Have you heard of P90x? Maybe Insanity? I have. I have at least 5 friends who have tried burning fat and “getting ripped” on these programs. These DVD workout programs are as old as time, but the principles are a little newer. Instead of a medium cadence, Simmons-esque calistehnics routine, we have profuse sweating, blood pumping, high octane thrill workouts.
The goal behind these workouts – trying to pack lots of high-intensity interval exercise into shorter amounts of time – is metabolic conditioning (metcon). Metabolic workouts jumpstart the metabolism to burn fat at rest AND during your workout. This offers clear benefits over jogging or other “low intensity” workouts, which primarily burn calories during exercise, and generally integrate strength training movements, too. That means you get some of the benefits of lifting weight (or bodyweight) and cardio at the same time. That’s the promise, anyways.
Metabolic conditioning works like this. Perform high intensity exercise (usually resistance exercise) with little rest between sets. You are always racing the clock. An example “Tabata Style” workout: squat as fast as possible for 20 seconds, rest for 10, squat for 20 seconds… repeat for 4 minutes. That’s 8 sets of squats in 4 minutes. At this point, your body is sweating and your breath is quick.
The speed of these workouts is part of the draw. They promise accelerated fat burning in less time. Science supports this. Azusa Pacific University demonstrated that a similar 6 minute workout (1 minute warm-up, 4 minute workout, 1 minute cooldown) burned an average 63.2 calories during workout, and 297 calories post-exercise. That’s 360 total calories scorched over 24 hours, or the equivalent of jogging 30 minutes. The top subject burned a total of 457 calories over 24 hours!
Most of the trendier fitness systems rely on the same concept. The Bar Method and Crossfit offer a similar viewpoint on “metcon” style training, where elevated heart rate is combined with nearly invisible breaks (as short as 10 seconds, if not non-existent). Some physiques built this way are impressive, and research does support the amount of calories burned during and after exercise.
While this style of exercise does wonders in training the body’s cardiovascular system and burning calories, many people are committing mistakes that are destroying their joints, causing injury, and irrevocably breaking their enjoyment of fitness. So while this is a fantastic way to train for fat loss and overall conditioning, I demand you stop your intense workouts until you read about the common mistakes below. This is for your own good and safety. Let’s begin.
The Massive Mistakes of “MetCon”
Mistake #1: EXTREME Workouts
This is the worst, WORST offender. I can’t tell you exactly when we started valuing a workout based off of how bad it makes us feel and how many sweaty people panting it could fit into a camera frame, but I can tell you that it is an awful indicator of a workout’s effectiveness.
So what should you expect? You should expect a cardiovascular and muscular challenge. You should expect a little panting, and tension in your body. You should have some reps where you can really feel your muscles working, like you’re lifting the world. You should have an elevated heart rate and a bit of sweat. Those are signs that intensity is high enough to elicit an adaptive response from your body. Aka, you told your body you’ll become stronger, faster, leaner, and better.
What should you NOT expect? You should not always feel like throwing up. You should not feel close to death. You do not need to be on the ground, panting for 10 minutes after workout. It isn’t judged by every muscle on your body being torn apart and taking a week to recover. You’ll certainly recover stronger and better, but statistics say you will NOT make it through your program. You will likely not enjoy your workouts, become disheartened, and eventually fall off the fitness habit. Consistency is the number 1 element of the fit. Making your program unenjoyable guarantees you will not succeed.
Mistake #2: Jumping = Best Exercise
I love jumping. It’s an effective movement to train explosiveness of your jumps and it uses all the muscles in your body. That means more calories burned per movement, and more fat burned.
But it also fucks up your knees upon landing.
Jumping over and over will murder your knees, period. If you want jumping in your routine, try box jumping (jumping x8 to a raised platform), then step off a foot at a time. Remove the landing portion and your knees will be thanking you.
Do not follow routines with a whole lot of jumping, or don’t do them too often. I know many of you are struggling to lose fat and tone up, but that doesn’t meant you should trade your joints for short-term fat loss. There are alternatives that burn just as many calories that preserve (heck, strengthen) your joints. Squats are one example!
This mistake really applies to all plyometric (explosive) exercises. Anytime you “land” with a lot of spare energy on any joint, you’re damaging it. A non-knee specific example: plyo-clapping push-ups. Cool party trick, shows explosive power, but having them as part of your metcon routine is downright dumb unless you like having no elbows.
Mistake #3: Doing Complex, Highly Technical Exercises
The nature of metabolic workouts means you are drained by the time the workout is finished. Not dying, but drained. As such, highly technical skills that require planning and complex movement are not always the best. So when you see a gym doing a circuit of Snatches and Clean & Jerks as part of a metcon circuit, steer clear. The problem with highly technical exercises is they can quickly lead to injury via overuse or dangerous form degradation.
Instead, use exercises that can be done to technical failure, yet are self-correcting. Think push-ups, squats, divebomber push-ups, sprinting, and pull-ups. What happens when you get fatigued doing pull-ups? Well, you won’t snap your shoulder like in a Snatch. You will simply be unable to perform more reps. You can’t really injure yourself or diminish the intensity of the workout by requiring too much technique.
Most bodyweight exercises are great exercise choices for metabolic workouts. Examples include push-ups, wall handstand push-ups, planks, and squats. Just choose 2, and assemble a little Tabata workout!
Mistake #4: Working Out Everyday
Just, don’t. It’s not needed. Your results come from recovery (aka, nutrition and sleeping). They don’t come from working out harder. Give your body time to rest and repair, or you’ll never see progress.
Fat is really lost when outside the gym. It isn’t lost in the gym, unless you are doing a whole lot of cardio. But I also don’t recommend that, because metcon is the way to go for more efficient, effective workouts.
Your muscle is also built at rest. The mechanical load and microtears you’ve created in your muscles are repaired and built stronger when you rest and eat. You aren’t being ambitious and smart when you work out more than your body can handle.
Fitness is a gradual process. Let it take its course and transform you fully. Don’t cheapen the process by believing you can cheat your body’s development. Stick to 2-4 strength training workouts and 2-4 metabolic workouts.
(Note: Professional bodybuilders and powerlifers have more leeway as to how much they can work out. Bodybuilders are the most guilty of this, with some Mt. Olympia stars hitting 6 workouts a week, twice a day. There are 2 big reasons why they can do this. 1) They have calorie needs 2-3x the average person at rest. Muscle burns calories at rest; they need to eat and train more to sustain all of it. 2) It’s their life’s work. They get a LOT of rest whenever they aren’t in the gym. They are full-time workout aficionados)
Mistake #5: Eating Nothing To Lose Weight “Faster”
It’s becoming common for aspiring lean people to starve themselves, to lose weight as quickly as possible.
Don’t. Do. It. You need food to live, literally. When your over-starve yourself, your body recognizes it, says, “Oh shit, I am DYING” and starts to preserve every little bit of energy. Your metabolism goes down instead of up. Remember the entire purpose of these workouts was to increase our metabolism. Eliciting the Starvation Response is the exact opposite direction.
There is a balance between eating less than your body burns and managing your metabolism. Eat too little, and your body holds onto every bit of fat it can. Eat too much, and you’ll be adding weight (though with smart exercise, it’ll be good weight – aka muscle). But the idea is that you need food to workout and stay healthy.
You NEED food. Eat nothing, and your workout, body, health, and life suffer. Eat all 3 macronutrients: fat, carbs, and protein. Don’t ignore an entire macronutrient (basically, CARBS) because it is trendy to do so. Metabolic workouts use carbs almost exclusively for energy. I don’t care how far into ketosis you claim you are, you are burning carbs while working out and that produces the best athletic response. Period.
P.S: Salad is not a food to me. It has almost no calories and does little to replenish your body. As a friend if fond of saying, “It is a vehicle for dressing”. Also, small exceptions exist to follow a low-carb diet, but 99% of people I’ve met would be fine eating carbs.
Mistake #6: Workouts Are Too Long
The longer the metabolic workout, the worse off you’ll be. The focus of a metcon should be short, intense, adrenaline-inducing exercise. By nature of the program, it should force some focus and intensity. Any high-intensity workout that extends past 20 minutes (heck, even half of that) is just too much.
Hormones vital to maintaining strength are decreased the longer the metabolic workout goes for. This is especially true when you’re eating in caloric deficit (aka, less than your body burns). Further, these longer workouts will fatigue your body and mind. You thought burning fat was hard? Try doing it when you are chronically sore, tired, and dreading your workouts.
Remember when I talked about short, high intensity being good for burning fat? Well, if your metabolic workout goes too far, you won’t just burn fat, you’ll burn muscle. That’s right, if you’re aiming for that “lean” look and not that “skinny fat” look, you’ll need a shorter workout. Do not overdo it! You want to maintain muscle, or you will become fragile, weak, and look awful. You can’t have a six pack without literally having the muscle that constitutes a six pack.
Keeping things short (4-10 minutes is the ideal) promotes good habit building and lets you focus on the intensity within the time frame instead of falsely associating time spent working out with the results you’ll get.
Mistake #7: Not Knowing Your PRIMARY Goal
Ever hear someone say, “You can’t build muscle and burn fat at the same time”? They’re mostly right. If you are burning fat, it’s easier to only maintain muscle not build it. Similarly while building muscle, it’s easier to prevent fat accumulation, rather than actively burn it. Trying to do both works for short periods (think 1 to 2 months for new trainees), but not in the long run.
Before you get disheartened, hear me out. When you are burning fat, you will look “more muscular” because your muscle is exposed without layers of fat hiding it. Similarly, building “clean” muscle means you may expose more muscle and seem like you’re losing fat because your ratio of muscle-to-fat is higher.
Trying to do both at once anyways? I understand the feeling – you are motivated and ready to transform your body. You want that sculpted physique that turns heads. If that’s the case, choose a focus that’s consistent with your current body composition.
For “skinny-fat” folks, those who have little muscle mass, focus on strength training. You build the muscle required to be well-rounded, you start to feel confident with your newfound strength and tone, and you create a naturally higher metabolism due to presence of muscle tissue. Then, you can focus on cutting excess fat! Be wary, strength training is addictingly fun. I recommend you start at the GainTrain bodyweight workout and get started.
For fat/overweight/obese folks, those who carry a lot of fat on frame and likely have hidden muscle underneath due to carrying the weight around, I recommend you start on metabolic workouts. The idea behind this is simple; when you’re that heavy, your body is more than willing to shed fat. Losing it now will be an excellent confidence booster, teaching you how to recompose your body as you please. Plus, the metabolic workout suggestions I normally make (strength training with simple exercises, done to high intensity) can do enough to maintain your strength without dedicated strength training. You will see improved heart rate, breathing, and overall well-being. 3-4 metcon workouts (10+ minutes each) or 5-6 metcon workouts (4-8 minutes each) a week is solid. Once you’ve cut a decent amount of weight, jump into the GainTrain bodyweight workout (or another strength training program) to build the body you desire.
I have some free follow-along metabolic workouts on my YouTube Channel (under “Fat Loss Workouts”), and I have a bodyweight-only strength guide here. This topic is much larger than can be covered in a single article point, but those are the basics. Go strength training if skinny, go metabolic training if you’re overweight.
Mistake #8: Letting People Tell You What To Do
“Wait,” you’re thinking. “YOU just told me what to do!”
I did, and I stand by what I’ve experienced, read, and studied. But you should do what works best for you, as long as you aren’t deluding yourself into believing lies. If I want you to come away with anything, it’s that you should have a goal (a tangible, MEASUREABLE goal), then experiment to find what works for you.
If your goal is fat loss, and you are seeing success with jogging, then keep it up. If you have a goal, and you’re reaching towards it, don’t change a thing!
But, if your goal is to get abs and curling 3 pound weights isn’t helping, then it is likely time you rethink your strategy. If your goal is to become stronger, and P90x isn’t boosting your strength or making you feel energetic, it might be time for a program revamp, ideally something that more closely matches your goals.
You don’t need to utilize my methods, but also recognize that I’ve lived through what it takes to get to my ideal body type. Don’t trust your knee-jerk reaction away from strength training or metabolic training. Think with an open mind.
Keep it up,