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.