In recent years, people have become more aware of different ways to train other than just lifting weights or just doing cardio.
On one end it is a great thing that we have moved away from the absolutes and have started to incorporate smarter training ideas.
Unfortunately, most people are taking the basic idea of something and taking it out of context.
One of these ideas is metabolic training or conditioning or METCON, etc.
I use metabolic training with my clients all of the time because it is a great way to train the body’s energy systems and enhance their fat loss efforts.
If you ask the average gym-goer what metabolic training is they will either have no clue, or will describe it as a workout that makes you ready to puke.
Some circuits are extremely difficult and if your food is timed poorly then you might feel sick from it but that does not paint the whole picture of metabolic training.
What is Metabolic Training?
Your metabolism is the sum of all of the chemical reactions that take place in the body. Metabolic training does not train your metabolism as a whole but it does train parts of it.
The body has 3 energy systems that utilize nutrients in order to provide fuel for the muscles. There are about a hundred different names for each system so I am going to just pick one and roll with it.
The first energy system is the ATP-CP. This is a system that is very short in duration and high in intensity. This system provides a lot of force in a short amount of time and uses up a lot of energy.
A typical bout utilizing this system is 6-10 seconds of all out effort. Think about near maximal lifts, 100m sprints, and power tests.
The main fuel for this system is ATP which is derived from creatine phosphate. We do not have a lot of this creatine phosphate which means that this energy system cannot be sustained for a long period of time.
The second energy system is the glycolytic system. This is our middle ground system where moderate bouts lasting up to ~90 seconds of moderate intensity.
This system uses carbohydrate and lactic acid as the main fuel source to help replenish ATP stores. If you have ever heard of lactic acid, threshold, or anerobic training this is the system we are talking about.
The last energy system is the phosphagen system which utilizes oxygen as its fuel source. This is a low intensity, long duration system as seen through long, slow distance cardio.
This system is capable of providing tons of ATP for the muscles while using up very little energy. Fat is the fuel source for this aerobic system but that is a misleading fact.
The phosphagen system is primarily fueled by fat and that is why we have the “fat burning” zones and other marketing ploys. When we sleep we are almost burning 100% fat.
Is the secret to fat loss sleep? No, because the total energy expenditure is insanely low. It is only the percentage that is high.
How Can I Use Metabolic Training?
For those that are competing in an event or competition, then all training efforts need to be built towards developing the primary system used for the sport.
Powerlifters do not put an emphasis on doing tons of cardio because that would cause competition among the energy systems.
Most athletes benefit from training in the first 2 systems. Typically, their sport required them to sprint and then take it easy for a few seconds before repeating the process. The length of a shift or work bout determines the system needed to train.
This can get confusing with a sport like soccer. Soccer players do not leave the field very often so one could say that their sport is aerobic since it lasts 90+ minutes. These athletes spend a lot of time standing around when the ball is elsewhere, making it a sport about repeated sprint ability.
For fat loss clients, metabolic training is probably being touted as the best method. More likely than not, it is just a term being used to describe a high intensity circuit.
High intensity circuits are great for fat loss because they use up a lot of calories in a short period of time. Performing these circuits through means of resistance training also helps maintain muscle mass, which long distance cardio does not.
Metabolic training on the other hand involves a systematic progression of work bouts, intensity, and rest periods in order to create a training effect. Developing a particular energy system over time is how metabolic training becomes effective.
Arbitrarily doing hard things to get the heart rate jacked up might be good for fat loss but it is not metabolic conditioning.
Benefits of Metabolic Training
The benefits of this type of training are that it provides the fuel to complete the activity or event you are competing in. It is necessary for competitive/recreational athletes.
Well developed energy systems can also have fat loss benefits because at rest the body will burn more calories when it is more highly trained.
The only problem is that there needs to be a system in place. Mixing and matching different energy systems on any given day is providing workouts and not training.
Pick one that is most like the demands of your activities and train it all the way through.