Q&A: What is Metabolic Conditioning?

Question:

What does metabolic conditioning mean? Is it necessary? Does high intensity training provide it?

Answer:

When most people think of training to improve endurance, they think of conditioning the cardiovascular system to improve transport of blood to the working muscles. Metabolic conditioning is the other side of the coin – conditioning the muscles to better use what’s being delivered to them by improving the efficiency of the different metabolic pathways involved.

When strength training is performed with a high level of intensity and short rest intervals between exercises, the cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning benefits equal or exceed what can be achieved with more traditional “cardio” activities. This was proven during Nautilus research at West Point Military Academy back in the mid 1970’s. In an article about the study in the Athletic Journal, Vol. 56, Sept. 1975, Dr. James Patterson said the following,

“Contrary to most commonly held beliefs on the subject of strength training, the training also significantly improved the cardiovascular condition of the subjects. By maintaining the intensity of the workouts at a high level and by limiting the amount of rest between exercises, the training resulted in improvement on each of 60 separate measures of cardiovascular fitness. Contrary to widespread opinion, not only will a properly conducted program of strength training produce increases in muscular strength but will also significantly improve an individual’s level of cardiovascular condition. The data suggests that some of these cardiovascular benefits apparently cannot be achieved by any other type of training.”

More recently, a six-month study conducted at Philipps University in Marburg Germany in 2003 demonstrated similar results. (Maisch B, Baum E, Grimm W. Die Auswirkungen dynamischen Krafttrainings nach dem Nautilus-Prinzip auf kardiozirkulatorische Parameter und Ausdauerleistungsfähigkeit (The effects of resistance training according to the Nautilus principles on cardiocirculatory parameters and endurance). Angenommen vom Fachbereich Humanmedizin der Philipps-Universität Marburg am 11. Dezember 2003). The following is a quote about the study from a Feb 2005 article in Internal Medicine News,

“A 6-month structured Nautilus weightlifting program resulted in improvements in cardiocirculatory fitness to a degree traditionally considered obtainable only through endurance exercises such as running, bicycling, and swimming, said Dr. Baum, a family physician at Philipps University, Marburg, Germany.

“This opens up new possibilities for cardiopulmonary-oriented exercise besides the traditional stamina sports,” she noted. New exercise options are desirable because some patients just don’t care for endurance exercise, which doesn’t do much to improve muscular strength and stabilization.”

While they use the terms cardiovascular and cardiocirculatory in reference to the results, a large part of the improvements occurred in the skeletal muscles.

While some more bodybuilding-oriented methods of high intensity training do not emphasize metabolic conditioning, some degree is unavoidable with any kind of demanding exercise. For examples of high intensity training routines emphasizing metabolic conditioning along with whole-body strength, check out the 3×3 article.

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8 Responses to Q&A: What is Metabolic Conditioning?

  1. jason June 27, 2008 at 6:14 am #

    ok, i hope this isn’t too stupid a question to ask, but considering that metabolic conditioning plans as you have designed, with its short rest periods, would this trigger a greater effect on raising the metabolism -post workout and beyond- as proponents of H.I.I.T (tabata protocol for example) advocate? It seems to me that a trainee looking for fatloss could gain more of an advantage than just a training training in a strict HIT style. As you mentioned in the article to move from exercise to exercise is far easier than the typical gym environment with 3×3 done circuit style.

  2. Drew Baye June 27, 2008 at 1:27 pm #

    Jason,

    Reducing rest between sets would probably have little effect on post-workout metabolic rate, but neither does anything else. For most people, exercising to burn calories is a waste of time.

    If your goal is fat loss, the focus of your workouts should be on building muscle mass to increase metabolic rate, rather than a slight momentary increase in calories. High intensity strength training combined with calorie restriction is a more effective and more efficient approach for fat loss.

  3. Steven Turner July 11, 2008 at 2:25 am #

    Hi Drew,

    Again I extremely enjoyed this article explaining “Metabolic Condtioning” my expereience training using the HIT guidelines for metabolic conditioning has proved far superior to any of my past experiences as triathle. When I was competing regularly in triathlons I wished I had trained using the HIT guidlines even though I had been very successful at veteran level. Also I agree with Arthur Jones statement about Dr Cooper being remebered for “wrecking Amercians knees” he could extend that to wrecking the worlds knees. As I mentioned I competed for many years I competed at elite level veteran triathlons and distance running and you know exactly as Arthur predicted most of my fellow competitors now suffer from, “wrecked knees, hips, backs, many have trouble just walking. My reasoning for sharing a part of my athletic history is that much of the motivation for “aerobic activities” was to improve our endurandce and “cardiovascular system” high HRs etc. We never realised that through HIT metabolic conditioning that there was a safer way. The other problem is that in Australia that weight lifting mainly revloved around HVT methods.

    Thanks for the great articles

    Steven

  4. Richard Glover July 17, 2008 at 5:58 pm #

    Do we know what the ‘improvements on 60 measures of CV fitness’ were in the Westpoint trial? Couldn’t metabolic conditioning be also used to describe the benefits from the mis-named ‘cardiovascular’ exercise – e.g. the positive effects on the endocrine system, improved vascular efficiency etc. ?

  5. Tyler September 8, 2009 at 3:43 pm #

    Is it ok to start of right a way useing metabolic conditioning on someone who is not exactly physically fit of should you train them for a while first?

    • Drew Baye September 9, 2009 at 8:33 pm #

      Tyler,

      Beginners should start with weights and a pace that allows them to focus more on learning proper exercise form. As form improves, weights and pace can be progressed to a level appropriate to the individual.

  6. Dan Chico August 16, 2011 at 7:00 pm #

    Hi I have spent a large portion of my life being strong even though I have a genetic disorder that makes it a little difficult.
    my question is since I have a small bone structure, eat healthy, and cannot put on fat as it is
    How do I go from looking weak but being strong to looking strong while being strong?
    would it just be a more intense workout and do rests between sets even matter?

    • Drew Baye August 18, 2011 at 10:53 am #

      Dan,

      The ratio between a person’s muscular strength and size is largely dependent on genetics. Some people will gain a lot of size from a little strength gain, and some people can get very strong with little increase in hypertrophy. This is not, as many people claim, because there is a different way to train for strength and size, but due to differences in genetics. While this can be frustrating for those of us with a higher strength to size ratio but would like to be more muscular, consider it an advantage – a greater strength to size ratio means greater speed (you have less mass to move), more efficient heat dissipation and better endurance (less mass means a lower volume to surface area ratio which allows for more efficient heat dissipation and slower fatigue), and it’s easier for you to perform many movements that are very difficult with a much larger body, like climbing, jumping, mantling, vaulting, etc.

      If you are not getting enough protein or calories increasing these will help, but do so gradually so as to not put in too much fat. You can also emphasize muscular strength and size over other factors of fitness by resting longer between sets to allow for systemic recovery and using methods like rest pause and negative emphasized that allow you to use heavier weights.

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