Thursday, 20 August 2009

In Defense Of Metabolic Conditioning, Part III: Frequently Asked Questions

Today we address a list of commonly asked questions about metabolic conditioning workouts.  Notice that todays answers build of off the previous two days’ theoretical principles.  If you remember the principles that we already covered, you will be able to answer many of your own programming questions simply by applying the principles to each specific situation.  Also, never be afraid to try new stuff and record your results.  At CrossFit Monterey, we have a saying: “If it works, it works.” 


Which movements go well together?


This depends on the goal of the workout.  If you want to challenge primarily the cardiovascular system, then you will want to use movements that test different functions of the body, and thus different muscle groups.  For example, alternating between deadlifts and pushups, or running and rope climbs.  This will make it less likely that your muscles will be the limiting factor, and more likely that your metabolic conditioning will be. 


Nevertheless, sometimes it’s useful to test muscular endurance, also known as stamina, as the main goal of a WOD.  In this case, it makes sense to use movements that involve similar functions.  Consider "J.T." (21-15-9 of handstand pushups, ring dips, and pushups).  Clearly, all of these exercises are upper body pushing movements.  Very few athletes are going to be able to power through this one at a fast enough pace to seriously test their cardiovascular system.  It is however, still a useful workout. 


Which sideshow movements do I use, how often, and when? And why bother?


Burpees and ball slams aren’t going to make you a worse athlete.  In fact, they will make you fitter.  Our objection to them stems from the fact that their benefits pale in comparison to those of the more fundamental exercises, yet many CrossFitters program in them far too frequently.  Following the example of the WODs is a good idea here.  They program in burpees usually once or twice a month (as compared to squat variations, pullups, running, and Olympic lifts, which come up far more frequently.)


Burpees and such are a good option when you want a highly metabolically challenging movement that will not test any one muscle or function too highly.  You know that day when you wake up and everything hurts?  Programming in a chipper (think of the "Filthy Fifty") that includes burpees might be a good idea on that day.


How do I make my short workouts make me breathe really hard?

Power output.  Move large loads long distances, quickly.  400m sprints and high rep Olympic lifts are very useful here, as are kipping pullups and air squats.


How do I decide how much weight to use on lifts?

If your goal is metabolic conditioning, you’re not going to want to use a weight that’s so heavy you’ll have to slow down and take large breaks in between sets.  In this case, using more weight will actually decrease your power output.


For example, if you max thruster is 175#, you’re not going to want to do metcon workouts with high-rep 155# thrusters.  Take the load down to 115#.  Save the near-max loads for strength days. 


A key exception to this is lifting heavy loads for low reps followed by a more metabolically-oriented exercises.  3 heavy deadlifts followed by 25 box jumps at 24 inches is a good example.  Do that for a few individually timed rounds, getting full recovery in between each one. 


How does what I’ve done on the other days of the cycle affect what I do today?

Generally, in a given 3 day cycle, you’ll want to vary the time duration, load, and format.  For example –


Day one

Power snatch 5 X 2

Deadlift 3 X 3

Followed by

3 X 600m sprint, full recovery between efforts


Day two

Max rounds in 20 minutes:

12 ring dips

36 air squats


Day 3

3 rounds for time

3 rope climbs

10 push jerks, 135#


Day one trains three different movements separately, working for max load and max speed.  It’s relatively short in terms of sustained effort and involves weightlifting and sprinting.  Day two is a longer workout, focused on higher rep bodyweight exercises.  Day three also includes a high rep bodyweight exercise, though it is a pull (not a push or squat notably) and a high rep weightlifting exercise.  An advanced athlete will finish it in under 5 minutes, meaning that while it will test metabolic conditioning just as days one and two do, it will do so in a distinctive time domain.


As with most rules of programming however, it makes sense to break this one once in a while as well.  Sometimes, do pullups two days in a row, or do heavy lifts two days in a row, or do three long workouts in one cycle.  You want to expose your body to the demands of repeating a stimulus in consecutive days, for the simple fact that this will prepare you well for having to do so in the future.


How often do I go really heavy for my WOD (7x1, 1RM, 3-2-2-1-1-1, etc)?

At least 4-5 times a month.  If you are weak, then do more.  If you deadlift 500 lbs. and run an 8 minute mile, strength work is less crucial, but you should still train heavy on a regular basis. 


Can I do multiple lifts on lifting days?

Yes.  The mainpage doesn’t usually do this, but it does work.  Be careful, however, not to overload yourself.  If you do 5 sets each of heavy deadlifts, squats, weighted pullups, and presses, you’re not going to have a whole lot of functions left over in the next few days. 


How often should I do movements in WODs that are very difficult for me?

Do so often.  There is a misperception however, that the best way to improve a weak point is by only performing a lot of WODs that include it.  Including a weak point in your WODs is not a substitute for separate skill work.  If you really need to work on your squat snatch, for example, merely doing them in metcon circuits every week is not the best way to do so.  Practicing squat snatches every day before the WOD will work go a long way towards improving your competency at them.  The same principle goes for common weak points such as handstand pushups, muscleups, and overhead squats.


How often should I be in each time domain, relatively?

Hit them all, regularly.  If you haven’t gone long recently, now’s the time.  If you haven’t done a short and fast workout recently, do so today.


How often should I be in a single modal domain for an entire WOD?

You should run long (5k and up) at least once a month.  Covering long distances on foot is a crucial ability.  Metcon circuits tax your cardiovascular system, sure, but long runs involve a lot more than metabolic conditioning (joint strength, the stamina of your lower limbs).  Sure, Chris Spealler runs pretty fast without running regularly, but he’s Chris Spealler.  Just a guess, but you’re probably not Chris Spealler. 


Can I do strength and metcon on the same day?

Absolutely.  I usually perform the strength work first, as the lifting tends to hurt the metcon circuit less than the metcon circuit affects the strength work, but I know people who prefer it the other way around.  The principle of variance applies here as well.  You want to occasionally train the lifts in a fatigued state, since you may need to do so in the future.


Can I do 2 metcons in one day?

Yes, but most CrossFitters need to focus on consistently training at a high level of intensity before they start do multiple metcon workouts in the same day.  Intensity is paramount. 


How can I do a metcon if I have no equipment/weights/jumprope/whatever?

Here’s a short list of the movements you have at your disposal: walking lunges, running, air squats, jump squats, one leg squats, handstand pushups, pushups, situps, and burpees.


A few examples:

Max rounds in 20 minutes

400m run

25 pushups

35 air squats


100 burpees for time


Tabata squats followed immediately by 4 minutes of max handstand pushups


10 high jump touches

50 situps

8 high jump touches

40 situps

6 high jump touches

30 situps

4 high jump touches

20 situps

2 high jump touches

10 situps


Post any other questions you have about metcon programming in the comments section, and we’ll get to answering them.


RDCP said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay Ashman said...

this is a nice wrapup to this series. I saved all of these for reference to my programming and that of my clients. Its very helpful and thank you for sharing this.

RDCP said...

Great post.

Another factor to consider when programming a metcon is the combination of load and time domain. For example, I did an AMRAP workout twice consisting of hang power snatches and c2b pullups in 15 and 5 minutes. The 15 minute version, while a useful workout, was more of a slog while the 5 minute version was essentially a question of how much suck I could take. Changing time domains dramatically changed the nature and limiting factors of the workout.

But I have a question, what is the place for metcons that mix several limiting factors? For example, there was a WOD on the mainpage combining runs with 40 kipping pullups, 40 deadhangs, and 40 L pull-ups, or something like that. By the time the L pull-ups come up, most CrossFitters would probably be down to 5s, then 3s and singles, and their power output would sharply drop. Workouts with heavy lifting and running, and, for people like me, the tabata squat then HSPU workout are similar. Where do these fit and how often should they come up? Is their relative value doing difficult movements fatigued? Should they be scaled more?

Russ said...


I'm glad it's useful. Let me know if you have any more questions or disagree with anything.

Russ said...

"Is their relative value doing difficult movements fatigued?"

Yes. The need for high power output is addressed by the squats. Being strong when you're tired is also important.

Jay Ashman said...

I generally agree with all three parts to this, Russ. Hell I adapted my training a bit after thinking about your strength as CrossFit post and my training as well.

Dale Saran said...

Nice series, Russ. Hope more people read this. Maybe submit to the Journal for wider reading? (No offense to your blog, bro.)

I think there's one important point to be made, however, if not an actual point of disagreement. I think we sometimes get hung up on arbitrary distinctions that nature doesn't care about - particularly in the case of MetCons. People will say that the "intended benefit"must be cardiovascular/aerobic because the weights/rep schemes appear "light" to the "average crossfitter". I disagree that such a mythical beast exists.

Best advice I got with respect to scaling was simple: if the workout starts to take you beyond 20-30 mins to complete, you probably needed to scale. No one ever told me to scale Fran to start so that I could do it in 5-8 mins. I just tried it as rx'd and took however long it took (a while that first time as I am also NOT Chris Spealler). For me it was simultaneously metabolic, a core strength workout (my lower back and abs were devastated by the thrusters with 95 lb), and a stamina challenge (to start).

So, I would just say that deciding that the "intent" of the workout is "metabolic" is sometimes an artificial construct. Just do the workout. If you're weak in some area, you'll find out. And you'll be limited by that weakness in whatever way you are.

The exception to this is the "I can't physically do the movement" caveat. In that case, obviously, you need to scale the movement (pullups, for example, or HSPU).

IMO, scaling for a better time on any WoD is a mistake and it's done as a form of ego salve. People don't want to find out that it takes them 19 mins to do Fran as rx'd. They'd rather scale it in whatever fashion necessary so that they can say they did it under 10 mins (but "got the intended benefit"). Hogwash. You didn't get the intended benefit. You opted to stay in what you think is an intended time domain by avoiding your most glaring weakness, an artificial distinction that nature/life/your body doesn't give a crap about.