  I don’t have a kettlebell, so I held a 40lb dumbbell by the end plate.  To expound all of the benefits of the swing would entail a post that I’m not qualified (yet!) to write, but there are some obvious bullet points.  The swing requires a hip hinge to be performed correctly; in a society with terrible glute functioning and poor hip control, this is really important.  I liked the swings for Friday because I was performing a hip-dominant workout, and this reinforces the techniques I was using all day.  Furthermore, because of the ‘snap’ required to propel the weight up and way, you must forcefully contract your glutes to properly perform each rep.  This forceful contraction is a powerful nervous system stimulus, so we’re looking at neurological, musculoskeletal, postural, and aerobic benefits.  Pretty well rounded exercise, huh?

She has great...posture.

Often, past elementary school and ‘Jump Rope for Heart‘ fundraisers, jumping rope is seen as elementary and easy.  It’s dismissed by almost everyone, save boxers, when it’s a fantastic conditioning tool!  That may help explain why boxers have fantastic conditioning.)  I like jumping rope for reasons other than the cardiovascular benefits, even though that’s why it’s being used as the 3rd exercise in this set.  It’s nearly impossible to jump rope with poor posture; You’ll tend to catch yourself in the toes, because you’re hunched forward.  Nobody wants to suck at jumping rope, so you’re forced to keep your chest tall, pull your shoulder blades down and back, and keep your hips in a neutral alignment.  Ah, things we look for in every exercise; perfect!  In addition to this postural benefit of jumping rope, it’s a low-grade plyometric.  Think about how many times you’re jumping in a minute!  This bouncing action will benefit the muscles of your lower legs, the central nervous system which coordinates this complex movement as well as your skeletal system, which increases bone density in response to the impact.  Woah, there’s a lot going on here too!

If you add up the total number of benefits of this circuit, you’ll see that it burns fat, builds muscle, reinforces technique, reinforces posture in each exercise, increases bone density, and trains the central nervous system.  What does your cardio do for you?

Hopefully, the benefits of this style of training is becoming more evident each time it comes up, both in my blog, but in the exercise world and media in general.  Everybody can benefit from exercising in this manner, and I’d love to get some feedback on finishers and workouts that have been tried by anybody who’s reading!

3 Replies to “Metabolic Conditioning”

  1. greeting from brazil

    very interesting your metabolic set up!!! unfortaneely here in brazil some “toys” like kettlebell isnt so popular but im going to try to perform with a dumbbell like you proposed

    1. Fabiano, I’ve learned a ton since then! Unfortunately, at most gyms in the US, the ‘toys’ aren’t that popular either. The guys I train with have been experimenting with different sled set ups to push and pull, using TRX’s, weight plates, towels, and even a preacher bench. To work around the equipment issue, trying using bodyweight, dumbbells, and barbells, to create metabolic circuits.

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