Want to know the biggest barrier to a regular fitness routine? Time.
It's the number one complaint I hear from clients. Whenever they let their workouts or nutrition plan slide (or fall back into bad habits), it's not due to a lack of willpower or motivation. Instead, tight schedules, work demands, and family obligations get in the way, pushing them further away from their wellness goals.
It's a common problem. I myself struggle to maintain a balance between work, workouts, and some semblance of a social life. Therefore, when I carve out 45 minutes to exercise, I want to get the most out of those 45 minutes — which is where metabolic training (aka metabolic conditioning) comes in.
Metabolic training consists of high-intensity workouts that combine resistance training and cardio movements. Using minimal rest, a circuit-based format, and superset movements, metabolic training is the way to burn the most calories in the least amount of time.
Sounds great, right? Well, only if you do it correctly. Below, I explain what metabolic training is, its benefits, and how to build a metabolic training workout the right way.
What Is Metabolic Training?
Metabolic training combines circuit training with compound exercises and minimal rest for maximum calorie burn. If you plan a metabolic workout correctly, you can build muscle, shred fat, and save time at the gym.
Before I dive into the specifics of metabolic training, I need to make one glaring disclaimer: Metabolic workouts are not hard simply for the sake of being hard.
Here's what I mean by that: Many individuals believe efficient workouts are the same thing as difficult workouts (and by difficult, I mean running-to-the-garbage-can-about-to-hurl difficult). But this is based on a false belief.
Virtually any workout can be hard. If you run 15 x 100 meter sprints and only give yourself 20 seconds rest between each rep, you probably won't be able to walk the next day. Or, if you do 100 sets of back squats followed by 100 burpees, you'll probably find yourself running to that garbage can afterward. But never in my career have I programmed either of the above workouts. Sure, they might burn a hell of a lot of calories, but my clients would get injured and never make it back for their second workout.
Metabolic workouts are meant to be efficient. In order to get the maximum benefit from these workouts, they should include three things:
- Compound exercises: Metabolic workouts focus on compound movements, or exercises that recruit multiple muscle groups (like deadlifts). You will avoid isolated movements which only use one muscle group (like bicep curls).
- Circuits: Metabolic workouts take place within a circuit format. You can perform one circuit of multiple (e.g. 6-12) exercises for one round, or you can break your workout into multiple mini circuits (e.g. three circuits of 2-4 exercises each).
- Minimal rest: Within a given circuit, you will take minimal rest. To prevent injury, you cannot burn out one muscle group too quickly. Therefore, alternate between lower body and upper body movements, or push (working the front of the body) and pull movements (working the back of the body or your posterior chain).
What Are the Benefits of Metabolic Training?
For a busy parent, student, or working professional, one of the biggest benefits to metabolic training is time. These circuit-based workouts allow you to squeeze in an efficient workout within an already-tight schedule. In addition, since it combines resistance training and cardio, you don't need to carve out space in your week for both types of workouts.
Beyond the time factor, there are a number advantages to metabolic workouts, including:
1. They Help Burn Fat
Circuit training, like metabolic workouts, have been shown to speed up fat loss. Since they build muscle (which burns more calories than fat) and burn fat (through cardio training), metabolic training can be an efficient weight loss tool.
In a study focused on obese individuals, doing three metabolic workouts a week for two months resulted in significant losses in fat, while preserving fat-free muscle mass. Participants completed a warm-up, 4 x 6-minute circuits, and a cool down for each workout.
2. They Help Improve Body Composition
Metabolic workouts combine strength training (which builds muscle) and aerobic training (which burns calories). This grueling, albeit effective, combination leads to a drastic improvement in body composition.
In a 12-week study, a group of college females completed a circuit training program three times per week. Each circuit included ten exercises, split evenly between strength and cardio movements. Those who completed the program showed reductions in body weight, body fat percentage, and BMI (body mass index), showing that these types of workouts can help improve body composition.
3. They Can Increase Your Aerobic Capacity
Aerobic capacity measures how efficiently your body pumps oxygen in and out of your lungs. Poor aerobic capacity is associated with a number of health risks, including coronary and cardiovascular diseases.
Completing workouts with shorter rest times will undoubtedly spike your heart rate, thereby improving your aerobic capacity. Science shows that circuit training — both in continuous circuits (AMRAPs, or as many reps as possible) and short intervals — is efficient in improving aerobic capacity. In addition, research shows that metabolic resistance training can improve other biomarkers of heart disease, including blood pressure and blood lipid levels.
4. They Can Increase Calorie Burn … Even When You're Not Working Out
Want to burn more calories even while sitting on the couch? Circuit workouts are known for the "afterburn" effect where you continue to burn calories well after your workout concludes, leading to fat and weight loss.
Studies show that HIIT (high intensity interval training) and metabolic training causes excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. This is also known as the Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) effect. In other words, your body spends more energy simply pumping oxygen in-and-out of your system. While scientists previously believed that the afterburn effect tapered off around 16 hours, research shows it will continue to burn calories for 38-hours post exercise.
How to Build a Metabolic Workout the Right Way
As stated earlier, many people approach metabolic training the wrong way, opting for pain and brutality over efficiency. In order to ensure you're working out safely — while getting the most bang for your buck at the gym — follow these tips:
1. Choose Your Format
When building your workout, think about how you build your circuit. There is no right or wrong way to do this — there is just the way that works best for you.
Personally, I like to build 3-4 mini circuits of 2-4 exercises. However, if I have a client who only has 20-minutes at lunchtime to workout, I might give them a single circuit of eight exercises, and tell them to complete as many rounds as they can within those 20 minutes.
2. Intentionally Pair Exercises Together
When building your circuit, your goal is to complete a full-body workout without burning out a single muscle halfway through. To do this, you can't simply pick ten random exercises and complete them in whichever order you choose.
Instead, each exercise should strategically compliment the movement that comes before and after it. Balance out the muscles throughout the body, and schedule core work in the middle of the workout to give your legs and arms a break. (Many people program core work into the end of a workout, but I think this is a missed opportunity. An activated core ensures proper form throughout each exercise, plus a strictly core exercise gives your limbs a much-needed break.)
- Alternate upper and lower body: If you do a leg exercise (like a back squat), follow-up with an arm lift, like a renegade row.
- Alternate between push and pull: If you perform a push exercise (like a sled push), follow-up with a pull movement (like a deadlift), followed by another push exercise (like a pushup).
When choosing exercises, you may want to choose movements where you'll use similar weight. If you are constantly choosing different weights, you will use up all of your rest time (and then some), thereby missing the point of a metabolic workout.
3. Toss in Some Combinations
The goal of a metabolic workout is to work the entire body in a single training session. To do this, look for opportunities where you can add in some combination movements.
Combination movements are 2-3 exercises "combined" into one, fluid movement. For example:
- Combine three moves into one: A squat-curl-to-press is three exercises combined into one single movement.
- Use already-built combination movements: Arguably the most famous combination exercise is the burpee, which is really a push-up, squat, and vertical jump combined into one movement.
4. Schedule Your Rest
While a metabolic workout focuses on very little rest, it doesn't mean no rest. Your goal should be to strategically implement rest throughout your workout. Push yourself to not take a break before your pre-scheduled rest periods.
Remember: Rest is essential because it will force you to complete each exercise at a high intensity. It is physically impossible to complete a 30-minute circuit without rest, unless you are going at a low-to-moderate intensity (which misses the entire point of the workout).
To schedule in rest, try the following:
- Rest between circuits: Create four circuits of 2-3 movements. Perform each circuit continuously for three minutes, then rest for 1 minute before moving to the next circuit.
- Rest between exercises: Create one circuit of 8-12 movements. Perform each move for 45 seconds, then allot 15 seconds of rest before moving to the next exercise. If you perform more than one round, rest for 1-2 minutes between rounds.
5. Don't Forget About Cardio
The purpose of metabolic training is to get both cardio and weight training within a single workout. Therefore, choose moves that have a cardio component attached to them.
Walking lunges, bounds, mountain climbers, and burpees are all cardio exercises that also help build muscle. When building them into your workout program, keep the following in mind:
- Alternate between strength and cardio: If you perform three cardio movements back-to-back-to-back, you will burn yourself out. Follow-up a round of burpees with something easier on your lungs, like deadlifts.
- Don't get cardio crazy: Cardio moves can be addicting because you feel like you're exerting so much energy. However, remember you're aiming for a balance between strength and cardio — don't go overboard.
A Full-Body Metabolic Training Circuit
Ready to put what you learned into practice? Below, I share a metabolic conditioning workout that will tax your entire body.
The below workout is made up of three circuits. Perform each circuit for four minutes, completing as many rounds as you can within each circuit. Rest for one minute before moving on to the next circuit. Complete the entire workout twice, preceded by a warm-up and followed by a cool down.
As always, form over speed! Work hard but don’t rush the exercises. If you plan to follow this routine for longer, make sure that you progressively overload and make it harder over time (increase weight and/or time periods).
Perform each exercise for 30 seconds. Complete the circuit twice.
- High knees
- Glute kicks
- Karaoke (both directions, 30 seconds each)
- Side shuffle (both directions, 30 seconds each)
- Toy soldier
You will need a resistance band and one pair of heavy dumbbells (what you would use for a dumbbell squat).
- Dumbbell walking lunges x 20 (10 each leg)
- Broad jump to a push-up x 10 (10 jumps, 10 push-ups)
- Band reverse fly x 20
You will need one pair of medium-heavy dumbbells (what you would typically choose for a chest press).
You will need two kettlebells — one heavy (what you typically use for a kettlebell swing), and one lighter (roughly 50-60% of your heavy kettlebell).
- Kettlebell swings x 12
- Kettlebell chest press to overhead extension x 12
- Lateral bear crawl with a kettlebell pull-through x 10 (5 in one direction, 5 in the other direction)
Metabolic Training Helps Burn Fat in Less Time
Metabolic workouts combine cardio and resistance training for a fast, effective workout. With limited, scheduled rest and full-body circuits, you can get an efficient workout to fit into your busy schedule.
Unfortunately, many metabolic workouts are built the wrong way, leading to overuse and injury. To prevent this from happening, be strategic in how you pair exercises together, alternating between strength and cardio, upper and lower body, and push and pull movements.
For more metabolic workouts, join my Build Bullet-Proof Health program. You get monthly workout and nutrition plans, and — with a premium membership — monthly calls with me. Together, we can work out an exercise plan to fit into your tight schedule.
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