The term “metabolic workout” has become increasingly popular in the fitness industry. But what are they, and should you use them?
By Coach Hunter Bennett
What is a metabolic workout?
Metabolic workouts get called a heap of different names:
- Metabolic conditioning
- Metabolic weight training
- Metabolic training
Broadly speaking, they refer to the same thing: A type of exercise session that taxes the aerobic and anaerobic systems, causing a large increase in energy expenditure.
With this in mind, most circuit style training sessions can be considered a “metabolic workout.”
But should you do them, and are they all they’re cracked up to be?
Metabolic workout: what is the point?
Metabolic workouts are a great way to:
- Improve muscular endurance
- Increase anaerobic endurance
- Improve aerobic conditioning
As such, they can be used within a larger strength training program to focus on areas that are not often addressed with traditional weight training methods (i.e., all the factors above).
Importantly, by addressing these key factors, they can also make your normal weight training more effective. They do this by improving your recovery between sets within a single session, and between sessions.
This can improve training performance, leading to greater increases in strength, size, and performance over the duration of a long-term training program.
However, that does not mean that they are optimal for everything.
Metabolic workouts are not optimal for…
Metabolic workouts are not optimal for fat loss
One of the biggest metabolic workout myths is that they are the best way to promote fat loss.
This often comes with the suggestion that they increase energy expenditure for days after your workout via a mechanism called Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption (or EPOC, for short).
See, after you train, you need to recover.
This means restoring energy stores and repairing muscle tissue, all of which requires energy.
EPOC describes an increase in resting metabolic rate that occurs after exercise to facilitate recovery.
And while this is a very real phenomenon, the impact it has on your total daily energy expenditure is negligible. In fact, research has shown that EPOC accounts for less than 100 extra calories burnt in the 14 hours after exercise. And this is completely disregarding the fact that after intense exercise most people move less during the day (thus burning fewer calories), which is likely to negate this completely.
This isn’t to say that metabolic workouts don’t contribute to fat loss – they absolutely do.
But no more than any other type of exercise.
Remember, fat loss comes from consuming less energy than you expend daily. Any type of exercise will help increase the energy expenditure side of the equation, but most of it comes down to simply consuming less energy through diet.
Metabolic workouts are not optimal for muscle growth or strength
This should be a somewhat obvious point, but it is still worth discussing.
Metabolic workouts generally involve large movements performed for higher reps and with short rest periods.
It is well known that this is much less effective for muscle growth than moderate rep ranges with longer rest periods (that allow you to recovery fully between sets).
Additionally, when it comes to strength, you need heavy loads and even longer rest periods – making them very ineffective in this regard.
Again, this isn’t to say that they don’t increase muscle mass and strength. But they are much less effective compared to traditional resistance training methods.
And likely ineffective for more advanced trainees.
How often should we use them?
We have established that metabolic workouts have some benefit. But they are not the most effective method of improving strength and muscle mass.
How should you use them?
Well, it depends on your goals.
If you are simply looking to train for health and weight management purposes, performing metabolic conditioning workouts 2-4 times per week as your primary method of exercise is likely to be effective.
However, if your goal is to maximise strength and muscle growth, performing 1 metabolic workout per week (on top of 2-4 days of weight training) is going to be more than enough to offer you the desired recovery benefits.
Designing metabolic workouts
When it comes to creating an effective metabolic workout, there are a few rules we like to adhere to:
- Include some pure aerobic work (i.e., rower, assault bike, ski erg) to tax the aerobic system
- Use multi-joint compound exercises to engage a lot of muscle mass
- Avoid using barbells to minimise shear stress on the spine (and reduce potential injury risk)
- Keep rest periods less than 30s between exercises to keep aerobic load high
- Zero power-based exercises (i.e., doing box jumps and Olympic lifts under fatigue is dumb)
Within this, aim to perform a circuit of 4-6 exercises for a total of 20-30 minutes, and you have a recipe for success.
The ultimate metabolic workout: an example
Using the general recommendations outlined above, here is a very solid metabolic weight training workout you can conduct that requires minimal equipment.
- Rower 60s at an 8/10 intensity
- 15 goblet squats
- 15 push ups
- 12 lunges per side
- 12 DB bent over rows
Get as many rounds in as possible in 25 minutes, with 15-30s rest between each exercise.
Metabolic Workout: final thoughts
Metabolic conditioning workouts are not magic, but they can have a place in your training – you just need to use them in a way that aligns with your goals.
Importantly, using the tips outlined in this article you can put together simple and effective metabolic workouts that achieve all the benefits.
And if you nejoyed reding this article, we strongly recomend you check out our article “Is the Fitbit calorie burn accurate.” This highlights why you dont want to use your smart watch to estimate how many calories you burn.