Why Metabolic Conditioning is a Must
Metabolic conditioning (metcon) won't just make you healthier. It'll allow you to recover faster between sets and between workouts. It'll prepare you to handle more training volume and reduce performance drops from set to set. It can also, of course, get you lean.
If you're a field athlete, the benefits of metabolic conditioning are obvious. But it's just as important for strength athletes and lifters. Louie Simmons said that the biggest issue among American powerlifters is their lack of general physical preparedness, or conditioning, which decreases their work capacity and increases the stress response to their training program.
And no, doing reasonable amounts of conditioning won't eat away your muscles. Thinking it will make you lose your gains is the "bro" equivalent of women thinking that lifting weights will make them bulky.
Shocking news: Most competitive bodybuilders use steroids, which have significant side effects on the cardiovascular system. This leads to increases in blood pressure and triglycerides. Drugs also cause increased rigidity of the heart's ventricle, reducing its capacity to expand and push a lot of blood with each contraction. They also thicken the blood, which makes it even harder to move through the vascular system.
The best non-nutritional and non-medical way to control these side effects is doing cardio or metcon. Conditioning is important if you want to increase your chances of staying alive past 50.
Strangely, steroid users are often less likely to engage in serious cardio or conditioning work, yet they need it more than anyone else. But even natural lifters will benefit from the boost in recovery, strength maintenance from set to set, capacity to tolerate more training volume, and fat loss.
Before we get into the details, let's look at some of the things you can do – and tools you can use – for metabolic conditioning:
Your ideal training methods will vary depending on the energy system or "conditioning quality" you want to emphasize. All of these qualities can be achieved with more traditional cardio – running, biking, or the elliptical machine – but here are the loaded conditioning options you could use:
Do maximum efforts for 10-30 seconds per set. Normally 6-12 sets are done with a full or almost full recovery between sets.
Best tools: Air bike, Prowler pushing (sprint), sled pulling (sprint), rowing ergometer, ski ergometer, barbell complexes.
Do 1-3 minutes as hard as possible for that duration for 3-5 sets with almost full recovery between sets.
Best tools: Air bike, rowing ergometer, ski ergometer, loaded carries/sled pull/Prowler pushing, circuit training, kettlebell swings/snatches/clean & presses.
Improved VO2 Max
Do 3-8 minutes at a heart rate of around 85-100% of your theoretical max heart rate (220 minus your age). This is normally done as one continuous effort sandwiched between two bouts of lower intensity work. For example, 10 minutes at 60-70% of max HR, 3-8 minutes at 85-100%, 10 minutes at 60-70%.
Best tools: Air bike, rowing ergometer, ski ergometer, loaded carries, sled or plate pulls.
Lactic Tolerance/Anaerobic Threshold
You'd do intense work until you start to have some lactate accumulation (starts to burn), then low intensity until it clears, and intense work again until you accumulate lactate. Alternate that way for 8-15 minutes.
Best tools: Air bike, rowing ergometer, ski ergometer, circuit training with active rest between sets.
You'd do 20-60 minutes at a heart rate of 60-70% of your theoretical max.
Best tools: Air bike, rowing ergometer, loaded carries, sled pull.
While the answer isn't a clear-cut "yes or no," if you're a marathon runner or triathlete, traditional cardio will be better because it's more specific to what you do. But for a lifter, loaded energy systems work is better. Here's why:
When you do a loaded activity, the muscles need to contract harder – the higher the resistance, the greater the muscle effort, obviously. When muscles contract harder, they require more energy and blood flow. Muscle contractions act like a "pump" to both bring blood to the muscles and help with venous return to the heart.
It's a lot easier to reach a high percentage of your max heart rate or VO2 max with loaded movements than traditional cardio.
For example, when I do a combined carry of sled pull (70 pounds ) + weight vest (30-50 pounds ) + sandbag (50 pounds), I can easily reach a heart rate of 175 beats per minute, which is around 100% of my theoretical max. I can sustain it for 15-20 minutes. It's a lot harder for me to reach those numbers by jogging. To reach a heart rate of 175 BPM I'd have to run at 400-meter speed, which I can't sustain more than two minutes.
It's the same thing with most loaded energy systems exercises. And it's not just the greater muscle contraction that makes it easier to reach the higher levels of intensity. It's because many of the loaded conditioning tools involve both the upper and lower body at the same time, while traditional cardio tends to rely only on the lower body.
More muscle mass involved = greater need for energy and blood flow. Being able to reach a higher level of intensity automatically makes work in the first three conditioning zones easier to get into for non-endurance athletes.
Knee, hip, and low-back issues are common with endurance training, especially jogging, which has a lot of repeated impact. Jogging is a lot harder than walking when it comes to joint stress.
What am I getting at? Well, if you can reach the proper heart rate and percentage of your VO2 max while walking instead of jogging, it's a big advantage, especially for lifters who tend to be both a lot heavier and less efficient at jogging than endurance athletes.
Wait, walking? Yep, when using loaded carries, it's easy to reach 60-70% of your max heart rate just with walking. For me, that'd be around 110-125 beats per minute, which is very easy to reach when I use a 50-pound weight vest, pull a sled that's around 40% of my body weight, or carry a sandbag. I can sustain that level of intensity for 30-60 minutes simply by walking. This presents very little stress on the joints.
I could reach the same level of intensity while jogging, but at 215 pounds and with inefficient jogging mechanics, I'd be asking for trouble.
Obviously, you can use traditional cardio machines to train at 60-70% of your max heart rate for 30-60 minutes. This would also be easy on the joints, but it gets boring fast!
When an activity requires a fairly high level of muscle contraction, it can positively impact growth. This applies mostly to heavier loaded energy systems approaches like loaded carries (farmers walk, Zercher carries, sled push or pull, for example), as well as circuit training and possibly barbell complexes.
Other tools like air bikes and ergometers have much less potential to help with muscle growth. But even if these tools aren't that great for triggering muscle growth, they still provide enough of a muscle stimulus to avoid potential muscle loss.
What's even more interesting, most forms of metcon can trigger a small amount of muscle growth without any muscle damage. A few studies looked at the physiological impact of loaded carries and sled pushes/pulls and found no elevation in creatine kinase, which indicates no muscle damage.
The lack of muscle damage means that doing these exercises will not significantly lengthen the muscle recovery period and won't hurt the recovery from your lifting workouts.
No, you can't build a huge physique with only loaded carries, sled pushes, and barbell complexes, but getting even a little bit of growth from something that people normally assume will "hurt their gains" is a win.
Cardiovascular capacity depends on both central and peripheral factors. Sure, you need a strong heart, good pulmonary capacity, and healthy blood vessels. These are all required to shuttle oxygen to the muscles so the mitochondria can produce energy.
But how effective a muscle is at producing energy is also important. This depends on both mitochondrial function and density in a muscle. These will improve most in muscles that are challenged during a bout of conditioning work.
More traditional cardio exercises tend to use mostly (if not exclusively) the lower body. As such, the muscles in the upper body won't get the same improvements in mitochondrial function and density. Metcon exercises involving the whole body will have the benefit of improving the capacity of all your muscles to produce energy.
There's also the possibility that improving mitochondrial function in more muscles will increase your capacity to use fat for fuel to a greater extent, making it easier to lose fat.
This one is more psychological than physiological, but it matters. After all, the most important thing is to train hard consistently. If you enjoy it, it's much easier to train hard consistently.
Loaded carries and sled work are close to weightlifting in that we can challenge ourselves to move more weight. We also get the same type of "muscle feeling" as we can get from some forms of lifting. From a motivational standpoint, this shouldn't be overlooked.
I prefer to walk while pulling or carrying a load rather than jogging the same amount of time. I'm sure most lifters can relate. So even if traditional cardio was more effective in theory, the loaded variation would still be better for those who will be more likely to stick with it.
Anaerobic power and anaerobic capacity work are normally done along with a lifting workout. For example, I do 10 rounds of 15-second sprints on the air bike at the end of a lower-body dominant workout.
A second session would be 3-5 rounds of 40 seconds on the air bike on another lower body session (like on my deadlift day if I use a lift-specific workout). One of each is done per week. I take out one lower body lift and replace it with the energy system work.
VO2 max and lactic tolerance work are preferably done by themselves, not on a lifting day. I do one of the two in a week. I see these as a lifting workout because I use either circuits or a challenging loaded carry workout.
My favorite one is Brian Johnson's "Barbarian workout." It consists of walking one mile with a combination of a 50-pound weight vest, a sled (30-40% of body weight), and a trap bar (50-70% of body weight). This is as brutal as any lifting session and will build a lot of muscle and strength.
You could have a rotation of the following "lifting" workouts:
- Squat, Assistance, and Anaerobic Power Work
- Bench Press and Assistance
- Deadlift, Upper Back, and Anaerobic Capacity
- Military Press and Assistance
- Barbarian Workout or Whole-Body Circuit Training
I like to use the every-other-day approach:
- Day 1 – Squat
- Day 2 – Off
- Day 3 – Bench
- Day 4 – Off
- Day 5 – Deadlift
- Day 6 – Off
- Day 7 – Military press
- Day 8 – Off
- Day 9 – Barbarian or circuit workout
- Day 10 – Off
You don't have to use a lift-specific approach, but it should give you a decent idea of how to plan your training.
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