Saturday, 15 August 2009

In Defense Of Metabolic Conditioning, Part I: Theory

Today is the first installment in a three part Evolve Your Fitness series on metabolic conditioning workouts.  This series is brought to us courtesy of Russ Greene.  Russ has been doing CrossFit for nearly 7 years, he competed in both the 2007 and 2008 CrossFit Games, and has trained and helped train many athletes of all levels, backgrounds, occupations, and motivations.  He brings to Evolve Your Fitness the long view of the successes and failures of CrossFit and CrossFitters.


Part A: Theory


For better or for worse, metabolic conditioning circuits have come to define Crossfit in the eyes of the public as well as in the minds of many of its practitioners.  This is an oversimplification of Crossfit’s methodology, though it is to be expected since timed metcons are the most unique and thus distinctive aspect of Crossfit training.


In Crossfit lingo, we tend to group all workouts that last longer than a few seconds under the category of metabolic conditioning, or metcon.  This article uses that term as well, however, it’s important to note that good metabolic conditioning workout are not merely beneficial towards improving metabolic conditioning.  The most effective metcon workouts also involve many other aspects of fitness, from strength to accuracy.


Why only test muscular endurance and cardiovascular conditioning, when you can build the other eight aspects of fitness as well?  If our sole goal was to improve metabolic conditioning, we could achieve that objective with purely mono-modal activities such as sprinting, swimming, rowing, and skipping rope.  However, we would miss out on exercises such as high rep clean & jerks, kipping pullups, deadlifts, and muscle-ups, which test and develop an outstanding range of physical attributes.


In the past few years, we have seen two extremes develop with regards to their approach to metabolic conditioning: the metcon haters and the metcon addicts.  It is important to note that while both methods are effective, neither is optimal for developing the level of fitness that we pursue as CrossFitters.


Metcon Haters

Many people, both within and outside the Crossfit community, have criticized’s extensive use of metabolic conditioning workouts.  Instead, they advocate for a focus on higher-strength and skill gymnastics exercises, lower-repetition Olympic weightlifting, and short-duration sprinting. 


We at Evolve Your Fitness are fervent supporters of heavy lifting, short sprints, and higher-skill/higher-strength gymnastics training.  On the other hand, we also recognize that CrossFit’s objective of increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains, as well as the demands of real life, require competency in longer-term activities.  For example, hiking, most ball sports, and military selection courses all necessitate that an athlete endure oxidative demands far in excess of Olympic weightlifting, short sprints, or gymnastics. 


If you want to be fit for CrossFit, or the unforeseeable demands of life, job, or sport, you need to be comfortable with and effective at activities lasting 30 seconds, 30 minutes, and even several hours.  This level of competency is not possible without frequent exposure to 15-20 minute workouts and occasional training in significantly longer workouts.  Furthermore, it is possible to train these longer workouts and still be a very strong and powerful athlete.  Ask Mikko Salo, who performs three metabolic conditioning workouts every training day, deadlifts 506 lbs., and won the CrossFit Games.


Metcon Addicts

On the other hand, we have also seen many CrossFitters err in the opposite direction to those above.  They often perform half-hour or longer metcon workouts like Murph and Eva 4-5 times a week, with very little focused strength and power training.  This is sub-optimal programming as well.


Such trainees tend to become addicted to the combined pain and euphoria of long, ball-busting workouts.  Their addiction is understandable.  Most of us first became drawn to CrossFit after experiencing the unique pain of the metcons.  Nonetheless, this training ignores a large portion of the benefits accrued from comprehensive CrossFit training.


The strength, skill, speed, and power adaptations generated from focused gymnastics, sprinting, and weightlifting, will not be matched by an exclusive focus on metabolic conditioning circuits. 


You will never be able to lift as much in the deadlift, improve your third pull as much in the snatch, or develop the hollow body position as well in the handstand, if you insist on performing all of your training in the for time or as many rounds as possible formats.  Furthermore, we expect you will find that heavy lifting provides its own unique quality of pain as well.


So what’s the best way to program your metcon workouts?  The next post will cover several basic principles to keep in mind when designing metcons, and the third and final post will address a multitude of commonly asked questions about metcon workouts.

Post thoughts to comments.


Jay Ashman said...

I am looking forward to the rest of this series, I think this will help a lot of people with programming their own workouts.

ben b said...

Great intro...I think you argue the point well that neither programming extreme is optimal. Now I'm just on the edge of my seat waiting to hear about how to structure the compromise!

Rich Vos said...

I really like what CrossFit One World did with their coaching a few months ago. Instead of stressing an adherence to prescribed weight in a metcon WOD, they stress finishing in a certain amount of time.

For example, I'll use the staple "Fran" WOD due to it's great ability from which one can measure accurately the power output (the gold standard in fitness).

Now, seasoned CF athletes can do "Fran" in under 8 minutes. If an athlete has problems with either of the two movements due to strength, the workout may take upwards of even 15 minutes. When a short workout like our darling here takes this long, the athlete is reducing their power output by the second!

So, what CFOW has done is stressed the importance of scaling the WOD so that you can complete it in nearly the same time as an average CrossFitter. The blog post might say "scale loads and bands as needed so that you finish between 5 and 8 minutes". Some CF athletes may really really want to do the WOD as rx'd, but they are not taking full advantage of the workout's potential if the desired effect is to gas the athlete, not test his or her strength or technique.

I've taken the advice into my own coaching and programming. Advise the athlete to scale the WOD to get the desired effect. On some occasions, implement a cutoff time for the workout.

JimmyJames said...

I feel a Buddhist / Aristotelean middle way coming.

Hey Rich - I totally agree with you about the time goal vs load goal. It's a great way for peeps to get a feel for the appropriate pacing of a WOD and achieve the "intended effect". It's such a great way to go. Another approach I'll use is to introduce forced rest periods when the client falls off the "elite pace". It's pretty much the same idea Coach purported way back when in the CFJ on how to train for a good 2K row time like 7:00 minutes.

That said, I believe there occasionally comes a time to focus on the load and let the client have at it, perhaps with reduced rep counts, perhaps not depending on that individuals fitness / strength level. Sure, a met-con morphs into a strength WOD -- but that can be ok when it's intentional.

RDCP said...

It's funny, when I started with CrossFit not that long ago, there were really only metcon addicts, with the haters on the fringes. Then taking time off for Starting Strength seemed radical and it looked like most affiliates programmed an hour long suck-fest every other day. At the time, Russ was always talking about the importance of strength work, and defending the sub-5 minute metcon to anyone who would listen.

Not to be cynical, but I wonder if the swing from addicts to haters was a lash-back? Some affiliates and trainers have switched to more strength and power work with shorter or fewer metcons after noting their clients were lacking in those areas. I have a suspicion this had less to do with the clients but the programming, too far in one extreme.

traucer777 said...

def looking forward to being able to start my own programing

Boosie Girl said...

Good read, Russ. I too am looking forward to the next in this series.

Russ said...

Rich Vos, that's a very good point about the One World stuff. We do plenty of strength work in Crossfit already; there's no reason to turn all of the Fran or Elizabeth type workout into timed strength training. If power output is the goal, for workouts such as these, submaximal loads are a necessity. If you look back at the earlier WOD archives from 04 and the previous site, you will see that the idea of RX'd loading for most workouts is relatively new.

Of course, as Jimmy James advises, sometimes struggling through heavier WODs at a slower pace is beneficial as well. Linda is this way for all but the fittest athletes.

Russ said...


I think you may be on to something. Getting stronger with Crossfit requires passable technique, frequent practice/training, and nutrition and sleep sufficient to recover and make strength gains.

Say you're doing Crossfit on your own or at large-group class setting. You don't learn all the intricacies of the back squat, let alone squat snatch. Your definition of a good diet is eating fast food less frequently. And you sleep 4-5 hours a night. Not to mention the fact that you don't like the few heavy days that come up since they don't leave you flat on the floor gasping for air. Most likely, this person is going to make more improvement on the metcons than on the strength stuff.

Now put that person on a Catlyst Athletics program or Starting Strength, and they'll probably take the time to learn the technical basics of either O-lifting or the slow lifts, will dramatically decrease their training volume so recovery will be less of a factor, and they'll start judging their training progress by the progression of their lifts, so mental focus on the heavy stuff will no longer be an issue. Clearly, this person is going to make unprecedented strength gains, which yes, are going to transfer into their metcons when they return to regular programming. This person will then go all around saying that the key to Crossfit is strength specialization.

BUT, AND THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT, if you take the time to learn the lifts, practice them frequently, eat quality food in a macro-nutriently balanced format, and train HARD on your heavy lifting days, you do NOT need to do a Starting Strength or Catalyst-like program to get a lot stronger.

Rich Vos said...

Jimmy James and Russ,

Agreed, sometimes you gotta let the athlete go for it. ...prepare for the unknown and unknowable... and sometimes that shit might be really heavy and you have to move it really far and really fast. So be it.

Re: Russ's second post:

In regards to the adherence to technique and the benefit of practice, you might want to check out "The Talent Code" by Daniel Coyle. In the book (or the audio book for me) he lays out, in detail, how elite performers get so great. It's not just random practice, but DEEP practice. i.e. breaking the movements down into smaller parts, doing them slowly (and also in our case with lighter loads/PVC) allows the body to increase myelin and promote quicker learning of complex movements. The squat clean comes to mind. Another fun fact about these elite performers such as Brazilian soccer teams, concert cellists, and Tiger Woods, is that all of them train in a pretty austere environment without all the gizmos. Concentrated practice on technique and correcting your faults will get you further than just reverse cleaning that 225 pounds while jumping under the barbell.

Just a quick plug. I'm telling everyone about it. Excellent book.