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A Primer on Metabolic Conditioning

Tyler Gianesini -
The chemical processes that occur within a living organism in order to maintain life.

Seems simple enough. We have a vague concept on what our metabolism is. We know if it's good, we burn the food we eat efficiently. We know that if it is less good, we store too much of that energy. Beyond that though, our common conception of how our metabolism actually works is a little shaky.

But it's the New Year, and many of us are in the midst of trying to lose weight, gain muscle, or just be more fit. We need more information if we want to change our metabolism. Here are some of the basics on the three major systems, and how to make changes to them in your life for greater performance, whatever your goals may be.

Immediate Metabolism

This is the system that works the quickest to get you the energy you need, when you need it, for big but short bursts of strength. So if you're looking to do some deadlifts or quick sprints, this is the system you are taking advantage of. Also known as the creatine phosphate pathway, this system can take up to five minutes to recover after use.

Intermediate Metabolism

This system is used mainly in medium length activities like bouldering and weightlifting with higher reps. Referred to as the glycolytic pathway, this system takes one to three minutes to recover, and is effective for one to four minutes of activity.

Endurance Metabolism

The aerobic system is the one you use when you go out for a long morning run, or swim, or bike ride. All of the endurance sports take advantage of this system, because it uses the most readily available energy source (body fat), can provide hours of energy, and can recover within seconds.

Choosing a Path

These different types of metabolism all come into play while exercising, but maximising the efficiency of one or another will help with different activities. Choosing the right work-to-rest ratio is critical. If you're looking to be a distance runner, you obviously don't want to just train your immediate system. Your body won't get accustomed to burning the right type of fuel for your activity.

So based on what we know, we can break down our workouts accordingly with a proper work-to-rest ratio.

The following workouts can be comprised of whatever exercises you want. I've included some examples, but don't get hung up on the specifics. Your workout should be geared to what you have available, but try to do activities that include multiple muscle groups and joints, such as kettlebells, sprints, burpees, rows, dips, or pushups. 

Path One: Power

For power we focus on the immediate system. Push yourself hard and fast for short bursts, then rest. For this we would use a 1:10 ratio of work to rest.

Some examples could include box jumps or heavy lifts for a period of 10 seconds, followed by a minute and a half of rest, then doing another ten seconds of another strength based activity at full effort.

Path Two: Performance

This is the kind of training you might do for many different sports, because you need frequent but sustainable bursts of energy, with short rests in between.

This path would be a work-to-rest ratio of 1:2, meaning you might do kettlebell swings hard for 30 seconds, then take one minute of rest, then do some kettlebell halos for another 30, then rest again for one minute. Build your regimen around this timing and you'll train your body for your next big game.

Path Three: Endurance

For an endurance workout that will get your body ready to run, we stretch the endurance system with a 4:1 ratio, meaning you work out four times as much as you rest. Sounds like a bum deal considering the power guys only work out for ten seconds straight, right? Well that's why they can't run very far without keeling over from carrying all that muscle.

Do 30 seconds of one activity, let's say pushups, then 30 seconds of jumping rope, 30 seconds of kettlebell swings, 30 seconds of kettlebell squats, then rest for 30 seconds and repeat.

Path Four: Weight Loss

This one is for those of you who aren't terribly interested in athletic performance, but instead just want to drop some pounds convincing your body to burn more fuel during and after workouts. For this goal you need to engage multiple kinds of metabolism, so that you have more than one type of fuel burning at a time. Vary your exercises between a 3:1 ratio workout and a 1:2 ratio

So one day you'll be doing (for example) 30 seconds of jumping lunges, followed by ten seconds of rest, then another activity. The next time you workout, structure it more like this: 30 seconds of pull-ups followed by 60 seconds of rest, then another activity with the same ratio. Then bounce back and forth between these two structures to keep multiple systems of metabolism active.

Build Your Circuit and Keep Adapting

Now with your goal in mind, pick one of these ratios, and build a routine around it. But don't let it become routine. Switch out exercises from time to time, and make your body adapt to new motions. The more you vary the types of exercise you do, the more effective your workout and your body will be. 

Do not get hung up on how successful you are at each individual exercise. Just make sure you find those you can do effectively, and push yourself hard while you do them. Remember, this is not about training those specific muscles, but training your metabolism as a whole to help you with a certain type of strength or endurance. 

Now get out there and put your metabolism to work!


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