Metcon for Size and Strength

Raise Your Heart Rate, Build Your Body

Too much cardio can backfire, but so can avoiding it. Here’s why metabolic conditioning will boost your gains, plus two workouts to try.


Cardio for Gains?

Can conditioning or aerobic work support your muscle-building goals? Yes. Better aerobic fitness means you’ll be able to bring more oxygen and nutrients to muscles. Aerobic work actually helps us develop more capillaries, which is like having more roads that nutrient-filled blood can travel through to reach more organs and muscles.

This is a big deal. Recovery and repair are fueled by oxygen and nutrients. Someone with more roads (capillaries) can cover more ground faster and improve the whole muscle function. And more capillaries mean there’s a greater ability for waste products (such as lactate) to leave muscle and not impair the recovery process. Aerobic fitness leads to better delivery and better clearance.

It also leads to more mitochondria and, therefore, more factories to process the oxygen to generate more energy for repair. Plus, having better aerobic fitness will improve your chances of tolerating and recovering from intense strength and hypertrophy work.

Aerobic conditioning isn’t a detriment to your gains. The opposite is true. You’ll be able to make more progress by having better aerobic fitness. Oh, and it’ll actually improve your chances of living longer. There’s that.

What About the Interference Effect?

Researchers analyzed the potential interference effect aerobic training may have on strength and hypertrophy work. The general consensus? You get more benefits by doing your cardio. If you can, just do your cardio or metcon work at a different time than your weight training.

Also, don’t go overboard. Monitor these two things:

  1. The optimal amount of cardio is less like marathon training and more like 2-3 sessions per week for about 20-50 minutes.⁣
  2. The optimal intensity is less like all-out sprint work and more like working under 80% of your VO2 max. Just try to maintain an average of 60-70% of your max heart rate for the duration of the conditioning piece. This is often called “Zone 2 Work” and it’s worth your time to get familiar with it.

How To Do It

Aerobic conditioning doesn’t have to mean walking on an inclined treadmill for 60 minutes. That’s fine, but it isn’t the only way to skin the aerobics cat. In fact, if you’re keeping your heart rate in the correct zone, you’ll find a few different ways to accomplish this work without getting bored.

Strategy 1: EMOM Workouts

Every minute on the minute, or EMOM, is a great way to force you to maintain a sustainable pace for longer durations. In this case, we’ll be using EMOM for longer durations with minimal rest between movements.

The guidelines:

  • Work for 45 seconds on and 15 seconds off. Go for a total of 30-60 minutes.
  • Keep your heart rate at 60-70% for the duration.

Here’s an example:

EMOM: 40 Minutes

Exercise Sets Time Rest
A1. Air Bike (moderate pace) 10 45 sec. 15 sec.
A2. Side Step Kettlebell Swings (light load) 10 45 sec. 15 sec.
A3. Battle Ropes (moderate effort) 10 45 sec. 15 sec.
A4. Jumping Rope 10 45 sec. 15 sec.

Track your heart rate. You should be in the 60-70% range for the duration. If you’re not, reduce your effort level. None of this work should be even close to max effort, more like a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of 6 or 7 – a pace you can maintain for a long time.

Strategy 2: Mixed Modality Work

Do this for shorter durations with a slightly higher RPE (around 8). Use a 1:3 work-to-rest ratio. This type of workout requires more effort.

The great news about mixed modality work is that there are more options, it tends to be more “enjoyable,” and it’s even a sneaky way to a little more body-part specific training volume.

Here are the guidelines:

  • Do 20-30 minutes.
  • Keep your heart rate at 70-80% of your max.
  • Use a work/rest ratio of around 1:3 (rest three times as much as you work).

Here’s an example:

Exercise Sets Reps
Kettlebell Complex
A1. High Pull 5 6-8
A2. Push Press 5 6-8
A3. Snatch 5 6-8
A4. Rack Overhead Carry 5 100 ft*
  • whatever you have room for

If one round takes you about 1 minute to complete, rest for around 3 minutes or until your heart rate comes down to 110. This one will take you roughly 20 minutes to complete.

How to Program It

Here’s an example:

  • Day 1: Lower Body Strength
  • Day 2: Mixed Modality Conditioning
  • Day 3: Upper Body Strength
  • Day 4: Aerobic EMOM
  • Day 5: Full Body Strength
  • Day 6: Aerobic EMOM or Mixed Modality Conditioning

If you’re strapped for time and still want to improve your conditioning, your split may look like this:

  • Day 1: Full Body Strength
  • Day 2: Aerobic EMOM
  • Day 3: Aerobic EMOM
  • Day 4: Full Body Strength
  • Day 5: Mixed Modality Conditioning

If you’d like to do the bare minimum of conditioning and still make gains, try this:

  • Day 1: Legs & Abs
  • Day 2: Chest & Biceps
  • Day 3: Aerobic EMOM
  • Day 4: Hamstrings & Glutes
  • Day 5: Delts & Triceps
  • Day 6: Aerobic EMOM
5 Likes

The kettlebell example is not good. Cleans would be much better than high pulls. Just prepare for bruised forearms while learning the movement. I love the snatch but there is a learning curve and most trainees at the beginning will have blisters not doing it correctly. One hand swing would be better choice until snarch form is learned.

Sure, you could substitute cleans. This is merely one example and there are many possibilities to arrive at the same stimulus.

3 Likes

Doesn’t this go for learning curves for all exercises? It took three sessions with an RKC instructor to perform KB cleans, swings, and snatches properly.

One can make KB complexes with whatever exercises they prefer.

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Good article. This is the sort of training I’ve been doing for some time in my middle age.

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Great article. I really appreciate the “good better, best” recommendations at the end. That helps make implementation very practical no matter what someone is currently doing.

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Agree but think he @BCFlynn was referring to the fact the learning curve is higher vs. a single joint pattern. Context is also important - I was with a lot of former CrossFittters so most are proficient with these patterns.

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No problem, happy to help!

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The value of aerobic work is understated, to say the least so I’m happy you’re already aware of that!

2 Likes

It’s great to see folks debunking the myth that aerobic conditioning can’t be programmed concurrently with strength training.

Two tips that might make this even better:

Tip One:
if you split upper/ lower aerobic conditioning, you can do aerobic and strength work in the same workout. At least one study has shown that if there is indeed interference between aerobic training and strength, it appears to be muscle group specific: e.g., try doing zone 2 ski-erg intervals or steady state immediately before a squat or deadlift session, or harder ski-erg after squat or deadlift work.

Tip Two: If you do have to stack competing lower body strength and conditioning, just put the latter after the former: e.g., deadlift heavy Monday, run v02 max/ intervals Tuesday, Bench Wednesday, ski-erg or swim Thursday, squat heavy Friday, long run Saturday. Your legs will be beaten up, but once you adapt to the suck factor after a week or two, it feels fine, and the conditioning clears out your legs.

1 Like