The Case for the Short Metcon

The ‘Metcon’ (short for metabolic conditioning) is a staple of CrossFit style training. Typically it is two to three exercises repeated for rounds. A classic example from CrossFit is one called “Cindy”, one round consisting of 5 pullups, 10 pushups, and 15 squats. This is repeated for 20 minutes and scored based on the number of rounds completed.

A metcon is strong medicine – stronger than I think a lot of people realize. Unfortunately, it is often over-prescribed by eager trainers – especially to newbies.

In my early days as a Crossfitter I was eager to keep up the big dogs, but it didn’t work out too well. My recovery was never all that great. I’m no longer a young buck. It didn’t take long for me to get seriously beat down by the volume in a typical 20 minute WOD. By the time I had recovered, I had detrained to the point that I was back where I started. It was depressing to say the least.

My post-CrossFit career has been much more successful. I do metcons three days a week, but I’m rarely sore. I feel fresh at the start of every workout. And I’m making the best progress ever. How do I do it? I keep my metcons from 2 to 7 minutes max and do them full tilt. Crazy, right?

Before you dismiss this idea out of hand, let’s talk about training volume a little bit. For our purposes, volume will simply be the number of reps done in a workout. Training volume is funny. Each person has only a certain amount they can handle, but it’s often not immediately apparent that you’ve overdone it. Your body has reserves it uses for tough days that keep you trucking. It’s an obviously necessary survival mechanism, but this biological strategy assumes there will be easy days as well to replentish that reserve.

Going over this limit means you’re dipping into your reserve. Do this with insufficient recovery, for long enough and you will come crashing to earth – declining performance, sickness, and injury. All those withdrawals you made from the physical reserve will have to be paid back – often at high interest. Training volume is something you need to conserve. You need to make sure that when you spend it, you’re getting something back in proportion to what you paid.

If you can make progress toward your goals with a little volume then it makes no sense to use a lot. Training volume is one of those “U-shaped curves” Robb is always talking about. Too little isn’t good and neither is too much. Like Goldilocks’ porridge it has to be “just right”. But it must also be said that having too little is far preferable to having too much. If you’re patient, adding volume in small doses is easy. Fixing an overtraining issue that has built up over a few months isn’t. Recovering from an injury can be even worse.

The way I see it, there are three phases an athlete goes through when doing a metcon. In phase one they’re fresh. The reps are crisp and the movement is efficient. Then in phase 2 we get into what I like to call “garbage time”. Fatigue sets in. Reps are crappy and the intensity is low. In the final phase 3 the end is in sight so you get a sprint to the finish – intensity is up again and the athlete tends to be more ‘present’ for the activity.

How about we just skip phase 2? If the metcon is short enough, by the time you realize it sucks you’re almost finished –  so you finish strong. No pain cave. No garbage time.

Here’s something I find ironic. Coach Glassman was a big proponent of the Tabata protocol – 6-8 rounds of work 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest. But CrossFit took that proven method and tried to make it better. CrossFit has “Tabata Something Else” which is four 8-round Tabatas back to back. If you take something designed to last 4 minutes and stretch it to 16 minutes you have drastically changed the training effect – different energy systems etc. Tabatas are plenty hard even when done correctly. Try the Dan John special of front squatting 95 pounds for eight rounds. You’ll be cooked. I guarantee it.

CrossFit has a culture of the “beat-down”. If someone goes home physically crushed they feel like they got their money’s worth. Even outside of the CF crowd, soreness seems to be a measure of the quality of a workout. This is a shame. It’s a reflection of not having any real goals. You’re just training for the moment. The only real measure of a workout or a program is “Are you making progress?” And the only way you can measure progress is against a goal that’s goes beyond today’s workout.

It is obviously silly to exercise with the goal of getting sore. Getting sore is easy and is only satisfying until the pain goes away. But achieving a long term goal means you actually accomplished something.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that a 20 minute metcon is always bad. I’m just saying that a person should apply the appropriate training volume for their level of advancement. Start small and work your way up. It’s this crazy thing called progressive training. Add volume to your high-intensity metcon when your progress stagnates. I would still say that you’d get a better workout doing a 3 minute metcon 3 times with rest intervals than doing the same thing for 9 minutes straight, but when you’ve arrived at that level you’ll know what works best for you.

I can hear you saying, “But if the metcon is only 2 minutes how the heck are we going to fill up an hour?” Lift baby. If you’re a man and you’re not deadlifting 2 times your body weight or a woman deadlifting below 1.5 times body weight then you should be spending most of your time building strength. At that modest advancement level, getting stronger will make everything else better; there’s no better way to spend your training time. You could do something like work up to a heavy triple in a compound movement or two, do some higher volume calisthenics (untimed and non-competitively) and then do a short metcon “finisher”. Everyone will go home feeling like they got their money’s worth, but will be raring to go next time with more strength and work capacity than ever.

Categories: CrossFit, Fitness


Robb Wolf’s 30 Day Paleo Transformation

Have you heard about the Paleo diet and were curious about how to get started? Or maybe you’ve been trying Paleo for a while but have questions or aren’t sure what the right exercise program is for you? Or maybe you just want a 30-day meal plan and shopping list to make things easier? Then Robb Wolf’s 30 Day Paleo Transformation is for you.


    • Josh says

      Chris, Metcon stands for “metabolic conditioning” – it’s generally a high intensity workout that improves your body’s ability to store and use energy that would be needed for a certain period of time. Improving both aerobic and anaerobic performance (think running 1 mile and running 100m respectively).

    • DJ says

      The book “Body by Science” by McGuff + Little has a chapter titled ‘Global Metabolic Conditioning’ that is very informative.

  1. James says

    This is spot-on. I really believe that this is why CFFB works much better (for me, personally) than mainsite programming.

  2. says

    How does one find a place to train appropriately?

    Over the last several months I’ve been looking into this Paleo lifestyle and have made some significant changes to my diet (no longer a mostly raw vegan, I eat eggs daily and am working on eating meat).

    I was *just* about to join a crossfit gym. It sounds like maybe I’m better off not doing that? I can do pull ups, squats and push ups at home but the bulk of my workout experience is yoga. I don’t know the first thing about weight lifting and wouldn’t want to attempt it on my own.

    • Marcos says

      Most CF gyms post their workouts online. Check a couple out in your area and make an informed decision based on their programming. In my opinion, there should be an emphasis on strength/skill as well as conditioning. Talk to the owners/coaches. Contrary to most of what gets posted on this site, all CF gyms aren’t evil sadist operations.

    • Matt Lentzner says

      There are lots of good CrossFit gyms out there. A CrossFit gym is also likely to be only place that has, what I would consider, decent equipment. Machines are the pits. If you find one where the trainers are enlightened and know something about programming then it can be a wonderful thing. The worry is that the bad gyms can be really bad. It’s one thing to waste people’s time like at the local corporate gym, but bad CrossFit can get you hurt and badly.

      I’ll be posting a lot about what makes a good training program and what doesn’t. Maybe hold off on that decision for a little while. Hopefully, in the near future you’ll be informed enough to evaluate whether your local CrossFit gym is doing it right or not.

      • says

        My husband and I are starting to do training at home, so what we do is that we take routines from crossfit websites, from Mark Sisson’s website and from different Paleo books. We started with Robb’s suggestions from his book.

        So it would be great if you post more info, because we are still trying to figure it out, maybe a 101 with a couple of different options would be awesome.

    • says

      Thanks everyone, I’ll keep watching. As for working out at home, for simple things definitely but like I said for lifting – I don’t know the names of the moves let alone how to do them or how to increase weight or anything. I’ll check out some CF gyms. If nothing else I’ll learn what you all are talking about =)

  3. William says

    Regarding your strength “guage” (2 x body weight for men’s deadlift), I assume you mean a one rep max. Is there a way someone can reasonably calculate a 1RM based on weight done for 5 reps? I’m to the age that I don’t want to risk an injury finding my 1 RM, but would like some reassurance that I am pushing hard enough in the gym to be gaining strength. Thanks

    • Michael says

      If you do a deadlift correctly it is pretty hard to get injurred even if you are trying to lift 5x body weight.

    • Nathan Greaves says

      google “one rep max calculator” and youll get hella mounts of returns. the one is pretty accurate. works for me!

    • Matt Lentzner says

      There are plenty of 1RM calculators out there (as pointed out by Nathan), but their accuracy is pretty suspect since a lot depends on the biological particulars of the lifter. The further you get away from a true 1RM test the more muscular endurance comes into the picture and the more divergence you will get. I think if you really wanted to test without actually pulling a 1RM I would say do a 3RM and add 10%. I would also knock 10% off the standard for each decade after 40.

      It is true that a deadlift is very safe as Michael says. If it’s too heavy literally nothing happens. It stays on the floor. The way people get hurt is by jerking the bar off the floor and that is dangerous no matter if it’s a single or a set of ten.

      Having said all that, I think you’re missing the point a little. It’s not that you get a gold star for meeting the standard. The point is to work basic strength seriously for long enough to gain the benefits. For most young bucks this will be a 2x bodyweight deadlift. There will be gifted lifters out there who should go higher and people who got dealt a bum hand and will not make it. It’s more of a rule of thumb. If a person has worked the basics with an intelligent program for one to two years then they have probably ‘paid their dues’ and can branch out into other things.

      You don’t necessarily need to “push”. Just work out with some perseverance and a little patience and you’ll get there.

  4. Sonya says

    I have been Crossfitting for about 2 years now. I can deadlift >1.5 x BW and have made lots of progress on all of my Oly lifts and such. YAY, right?! Well, no.

    The problem I’m coming to now is that I don’t like the programming of my gym. I’d LOVE to focus on more lifting but that would likely mean derailing from the programmed “AMRAP this, Metcon that” which has been fairly typical of my gym. In fact, in the past year I’ve suffered two rather awful injuries that set me back quite a bit due to multiple >20 min metcons that caused a tear to one of my pectoralis muscles and during a different one a tear to the glute medius. It’s absolutely miserable to have to reel it in once you know you’ve been injured.

    I guess I should start talking to my current coaches and see what their flexibility is as far as doing my own specific programming. No that I don’t love working out with all different levels of folks but I’m at a point where my focus needs to be on MY progress rather than a group class progress.

    Any recs on what type of programming I should be looking to do?

    • Jake says

      Try finding a local Oly or PL gym, they’ll be much more receptive to individual goals and proper programming for getting strong without destroying yourself. If you’re motivated enough to train on your own in a globo gym, and like learning new things, start reading some stuff from people who actually understand strength: pavel, dan john, mark rippetoe, glenn pendlay, greg everett and other folks they recommend. Once you understand some of the basics you’ll also have a better bs detector for claims made by other training gurus, like going from a 200lb deadlift to a 750lb deadlift in 2 years without pulling heavy more than a few times a year.

      • Sonya says

        Thanks for the info Jake! There is an Oly gym here but until recently I didn’t want to stray from Crossfit simply for the social connections I have through my gym. If there’s one thing that Crossfit is good at is getting like-minded people in one place together! But all that aside I’d like to approach my lifting and overall fitness much more seriously.

        I can’t say I’d feel comfortable training in a globo gym despite many years of being a gym-rat. Since I have access to an Oly gym I’d rather start ehre. There’s also another CF gym in my area that has an ex-olympic weightlifting coach. I can see if they’d be willing to do some more specific programming.

        It’s been hard to realize that maybe Crossfit ISN’T the best way for me to improve my fitness.

        • kara says

          Im in the same boat. I have a hip flexor injury and a rotator cuff injury all from overtraining and improper form in crossfit. I gave it up and it was hard. I plan on doing Wendlers 5/3/1 program on my own. I totally agree that bad form creeps in with fatigue. I am now 6 months into my injuries and at least able to keep my weight off with paleo. The only good side of crossfit is that it exposed me to the barbell and real strength training. Good luck to you

          • Sonya says

            Kara- it’s really hard to give up the KoolAid. I haven’t completely given it up but I have switched gyms and discussed in detail my fitness goals in addition to my repeated injuries.
            I did the Wendler 5/3/1 program last year at my CF gym and loved it. Since that time the programming has been changed a bunch of times but never a return to structured strength conditioning which is what I want and need.
            Good luck healing. Stinks to have to pull back!

  5. Dave says

    I like the idea of having the 2xBW DL as a benchmark to reach for. I just started lifting again and that’s a great goal to work towards. What about squats, benching, snatches, etc. Are there any metrics for those lifts that I should be aiming for as well?

  6. says

    Well said, and right on the money.
    I am a strength coach, and work with several BJJ athletes. De-crossfitting them has been a major issue. Conditioning is great. It is the water, but strength is the glass. A tiny glass can only hold so much water.

  7. Melissa says

    Thanks for the great post! My husband and I have been crossfitting for several years, and I just got my Level 1 cert., but we too are starting to get a little burned by some CF programming. Some CF’s are amazing and some shouldn’t even be affiliates. That said, we started going to a (*gasp) Globo-gym, and to be honest, it’s not as bad as we had imagined. They actually let us drop the weights when we lift and we can finally focus on a program tailored to our needs without the added pressure of competing or staying in a coach’s specific time schedule. I look forward to more our your posts on here!

  8. says

    Think of Crossfit as a means to enter a realm of more advanced training. I think we can all agree that crossfitting is an improvement over globo gyms and empowers individuals. For some, they can stop there, for others its a means to familiarize themselves with other training methods and a launching pad to a more athlete specific regimen. Once one has done Crossfit training one should not surrender to dogma and assume they can only use that method.

    Also, Crossfit is just a name. The specific affiliates are in charge of their own shops so there will be varience affiliate to affiliate depending on the owner’s business and coaching skills. A good Crossfit affiliate may be different for me than for you but a good affiliate should be exactly that, good. A crappy crossfit box is no better than a crappy hole in the wall gym. I know, for example, that the box I started at would encourage me to go to a different training facility if it would make me a better athlete. That’s one of the reasons I liked training there while I did.

    If you know what you need and what you need doesn’t include an entire gym or a coach then feel free to develop your own methods but please share what you are doing so we can all learn together!

  9. Jonathan says

    “I do metcons three days a week, but I’m rarely sore. I feel fresh at the start of every workout. And I’m making the best progress ever. How do I do it? I keep my metcons from 2 to 7 minutes max and do them full tilt.”

    ““But if the metcon is only 2 minutes how the heck are we going to fill up an hour?” Lift baby.”

    Would love to see what your week looks like, as in a template. I followed one of Greg Everett’s 5-week oly cycles from and loved it. Saw amazing progress and set new PR’s almost weekly. Greg throws in short metcons twice weekly. I would like to work in more presses and deadlifts along with the Oly lifts. Two to three metcons per week sounds great.

    What are your thoughts on CFFB’s programming?

    Thank you for your aricle and time.

  10. Ryan says

    Wow very timely for me personally! I haven’t been going to my CF workouts for over a month and it wasn’t till my partner mentioned that it was because of my “scare” the last time I went. That “scare” happened the night after my hardest CF workout and my hardest workout in at least 3-5 years. I’m still not sure what happened except that I thought I was having a heart attack! So much so that I called the paramedics. Maybe a story for another time, but not a good experience to say the least!

    I was supposed to go this past Tuesday but opted for going for a run instead. This post at least helps me understand I can and should go a little “softer” when I eventually get my a** back into the gym. It’s ironic though too because I love the fact that I’ll go harder than I thought I could with CF because of the competitive aspect and the instructor pushing me. I guess that will always be the case though, and I really need to work on that pesky “progression” and start slow.

    For practicality, in class when everyone else is doing a 12 or 15 or 20 min workout, should we just shorten our own workout and tell the instructor, or should we go the whole time and decrease our effort by half or by 3/4?

    • Matt Lentzner says

      In general I would say to keep the intensity and cut the time commitment in half or more. A 7 minute Cindy is almost as hard as a 20 minute one and maybe even better for you since you don’t get as beat up. Cutting the effort level is also an option, although I feel like moving fast for less time makes a person more athletic.

      In your particular case, Ryan, I would be somewhat concerned about your “episode”. I would cut the time AND the effort level. Slowly build up the intensity.

      At my gym we will typically do a brand new metcon three time in three weeks. The first time through is to just feel it out. The second time you go about 80-90%. You would only blow it out on the third time through. This approach allows your body to adapt to the training stimulus. It also has the advantage of allowing us to pull the plug on the whole thing before we get into trouble. If everyone has sore knees after the first time through then we’re not going keep doing it – any problems will only get worse as the intensity gets ramped up.

  11. sam v says

    Great post. I very much agree with all that you say. Last year when I discovered paleo i was looking into crossfit when I heard Robb and Andy mention Starting Strength as a better option to start with and I’m loving it
    When I wanted yo get into some conditioning again I discovered ’50 Greyskull approved conditioning workouts’ which is an awesome resource for sub-10 metcons.

    Looking forward to your future articles.

  12. Aaron O says

    Very nice post Matt, I would love to spend a week in your gym just to see how you guys run your programming. In your suggestion of doing heavy, cali, then Metcon, how much rest do you allow between each?


    • Matt Lentzner says

      I’m planning on posting our workout template for a later post. I’m making my case with these preliminary postings since I can’t just put the whole thing up in one giant hairball. :)

      Stay tuned.

  13. Meredith says

    Thanks for the post, have read several times. This reminds me of Mark S’s Primal Fitness routine a bit, lift real heavy and do short conditioning efforts, versus the pretty common long metcons you speak of here. My question is, if you take this approach and keep metcons very short, what is the primary leanness-inducing element of this program? It seems that you can do a [lifting+long metcon type workouts] approach OR a [lifting+very short metcons+longggg rowing sessions] approach. I feel like I’m missing a piece, any ideas?

    • Matt Lentzner says

      I’m a big fan of Mark’s approach. His lifting, sprinting, hiking, template is dead-on. My interest is taking that general idea and turning it into outstanding fitness as opposed to merely satisfactory.

      The primary leaness inducing element is always going to be diet. The next is going to be muscle-mass. Any kind of intense cardio (including long metcons) is catabolic. Don’t think in terms of burning calories – that concept is thoroughly bankrupt.

      Having said that, I do think a long, slow activity is nice. But don’t row unless it’s on a boat. Get outside and catch some rays and fresh air if you can. It shouldn’t be glycolytically taxing at all. Get those fatty acids mobilized to work that energy system.

  14. Mike Hollister says

    I go to a crossfit gym and love it. I don’t always agree with the programming but I’ve been going long enough that I just do my own thing if I don’t want to what’s programmed. Or I just stop partway through a workout, doing 3 or 4 rounds instead of 5.

    For me it’s a matter of checking my ego. I want to “man up” and finish the workout but I realized a while ago that finishing a wod w/ garbage reps doesn’t make me better or strong, it just puts me at risk for injury. I’m never going to the games, but I enjoy being strong. I work out with that goal in mind.

    • Matt Lentzner says

      It’s good you have that level of confidence to cut things short. It will serve you well in the long term. I don’t think those garbage reps are good for anyone – even a games competitor.

  15. Ryan says

    I am moving to the bay area/SF at the beginning of the year and would like to start crossfit to learn some new movements and also maybe meet some people. Does anyone have any recommendations for a box in this area that kind of follows these principles?

  16. Steve says

    Interesting read.

    I would call myself a crossfitter, yet I’ve never darkened the door of an affiliate, nor paid for a “cert”. Just spent loads of time reading back issues of the journal (and now starting strength), learned by trial and error, and was lucky enough to have a gym in easy access with oly bars, bumpers, boxes, kettlebells, etc.

    Over the last 6 months, I’ve been experimenting with a different approach- more focus on heavy lifting (squat, press, DL), with only a few quick metcons, usually in the 5-15 minute domain. If I’m short of time, the metcon is the bit that gets canned, not the lifts.

    Every 6-7 weeks I’ll do a week with some of the old favourites, just as a validation against the baseline. The results are pretty convincing. Better on all of the old favourites, in addition to the linear progression on the lifts.

    Seems to track with a lot of what I’m hearing from the rest of the “post-crossfit” community.

  17. Gaby A. says

    While I am not part of a Crossfit gym, I am part of a regular one. I know it sounds cheesy, but awhile back I had purchased the Men’s Health Big Book Of Exercises, but basically, they have a couple sections on creating your own routines and doing 3-5 sets (pick a lower body, push, and pull) and you’re done. Would mixing those up/increasing weights be a good start to getting a crossfit type of workout at my conventional gym?

  18. says

    I’ve often remarked about CrossFit Affiliates who push 20 min metcons 6 days a week to try and entice women to join. They leave out lifting so they don’t “get bulky”.

    Unfortunately, I see lots of these CF gyms with 200+ members and the ones who lift and do 5-10 min metcons suffer financially. We even started a Boot Camp with emphasis on longer metcons with less lifting and guess what? It exploded our membership. Sad.

    CrossFit has done great things for fitness, but it has also sacrificed alot of good programming. I see CrossFit affiliate competitions with multiple WODs in the 15+ range and very few strength oriented, short and heavy metcons. We even have an endurance runner at our gym who has won several CF competitions with a max deadlift of 275 lbs (and bodyweight of 135 lbs).

  19. psi*psi says

    This post makes me feel very, very fortunate to belong to a CF gym with VERY heavily strength-biased programming and fantastic lifting instruction. As far as james’s comment above re: women…there are plenty of us at my affiliate…and most of us looooove the heavy lifting.

  20. Trevor says

    There may be something here, I have been crossfitting for 2 years now. Problem is, I was an idiot for 15 minutes a year ago and hurt myself trying to be a “hero” and letting my ego get in the way while deadlifting. I have rested and stretched and iced and heated, now a year later i’m still having problems, IE stiff lower back, lower back locks up after going 10+ mins in metcons. (i don’t last even that long if DL’s are in the Metcon)

    MRI showed 2 bulged discs L5-S1 and L4-L5, they’re not impinging nerves and i’m trying to keep it that way, but still crossfit and lift. So 2 things, I’m going to try the shorter bursts of metcons, (ex. 1 song on, 2 songs off in my headphones) and I HAVE to stay away from heavy DL’s and Backsquats, and I’m going to try to work back into Snatchs. I really love Oly Comps. I’m going to start work with an inversion table and chiro and see if I can get back into those longer metcons with modified movements or without some movements. We’ll see, it’s going to be a long process. But thank you for the idea.

  21. Rustypelican says

    It has taken me four years of intense CrossFit dedication to come to the same conclusion. Granted, I’m an old man (49), but 3 on, 1 off doesn’t provide enough rest for as many long metcons as are posted on the CF MP. I currently do 2 on, 1 off with one strength and one short metcon in each evolution. And it is working because I’m making gains across the board. I have improvised various 21-15-9 WODs for short, intense metcon work. I’ve also finally figured out that strength is everything. If you can manhandle the weight, you can blast through any WOD and get the full effect.

  22. Nathan Greaves says

    Unfortunately I, like many others will, dismissed this article when I first read it. However, after doing my first “Short MetCon” yesterday was super surprised to find out how effective it was! I’m focusing on Oly Lifting at the moment and a short metcon after two sessions a week are nice finishers. Its amazing how phase two is completely skipped. Kettlebell swings and burpees seem so much easier when you know theres only 3 rounds! Thanks for the invaluable information, it shall be utilized with great efficiency.

Join the Discussion