Can you transform your body in 20 minutes? Unlikely. But can short, but intense workouts get you results over the course of several weeks? The answer could be yes.
You may have heard of HIIT (high-intensity interval training), but that’s not the only interval game in town. Enter: metabolic conditioning, aka MetCon, a specific type of interval training designed to improve the delivery of nutrients to the body with set rest and work ratios. This increase in efficiency translates to other activities so you can lower your time in your next mud run or even your next marathon.
The Science Behind Going All Out
“The goal of metabolic conditioning is to train your body to work at a higher intensity and increase the efficiency of storage and delivery of energy.”
The prevailing wisdom many years ago was that long endurance training sessions were necessary to improve your cardiovascular system. Now, research suggests there’s more than one way to improve your cardio fitness. Study after study has continued to show that interval training, the art of alternating high-intensity with low-intensity efforts, can be beneficial for your heart and lungs. High-intensity training can also be just as effective as traditional endurance training at burning fat. And thanks to the afterburn effect, you’ll continue to burn calories and fat immediately following your all-out training session. Ramping up your workout intensity may even help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
According to Ben Booker, DailyBurn trainer and owner of Second Chance Fitness, the goal of metabolic conditioning is to train your body to work at a higher intensity and increase the efficiency of storage and delivery of energy. The methods behind the protocol involve pushing your heart and body to the max before allowing a brief period of recovery and then repeating. As Booker explains, the more you do this, the more efficient you become meaning your body is able to deliver oxygen, pump blood, and meet the demands of exercise with less work.
So how exactly can 20 minutes of high-intensity exercise mimic the effects of a longer cardio session? Research suggests the answer lies in specific enzymes and cell signaling pathways stimulated by all-out effort. In short, the “on” periods where you’re working as hard as possible create a cascade of events within the body that leads to beneficial adaptations such as an increase in mitochondria (the “power plant” of the body) and an increase in our ability to burn fat for fuel.
When to Push Your Limits
While going all-out can be advantageous, doing it every day can actually be detrimental to your success. Whether you’re getting started with a new workout routine or adding metabolic conditioning to your regular training program, Booker advises doing no more than two 10- to 30-minute sessions a week. Also, be wary of tacking them onto other workouts in the same session, since adding them onto an exhausting lifting session can lead to injury due to fatigue. (Note: If your schedule leaves you no choice but to combine them, shorten the overall time of the workout by doing fewer intervals.)
When it’s time to get to work, Booker suggests movements like bodyweight squats, which are easily modifiable and can be done virtually anywhere. Complex, full-body exercises also beat out machine-based variations that isolate only one muscle group.
The final lynch pin before getting started: selecting your work-to-rest ratio. A 30-on/30-off ratio would mean you’re going all-out for 30 seconds, followed by a 30 second rest. Not quite up to speed? Move to 20/40 or 15/45 depending until you build up your fitness level. The key is to push yourself towards your max heart rate, Booker says, not go head-to-head with the guy or girl next to you.
The Ultimate MetCon Workout
Ready to hop right in? Perform each exercise for 30 seconds at a high intensity, followed by a 30-second break. Repeat the entire sequence five times (30-on/30-off) for a total of five minutes before moving on to the next exercise. Remember, the goal is to work as hard as possible at a pace you can sustain for all five sets!
1. Bodyweight Squats
How to: Start with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, and begin to lower the body, sitting back on your heels as if you’re sitting back into a chair (a). Keep your upper body tall and avoid letting your knees pass your toes. Try to get low enough so that your upper thigh comes below parallel with the ground before pushing through your heels to drive back up (b).
Modification: Use a chair or a box as a target when you’re sitting back in the squat. If necessary, just sit down on the box. Then, stand up by driving through your heels with good squat form.
2. Box Push-Ups
How to: This is just like a traditional push-up, but instead of placing your hands on the ground, place them on each side of a box (a). The goal is to squeeze the box throughout the entire exercise as you lower your chest all the way to the box (b). Then, be sure to keep the body in a straight line the entire time while you push back up (c).
Modification: As you continue to build strength, you can modify this exercise in two ways. First, you can drop down to your knees and continue with the push-up rather than being on your toes. In this variation, you’ll still want to keep your body in a straight line (from your head through your knees). Second, you can shorten the range of motion by not lowering all the way down to the box.
3. Frog Jumps
How to: You’ll ideally want to use a low box for this one, but you can use the floor if necessary. Start in a push-up position with your hands planted firmly on top of the box (a). In one explosive movement, hop your feet forward around each side of the box so you land in a squat position with your feet in line with your hands (b). Then, spring back to the starting position (c).
Modification: Rather than explosively jumping back and forth, step one foot forward at a time, then step each one back to the starting position. The key is just to keep moving at your own pace!
4. Burpee Box Jumps
How to: Start by bending your knees slightly and exploding up onto a box like a traditional box jump (a). Then, jump off, place your hands on the box, and hop your feet back so you’re in a push-up position (b). Perform a push-up touching your chest to the box (c). Then, hop your feet back underneath you and perform another box jump (d).
Modification: You can modify this exercise in multiple ways. First, you can step up on the box instead of jumping. You could also remove the push-up. Finally, you could step back into push-up position as opposed to hopping back. Pick whichever variation lets you work at a high-intensity for the entire 30 seconds.
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