Monday, 16 November 2009

Metcon is a Misnomer

You see the phrase “metabolic conditioning” everywhere these days. Unfortunately, CrossFitters usually misuse the term. In CrossFit vernacular, a trainer will use metabolic conditioning (metcon for short) to refer to workouts lasting longer than 30 seconds. These workouts tend to involve a lot of heavy breathing and lactic acid. That is, as per common usage, metcon workouts tend to focus on the glycolytic and oxidative energy pathways. A CrossFitter will call Fran or Fight Gone Bad a metcon, but not a max clean and jerk.

What is the origin of the term metabolic conditioning in CrossFit? Let us refer to one of the original CrossFit Journal articles, Foundations. In this article, Greg Glassman refers to metabolic conditioning as training which “builds capacity in each of three metabolic pathways, beginning with aerobic, then lactic acid, and then phosphocreatine pathways.”

Coach Glassman includes the training of the phosphocreatine pathway within the category of metabolic conditioning. Also known as the ATP pathway, the phosphocreatine pathway is the shortest-lasting energy pathway with the highest potential for power output. Think of a heavy clean and jerk, 40 yard dash, or max box jump.

Here’s the problem: CrossFitters use the term metabolic conditioning as distinct from low-rep lifting, high-strength and skill moves in gymnastics, and max effort/short duration jumping and sprinting. Clearly, however, these activities fall within the purview of the phosphocreatine pathway and thus are in fact examples of metabolic conditioning.

A further problem with “metabolic conditioning” is that most Crossfit “metcon” workouts test and develop far more than merely energy pathway development. High rep squat cleans, for example, all test much more than just energy pathways. Accuracy, agility, balance, coordination, speed, and are at play to a substantial degree. Coaches who don’t understand the diverse nature of these adaptations will often fail to include higher skill exercises such as cleans and handstand pushups in their “metcon” workouts. As a result, their athletes will under-perform when exposed to workouts such as Grace or Mary.

Accuracy and precision in language are necessary for the intelligent analysis of data that CrossFit is based upon. As CrossFitters, we should insist upon using correct terminology where it exists, and creating it where it doesn’t.

We still need a term to describe workouts lasting longer than 30 seconds, however. I propose Extended Power Output. “Extended” implies that these workouts last longer than brief 1 to 30 seconds spurts of exertion. As all Crossfit Level One attendees know, “power output” encompasses neurological and biological components of fitness. Extended Power Output avoids the flaws of “metabolic conditioning” while accurately describing what most people mean when they say “metcon.”


Russ Greene said...

It's worht noting that for lack of a better term, I have used "metcon" quite frequently myself, including on this blog.

adam said...

"Accuracy and precision in language are necessary for the intelligence analysis of data that CrossFit is based upon."

Was intelligence supposed to be intelligent? If so this an ironic sentence. Also I believe that sentence is valid for all of CrossFit and many more areas of life.

Dug the post. More and more I am coming to value, appreciate, and demand the usage of effective language, depending on context.

Although I love poetry so language can afford to be less accurate in that sense, and in some mysteries in life, language is simply insufficient. (I do believe this is the reason we were designed such that you can't breathe after most metcons - God knew we wouldn't really be able to talk about it anyhow.)

Russ Greene said...

LOL Adam. Fixing that now.

Jay Ashman said...

excellent post..

Shane said...

I disagree with this article.

You mentioned that metcon is defined as a workout that increases capacity in each of the three pathways - phosphagen, glycolytic, and aerobic.

So how could a max clean and jerk or a front lever possibly be a metcon? There's absolutely no aerobic component, and basically no glycolytic component.

Just like a 10k run wouldn't be classified as a metcon either, since it's primarily aerobic and there's a little bit of glycolytic and very little phosphagen involvement.

Shane said...

Even though the phosphagen pathway is primarily for short quick bursts, this does not mean it is not involved in a workout that may be primarily aerobic or glyolytic. A workout like Grace may be seen as mostly aerobic or glycolytic, but those last couple of C&J's will really push you to use the phosphagen pathway. Therefore it is a metcon, since it involves significant levels of all the pathways.

I would argue that the CrossFit Football workouts fall more closely into the definition of metcon than any others.

And for some people, workouts like Angie and Cindy aren't really metcons at all. Anyone who's done more than 30 rounds on a Cindy knows that there's no "short burst" required in that one. It's almost all aerobic.

I would classify workouts like Cindy and Angie to be "aerobic-priority circuits" or something to that effect.

Russ Greene said...


Perhaps I was not clear. Metabolic conditioning means training the metabolic energy pathways, of which there are three. It does not imply training all three at once.

" Metabolic
training refers to conditioning exercises intended to increase the storage and delivery of energy for any activity.
There are three distinct biochemical means by which energy is provided for all human action. These “metabolic
engines” are known as the phosphagen pathway, the glycolytic pathway, and the oxidative pathway."

From the CFJ article on Metabolic Conditioning.

Russ Greene said...

In other words, I don't see why a max clean and jerk doesn't train metabolic capacity in the ATP pathway, i.e. increasing the "storage and delivery of energy" within the ATP pathway.

Haussermann said...

I like the idea of simply saying that a workout is extended, since it avoids attaching a specific focus to the workout. As you said, calling something a metcon assumes that the metabolic aspect is the most important or most challenging aspect, where that may not necessarily be true.

Another possibility that leans towards the geeky side of things, is specifying the metabolic pathway that you think the workout will involve. For example, calling a 1 RM snatch a "PhosphoCon," Fran a "GlycoCon" or Murph an "OxiCon." Geeky? Yes, but it conveys more info than metcon by stating the rough time domain.

I think it's also important to look at another implication of the current usage of metcon. It's used as it is because, as was said, it's assumed that the most important aspect of these workouts is developing the body's ability to produce energy in the glycolytic and oxidative pathways.

But what i've never really heard mention of is a deficiency in the phosphocreatine pathway limiting something like a 1 RM lift. If someone fails a heavy snatch, it usually isn't mentioned that they may simply be running out of energy by the time they reach the second pull. I may have been missing something, but this seems entirely possible.

Shane said...

It's always been my understanding that metcon meant a workout that involves a significant portion of all the pathways.

By this definition, a marathon and a powerlifting competition are metcons, which seems silly.

In other words, everything other than skill work would be classified as a metcon. So what's the difference between metcon and workout?

Russ Greene said...


Your understanding was based upon the way most CrossFitters use the term metcon. My point is that this usage is not consistent with the original definition and usage put forth in the CrossFit Journal.

You say that by the original definition, all workouts could be classified as metcons. This is true and is the reason that I called for using a new term to specifically refer to workouts taxing the glycolytic and oxidative pathways.

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