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.
Many people, both within and outside the Crossfit community, have criticized CrossFit.com’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.
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.
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