Monday, 17 August 2009

In Defense of Metabolic Conditioning, Part II: Key Principles

Today's topic is the vital principles involved in creating effective CrossFit metcon workouts.  These are not new to EYF; they are on display every day at  However, many CrossFitters don’t follow the WOD, or modify it to their tastes, and in so doing, negate the benefits of the mainsite WOD.  You can use these principles below to make sure you’re not cheating yourself of gains.


Six Key Principles for Metabolic Conditioning Workouts

1. Focus on fundamental movements.  As we covered in the previous post, Metcon workouts are NOT just for metcon.  We want you to hit as many different aspects of fitness as possible at the same time.  This means focusing on fundamental movements.  High rep Olympic lifting, runs of varying distances, and basic gymnastics exercises such as pullups, handstand pushups, and air squats, should make up the bulk of your metcon workouts.  Consider the original CrossFit girls as a source of inspiration. 


As a practical illustration of this concept, contrast these two metcon WODs:

A. 5 rounds for time of 20 ball slams, 30 lbs., 20 burpees.

B.  5 rounds for time of 400m run 10 clean and jerks at 135 lbs.

Both will be extraordinarily taxing of the body’s ability to supply energy for physical activity, however, it is our contention that workout B is substantially more effective at producing elite fitness.  It requires and develops a much larger quantity of physical skill and strength to finish quickly.  Anecdotally, we have seen that athletes that master the basics of weightlifting, gymnastics, and running, adapt quickly to sideshow movements like ball slams very quickly, whereas burpee and ball-slam addicts tend to struggle with stuff like clean and jerks even at low levels of load and intensity.

2. Vary your modes.  This sounds weird, but its meaning is simple.  Weightlifting/throwing is one mode, gymnastics is another, and mono-structural metcon activities are another.  Metabolic conditioning tends to be very activity-specific.  It has long been known in the endurance sport world that an athlete who has great endurance in running may suffer greatly at swimming.  In the CrossFit world, someone who never tires on "Cindy" may end up gasping for air for a mediocre score on "Fight Gone Bad."  If our aim is to develop as broad a range of adaptations as possible, we must ensure that our metabolic conditioning circuits involve all three modes of movement.  If you always do bodyweight exercises, it’s time to start incorporating thrusters, squat cleans, and snatches, etc.  If you never run in your workouts, then start.  Yes, I know it hurts.

3. Vary your format.  In general, metcon workouts can be X rounds for time, as many rounds or reps as possible in X minutes, follow a particular interval format (such as tabata) for max reps in the interval, or follow the chipper format whereby a list of tasks is completed in order, with each movement only being hit one time.  Other formats are possible, but these are the main formats you’ll see.  Different formats require different strategies and even psychologies.  It is important not to just stick to workout formats that you are comfortable with.

4. Vary your time domains.  Coach Glassman has long said that we suffer at the margins of our experience.  If we confine our workouts to a certain time domain, we assuredly will perform sub-optimally when asked to leave that time domain.  We have seen athletes err by never going longer than 15 minutes, as well as by never going shorter than 10.  If there is a particular time domain that you are most comfortable with, make sure to train outside of that time domain on a regular basis.

5. Vary your loads.  Are you seeing a pattern here?  People who only do light metcons, or only do heavy metcons, will not perform as well when taken out of their comfort zone.  Don’t be that guy.  If you never lift a barbell heavier than 135# (or even 225#) in your metcon workouts, then start experimenting with heavier lifts.  If you never go above 30 reps, or under 135 lbs. in your workouts, start lowering the loads and upping the reps

6. Compete!  If you’re reading this blog, I shouldn’t have to lecture you about intensity and training hard.  The problem is, however, that everyone thinks they’re training hard, and very few people are training as hard as they could be.  The problem is that you’ll never train as hard as you can without competition.  Furthermore, you will never reach the level of fitness that you could reach with competition.  Competition pulls us above our comfortable level of discomfort, and into a dark place where we’d rather not be.  Most of us wouldn’t there go if we could avoid it without looking like a pussy.  If you don’t time and record your workouts and constantly try to beat other CrossFitters or your previous times, you’re not as fit as you could be.  Go buy a stopwatch, and start competing.

That’s it for today.  Start following these principles today in your metcon workouts and be prepared to both suffer and progress more than you’re used to.

Post thoughts to comments.


Jay Ashman said...

good points. many of us make mistakes with programming that following this template would fix.

Especially the first key... combining exercises is the hardest part, one that even I screw up on

osatts said...

There is a great CF journal that outlays the principles behind good CF programming, covering how to include the Met-con, gymnastic and weightlifting modes effectively, whether you follow the 3 on - 1 off or 5 on - 2 off system.

Russ has covered all of those point eloquently and if you haven't read the the journal I'm talking about the I suggest that you do!

Jake/Russ: Keep up the good work, dudes!

TexasPatrick said...

Sideshow movements. Hahahaha!

We did some running at one of my affiliates the other day with a med ball held overhead. I was not amused. Sideshow indeed.