• Mar 2024

What is a metabolic workout? Metabolic conditioning explained

What is a metabolic workout? Metabolic conditioning explained
  • Metabolic conditioning is a highly effective way to improve glucose levels and overall metabolic health.
  • Metabolic conditioning workouts are short but intense, making them time efficient.
  • Metabolic conditioning requires minimal to no exercise equipment – implement today with the tips below.

What is metabolic conditioning?

Metabolic conditioning, or “metcon” for short, is a term to describe a workout style that is highly effective in improving how efficiently the body’s energy systems use fuel. A metcon can be performed with minimal equipment (e.g. kettlebell) or no equipment (e.g. burpees), and typically involves repetitive short bursts of very intense effort with little rest in between. Read more to find out more about metcon and some sample workouts below.

What are the benefits of metcon workouts?

While all exercise is good for your health (1), metcons offer several metabolic benefits, including (2):

  • Maximises calorie burn
  • Increases insulin sensitivity
  • Improves glucose regulation
  • Builds muscle in less time than traditional strength training
  • Improves the efficiency of energy systems
  • Increases aerobic capacity
  • Promotes reduction of body fat
  • Improves athletic performance (speed, power, agility) 

Individuals reap significant metabolic benefits with a minimal time commitment. (3) Metcon workouts are short but intense and effective, making them time efficient. This can be particularly appealing to those with busy schedules.

The science behind why metcons are so beneficial metabolically is that they engage all three energy systems the body uses to convert fuels (i.e. fat and glucose) into energy, and over time the body becomes better at using and storing these fuels. This translates to greater fitness, improved glucose levels, and better insulin sensitivity. (4)

The body uses metabolic fuels to power everything from a leisurely walk to physically demanding workouts. The differences between the energy systems are the type of fuel used, and how quickly they can convert fuel into energy.

  1. Immediate energy system (phosphagen or creatine phosphate system) uses phosphocreatine to provide energy for short burst high intensity activities lasting up to 10 seconds, like 100m sprint or lifting a very heavy weight for one repetition.
  2. Intermediate energy system (glycolytic or anaerobic glycolysis) uses glucose for quick energy needed to fuel activities lasting around 30 seconds to 3 minutes, like 400m sprint or repetitive weightlifting. 
  3. Long-lasting energy system (aerobic or oxidative system) uses fat (primarily), glucose, and can use protein to provide energy for low to moderate intensity activities lasting longer than 3 minutes, like long-distance running, cycling, and swimming.

In your body, all metabolic pathways contribute to producing energy. It’s never fixed and is always changing, depending on type and intensity of exercise. During lower-intensity activities that primarily recruit muscle fibres that have high oxidative capacity (like walking, and any activity where you can hold a conversation), the long-lasting energy system dominates, so a greater percentage of fat is used for energy production. Glucose only contributes a small amount to the energy needs of low-intensity exercise.

As the intensity of exercise increases, more muscles are recruited that can react quickly but rely on glucose, so a greater percentage of glucose is used for energy production. Have you ever run a 10k race at a leisurely pace (oxidative system), then sprinted through the finish line (phosphagen and glycolytic systems)? These are your energy systems at work.

Metabolic conditioning uses a range of intensities requiring all energy systems, and over time improves the efficiency of these systems. It also combines strength training with cardiovascular exercise, improving muscular strength, endurance, and function. (5)

How is metabolic conditioning related to the concept of metabolic flexibility?

Metabolic flexibility is all about how effectively your body can switch between the different energy systems that burn fat and carbohydrates for fuel. This involves transitioning between fasting and feeding states, leading to changes in fuel availability. It allows the body to use whatever fuel is available, whether from dietary fat, stored fat, glucose, or glycogen (stored glucose).

Being metabolically flexible is associated with a range of health benefits, including sustained energy, fewer blood sugar fluctuations, reduced cravings, enhanced fat burning, cardiovascular health, and reduced risk of metabolic disorders. (6)

5 metabolic workouts you can try:

Exercise movements are typically compound movements, which means multiple large muscle groups are involved. Think about a deadlift or kettlebell swing, which recruits not only leg muscles but back and core, compared to a bicep curl, which isolates a single muscle. The intensity and time spent doing the exercises are more important than the type of exercise performed, so try a variety and find your favourites. 

Examples of metcon workouts:

Always begin with a dynamic warm-up of around 5-10 minutes, for example, alternating between jumping jacks, high knees, bodyweight squats, and push-ups. 

  • Circuit training or Rounds for Time (RFT): Perform each exercise for 45 seconds, followed by 15 seconds of rest. Complete the entire circuit 3 times and a 1-minute rest in between: box jumps, kettlebell swings, burpees, dumbbell thruster, rowing machine (or cardio of choice).
  • As many rounds as possible (AMRAP): Set a timer for 20 minutes, and perform the following exercises continuously for 20 minutes, completing as many rounds as possible: 10 kettlebell deadlifts, 15 air squats, 20 push-ups, 30 double-under jump rope (60 single-unders).
  • Tabata: Perform each exercise for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Repeat each exercise for 8 rounds (4 minutes), and then move to the next exercise. Mountain climbers, plank, bicycle crunches, burpees.
  • Every minute on the minute (EMOM): Perform the set of exercises at the start of every minute, and once you complete the required repetitions, you rest for the remainder of the minute. Start the next exercise at the beginning of the following minute. Even minutes: 10 dumbbell cleans. Odd minutes: 25 walking lunges

A final note from Lingo

Metcon workouts can be a beneficial addition to your fitness routine and offer many health benefits, including building muscle, improving glucose regulation, and increasing insulin sensitivity.

It’s important to note that while metcons offer numerous benefits, they should be approached with caution, especially for beginners. Proper form, dynamic warm up, and recovery are crucial to prevent injuries. The information in this article is for educational purposes only. Please consult your doctor before beginning an exercise routine.


  1. Thompson WR, Sallis R, Joy E, Jaworski CA, Stuhr RM, Trilk JL. Exercise Is Medicine. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2020 Apr 22;14(5):511-523.

  2. Ben-Zeev T, Okun E. High-Intensity Functional Training: Molecular Mechanisms and Benefits. Neuromolecular Med. 2021 Sep;23(3):335-338.

  3. Leslie E. Smith, Gary P. Van Guilder, Lance C. Dalleck, Nicole R. Lewis, Allison G. Dages, Nigel K. Harris. (2023) A Preliminary Investigation into the Frequency Dose Effects of High-Intensity Functional Training on Cardiometabolic Health. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (22), 688 - 699. https://doi.org/10.52082/jssm.2023.688

  4. Feito Y, Heinrich KM, Butcher SJ, Poston WSC. High-Intensity Functional Training (HIFT): Definition and Research Implications for Improved Fitness. Sports (Basel). 2018 Aug 7;6(3):76.

  5. Westcott WL. Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2012 Jul-Aug;11(4):209-16.

  6. Smith RL, Soeters MR, Wüst RCI, Houtkooper RH. Metabolic Flexibility as an Adaptation to Energy Resources and Requirements in Health and Disease. Endocr Rev. 2018 Aug 1;39(4):489-517

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