Metabolic Conditioning: the Key to Better Performance

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The words “metabolic conditioning” are thrown around quite a bit in the fitness industry. In one setting, it may mean something as simple as intervals while in a different gym it may consist of a complex circuit involving kettlebells, rope slams, and medicine ball work. So what does metabolic conditioning actually mean? Furthermore, what types of metabolic workouts are the most effective?

Metabolic conditioning simply refers to structured patterns of work and rest periods to elicit a desired response from the body. This desired response is usually to maximize efficiency of a particular energy system. The body has several different methods of getting energy. Different ratios of work to rest periods call upon different energy systems and cause specific adaptations. Therefore, researchers in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that a metabolic conditioning workout should be based on desired outcomes and an individual’s level of fitness. For instance, someone looking to add size should have a different work to rest ratio than someone looking to get leaner or run farther. Pairing difficult exercises together and blowing through a circuit with no regards to timing isn’t nearly as beneficial as a planned attack.

To fully be able to apply the concepts of metabolic conditioning, let’s first look at the main ways the body gets energy during exercise.

Exercise Metabolism: The Basics

Metabolism simply refers to how we break down food for energy. Everything we ingest must be broken down into smaller particles in order to be used by the body. There are three primary pathways for metabolism that each has their own place and purpose.

The Immediate System: Phosphagen

Commonly referred to as the creatine phosphate pathway, think of this system as the fastest and most powerful method of getting energy. It’s mainly utilized when performing power exercises that last less than 10 seconds (think Olympic lifts and sprinting). More important than the duration is the recovery time. This system (since it’s so quick and powerful) takes around three to five minutes to fully recover.

The Intermediate System: Glycolytic

Called the glycolytic pathway, this is an intermediate system that provides energy for activities lasting between one to four minutes. It’s primarily used in shorter duration, intense activities including weightlifting and mid-distance running intervals (400-800m). The glycolytic pathway takes between one and three minutes to recover.

The Long-Duration System: Aerobic

This long-lasting energy system can go for hours upon hours of easy to moderate intensity work. Since we have almost limitless amounts of fuel for the aerobic system in the form of fat, it can recover in a matter of seconds.

With the three major pathways outlined, keep in mind that there is always interplay. No one sole pathway is working at a time. Throughout a workout, each system is contributing to some degree; however, certain work-to-rest ratios call upon one primary system.

Developing Your Metabolic Conditioning Circuit

The purpose of metabolic conditioning is to maximize the efficiency of a particular energy system to perform better in sports or develop your desired physique. One added benefit is the increase of caloric burn even after the workout is finished. Such a high intensity during the session increases EPOC and leads to a higher resting metabolism for the next few hours according to the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

The effectiveness of your metabolic conditioning is determined by the specificity in the work to rest ratios. The key is finding out exactly what you’re trying to improve. If your goal is to play better in the weekend-warrior football scrimmage – you’re better off working in the intermediate pathway since it closely mimics the demands of the sport (20 second plays with about a 40-50 second rest). However, if your goal were to become better at endurance exercise, you would be better off incorporating longer circuits with minimal rest in between exercises. Keep in mind that the intensity of the set should remain as high as possible throughout the specified work duration. In order to elicit the desired response, the body must be pushed in terms of performance.

Rather than focusing solely on the intensity of the circuit, take into account the rest periods between working bouts. If your goal is to enhance the intermediate system, it’s important that you allow enough time to recover between sets (two to three minutes). Repeating the exercise bout any sooner runs the risk of lowering intensity and turning the workout into an aerobic session. To get the most out of your metabolic conditioning workout, use total body exercises with moderate loads that still allow you to use proper form.

Go to Page Two for examples of metabolic conditioning workouts designed to improve specific aspects of performance. >>>

Note: Exercises are provided as examples. They aren’t set in stone. Interchange them as you like. However, the work:rest ratios are important.


Goal: Improve power

Focus: Immediate system

Work to rest ratio: 1:10


Box Jumps 10 seconds
Rest 1.5-2 minutes

Plyometric Push-ups 10 seconds
Rest 1.5-2 minutes

Broad Jumps 10 seconds
Rest 1.5-2 minutes

Repeat 4x


Goal: Improve sports performance

Focus: Intermediate system

Work to rest ratio: 1:2

Kettlebell swings 20 seconds
Rest 40 seconds

Kettlebell cleans 20 seconds
Rest 40 seconds

Kettlebell snatches 20 seconds
Rest 40 seconds

Kettlebell push-presses 20 seconds
Rest 40 seconds

Repeat 2x


Goal: Improve endurance performance

Focus: Long-Duration system

Work to rest ratio: 4:1


Kettlebell swings 30 seconds

Kettlebell cleans 30 seconds

Kettlebell snatches 30 seconds

Kettlebell push-presses 30 seconds

Rest 30 seconds

Repeat 3x


Goal: Get lean (combination of both short- and long-duration)

Work to rest ratio: 1:2 and 3:1 (perform each once a week)

Example 1:2

Burpees 30 seconds
Rest 60 seconds

Jumping squats 30 seconds
Rest 60 seconds

Pull-ups 30 seconds
Rest 60 seconds

Mountain climbers 30 seconds
Rest 60 seconds

Repeat 2x


Example 3:1

Squat to press 30 seconds
Rest 10 seconds

Pull-up 30 seconds
Rest 10 seconds

Jumping lunges 30 seconds
Rest 10 seconds

Renegade rows 30 seconds
Rest 10 seconds

Rest 1 minute then repeat 2x

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