MetCon – The Way To Get Fitter Faster

US Army drills include Tabata workouts
US Soldier Performing Intensive Exercise

The fitness industry is full of strange and often bewildering terms that rarely do little more than confuse. One such terms is Metabolic Conditioning (MetCon). If you have come across this term before, it was probably from someone telling you that this is what you need to do to get fit and lose weight. But why? What does it mean?

Metabolic Conditioning (often shortened to MetCon) is actually very simple. It has been adopted by the CrossFit community and it refers to physical exercise that increases your body’s ability to transport oxygen from the lungs to your cells and then use this to generate the energy needed to move your muscles. OK, so how is this different from cardiovascular fitness which we are all taught in school? Well, in a way it is the same – but more efficient …..

3 Metabolic Pathways

Let’s first explain what metabolism really is. Some people say they have a fast or a slow metabolism (and blame this for an inability to lose fat). Metabolism is the name for the biological process which occurs in all the cells of the human body – the process of using chemicals to create energy that can be used to move.

There are 3 Metabolic Pathways in the human body – each uses a different method to generate energy:

  • Phosphagen pathway – anaerobic
  • Glycolytic pathway – anaerobic
  • Oxidative pathway – aerobic

Each pathway provides energy at different times during activity. Phosphagen is responsible for providing energy over a very short period – a matter of seconds. Glycolytic provides energy for a few minutes and the Oxidative pathway provides energy for low intensity movements and can last for more than a few minutes. You are probably familiar with the more common terms – anaerobic and aerobic.

The key difference between these 3 pathways is that it is only the Oxidative pathway that is aerobic, and so needs oxygen from the lungs to generate more energy. The two anaerobic methods are not sustainable over a long period of time, however, they are vital for movement. Sprinters and powerlifters rely on the anaerobic pathways for their energy, as the muscles explode into activity but use up the stored energy very quickly.

So, Metabolic Conditioning is just exercising in such a way that you prompt your body to become more efficient at all forms of metabolism. Circuit training can provide an effective form of metabolic conditioning. Going for those long steady runs improves cardiovascular fitness and your aerobic fitness, but it does not do much to improve the functioning of the Phosphagen and Glycolytic pathways. Why is this important?

Research by sports scientists, namely prof. Tabata from Japan, has shown that all athletes benefit from a more complete fitness system. Here is a short explanation of Tabata training.

Tabata and Interval Training for Faster Weight Loss and Fitness

Why Tabata training?

It is named after the sports scientist Professor Izumi Tabata, who investigated different training methods and their fat burning and fitness potentials at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan. Prof. Tabata specializes in Biomechanics and Exercise Physiology.

For those who are always using the excuse that there is not enough time to exercise, there is a new solution – Tabata Training.

Tabata training is a form of intensive interval training which concentrates effort into 20 second bursts of highly intense activity. This may not seem much, but imagine working at the same intensity as Usain Bolt sprinting 200m, then repeat this several times per workout, and you will soon realize that Tabata Training can be very demanding on the body.

Tabata training is not just for aerobic training though, it can also be used for anaerobic exercise (weight training). The aim is to burn maximum fat while working out by raising heart rates to the max. Intervals of 20 seconds intensive activity is followed by 10 seconds of rest, with the exercise repeated eight times. Kettlebell circuits are often done in Tabata style, with 20 seconds of swings followed by a short rest.

Benefits of Tabata Training

Tabata training has been shown to provide several benefits over longer and steadier workouts.

  • Excellent for fat burning as it increases metabolism and concentrates on working all muscles
  • Time efficient exercise – more time for relaxation!
  • Increases calories burnt throughout the day due to the metabolism effect.
  • Improves mental focus and determination

The best exercises to use with Tabata training are those that use more than one muscle group at a time (i.e. compound training). Perform squats, lunges, deadlifts, cycling (spinning), rowing or skipping. The easiest way to do Tabata training is to use a machine with a timer, such as a rowing machine, stationary bike or elliptical / cross trainer. These all allow you to workout at maximum intensity for set periods of time without interruption.

Tabata Interval Workout

The easiest way to start Tabata training is with a running workout. Warm up first with gentle jogging for 10 minutes, then increase running speed to a sprint for 20 seconds – this should be at maximum intensity.

Imagine you are in the Olympic’s 200m final, or are being chased by a pack of wolves, whichever motivates you the most. At the end of the 20 seconds rest for 10 seconds with a slow walk. Then repeat another seven times.

If you are running in a park it is easier to ensure that you always have a clear route ahead, just be careful when running on pavements – other people tend to get in the way and do not appreciate being bowled over, which is why it is often better to use a machine in a gym.

400m Sprint Intervals

Many athletes perform 400m sprint intervals to improve fitness. Tennis players, middle distance runners, martial artists and footballers all utilise this distance. Why? A 400m sprint is short enough to mean that you are still sprinting (running as fast as possible) while long enough to lead to lactic acid build up. By running this distance over and over you train your body to deal with oxygen depletion and lactic acid build up – you get fitter.

Tabata Intensive Circuit Training Workout

This simple routine is a great way to do a full body workout in a short time. Circuit training by its nature is a form of Tabata training as you perform an exercise, that is generally intensive, and then rest for a short period. In this circuit you should perform each exercise at full intensity for 20 seconds.

To really get the heart rate high you could do squat jumps instead of standard squats and mountain climbers instead of crunches.

  1. Skipping for 20 seconds
  2. Press ups – as many as possible in 20 seconds
  3. Squats – ensure that you keep good form.
  4. Sit ups – either full or crunches
  5. Star Jumps / Jumping Jacks

Repeat the circuit 8 times if possible. This circuit should take 20 minutes. However you may find that you cannot complete all eight circuits until you have improved your fitness level.

New Research on Intensive Interval Training and Fitness

Following on from Prof. Tabata’s work, sports scientists at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, examined different methods of exercising and concluded that high intensity training is better than long, steady workouts. Lead researcher Martin J. Gibala published his findings in the Journal of Physiology.

They found that the best method for fitness and weight loss was one minute of intensity followed by one minute recovery. Whether it is running, cycling, rowing or using a cross trainer, subjects improved best when working at maximum intensity for 1 minute, then resting. These sessions need only be 20 minutes, which is just 10 minutes of high intensity training.

“Intensity Training a time-efficient but safe alternative to traditional types of moderate long-term exercise.” Prof. Martin J. Gibal.

The study used exercise bikes, and asked subjects to peddle at maximum intensity for 60 seconds. The results showed that muscular development was as good in this short time as in subjects that did endurance training.

When exercising at high intensity you should aim to increase your heart rate to the maximum safe level. This in essence requires you to be sprinting flat-out. Your whole body needs to be working and totally focused on the task. If you can talk while doing this, you are not sprinting at high intensity. It will probably hurt as lactic acid builds up in this time, but keep pushing yourself until the recovery minute starts.

This research also explains why some fitness classes, such as martial arts, are so effective at getting people fit and helping with weight loss. Short burst of energy followed by recovery periods are common in martial arts classes. Circuit training is another great way to do high intensity interval training. Our understanding of metabolic conditioning to improve the way the 3 different metabolic pathways works helps to explain this.

Interval Training Workouts For 20 Minutes A Day

Using the principle of Tabata Metabolic Conditioning it is possible to create a perfect circuit training routine to improve fitness and aid faster weight loss. This is one that includes both core strength work and cardiovascular exercise.

It is important to understand the purpose and importance of increasing your cardiovascular exercise as well as your strength training. The benefits of strength training are easy to see – improved muscle tone and bone density, increase metabolism and more explosive power. Interval Training is the key to improving cardio fitness in just 20 minutes each session. It can be applied to many different forms of cardio training, including boxing, running and cycling.

The concept is simply shorter but more intensive workouts. This is accomplished by periods of increased work rate for short intervals, usually between 60 seconds and a few minutes, followed by easier exercise for a few minutes. The aim is to train in this fashion for a period of 20 minutes, so this could be 5 two-minute intensive intervals partnered with 5 two-minute breathers.

Interval training is perfect for running. If you’re working out on a treadmill or running outdoors, it’s the same routine.

Start out with a warm up jog followed by two minutes running at a more challenging pace. This won’t be your maximum speed, because you have to maintain it for two minutes, but a pace that will be very hard for you. You then follow this with two minutes of either a walk or a very slow jog. Repeat four more times and you’ve got yourself an effective cardio workout in only 20 minutes.

This concept can be applied to just about any type of exercise, from sparring, running, swimming or cycling: two minutes hard, two minutes easy, repeat four more times. Or one minute hard, one minute easy, repeat nine more times.

Following a simple interval routine such as this will get your heart rate up and your blood flowing, and you will quickly improve your fitness and be rewarded with superior health.

Of course, interval training and circuit training are not only excellent for your cardio system, but they also are an excellent way for people to reduce weight, and trim down stomach fat.

For many people the goal of an exercise regime is to lose some weight and look fitter and healthier, and interval training combined with basic weight training is one of the best ways to lose that gut and tone up muscles.

Is Metabolic Conditioning Just for the Superfit?

One criticism of this approach is that Metabolic Conditioning is only suitable for those who are already fit. People who are extremely overweight and have not exercise for years, or decades, cannot benefit from an intensive exercise routine.

However, case study evidence does not support this. People who are very unfit may benefit even more from interval training because they do not need to workout for such long periods to start with, which means that the total exertion on their body may be reduced. Also, by improving the function of the metabolic pathways early on, fitness improvements may be easier to attain.

The key to getting fitter is to always push yourself to work harder – to do more, to lift more. As soon as one metabolic pathway fails your body slows down. By improving these early you may speed up your fitness progress and this could motivate you to carry on with the workouts.

To be honest, it is still not entirely clear how the process works, especially on a psychological level. But the evidence does support its effectiveness. So, start building some Metabolic Conditioning into your fitness workouts.

A final point to consider though – the best way for the body is not always the best way for an individual. As we said in our article What is the Best Exercise to Help Lose Weight?, the most important questions really are “what is the best type of exercise for you?” and that to maintain fitness in the long term, it is vital that you find activities that you enjoy so that exercise becomes a pleasure and a part of your life rather than a chore.

HIIT / Tabata / Metabolic Conditioning may well be the best way to get fit quick, to improve sporting performance and lose fat fast, but if you enjoy country walks and playing badminton, and this is keeping you in good health, then carry on!


“Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max” by Tabata I, Nishimura K, Kouzaki M, et al. (1996). Med Sci Sports Exerc 28 (10): 1327–30.

“Short-term sprint interval versus traditional endurance training: similar initial adaptations in human skeletal muscle and exercise performance”. By Martin J. Gibala, Jonathan P. Little, Martin van Essen, Geoffrey P. Wilkin, Kirsten A. Burgomaster, Adeel Safdar, Sandeep Raha and Mark A. Tarnopolsky. September 15, 2006 The Journal of Physiology, 575, 901-911.

“A practical model of low-volume high-intensity interval training induces mitochondrial biogenesis in human skeletal muscle: potential mechanisms”. By Jonathan P. Little, Adeel Safdar, Geoffrey P. Wilkin, Mark A. Tarnopolsky and Martin J. Gibala. J Physiol jphysiol. 2009.181743; doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2009.181743

“Short-term sprint interval versus traditional endurance training: similar initial adaptations in human skeletal muscle and exercise performance”. By Martin J. Gibala, Jonathan P. Little, Martin van Essen, Geoffrey P. Wilkin, Kirsten A. Burgomaster, Adeel Safdar, Sandeep Raha and Mark A. Tarnopolsky. September 15, 2006 The Journal of Physiology, 575, 901-911.

“A practical model of low-volume high-intensity interval training induces mitochondrial biogenesis in human skeletal muscle: potential mechanisms” J Physiol jphysiol. 2009.181743; doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2009.181743. Abstract

“Strength and Conditioning for Reality Fighting” by John Amtmann. National Strength & Conditioning Association Volume 25, Number 2, pages 67–72

“Metabolic Conditioning” by Greg Glassman. CrossFit Journal Article Reprint. First Published in CrossFit Journal Issue 10 – June 2003.

Photo by Expertinfantry

One Comment on “MetCon – The Way To Get Fitter Faster”

  1. Thank you very much, the information give is very helpful. Looking forward for more exciting news. Cheers, Lerato.

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