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.”