Metcon isn't just about fat loss. Without it, muscle growth and strength gains can grind to a halt. Really. Here's why and what to do about it.
Does Conditioning Really Matter?
If your sole purpose is to get jacked and strong as hell, does conditioning really matter? After all, it's possible to avoid fat gain and get lean with very little cardio, or none at all. That's largely a diet issue. So why should someone wanting to squat a ton or gain a lot of muscle even bother with it?
The truth is, cardio and conditioning are not just about leanness, but about being in shape. Smart conditioning means more energy, more muscle mass (yes, really), and the ability to do more work at a higher level of intensity. It's the ability to kill a grueling set of 15 rep squats then feel completely fine a couple minutes later.
Years ago people called it GPP (general physical preparedness) but we don't need an acronym to simply say "in shape." But conditioning is a far better term than cardio. Cardio makes most people think of drawn-out, overemphasized movement done for weight loss. And there is a big problem with doing THAT kind of cardio.
The Cardio Dilemma
The body has a beautiful way of becoming efficient. It makes physiological adjustments in order to meet the demands you're asking of it. Then as the same tasks become less strenuous, they also become less beneficial. With steady state cardio, the more you do the more efficient the body becomes at performing it. Then over time you actually burn fewer calories than you were while doing the same amount of work. So your only choice is to increase the amount of cardio you're doing in order to get the same effects.
Unfortunately, this will apply to every form of conditioning you do. So in order to cause more energy debt for fat loss, you're basically left with no option except to do more, go harder, or change it up and become inefficient again.
But remember, your function becomes your form. So if you're a person who does a lot of cardio, you're going to look like a person that does a lot of cardio. And no disrespect to runners, but most of them don't exactly resonate a look of strength and power. So if you're a lifter who wants more mass and strength, how does conditioning even help?
You Can't Get Better Without Conditioning
When your conditioning is on point, a significant amount of power can still be generated throughout most, if not all, of the training session. This means more volume with more pounds on the bar, in the same amount of time you were training before.
Being in good condition is an important part of getting better. The ability to do a significant amount of work in a training session will pay dividends in both the strength and hypertrophy departments. Even if you aren't in the business of trying to get leaner, then conditioning should STILL be a part of your programming.
How Work Capacity Works
Here are two factors to take into account in regards to training workload:
- The tonnage used during each workout.
- The total amount of tension in that workout.
Your ability (or inability) to recover between sets or perform a given amount of work is related to the amount of stimulus that was done during any given session. Here's an example.
Fred, a strong but out of shape lifter, does 5 sets of 5 on squats with 500 pounds. That's 12,500 pounds worth of work. These 5 sets take half an hour to complete because Fred has to rest fairly long between sets. The next half an hour Fred does some other leg work to finish off his workout, but his gas tank is mostly tapped out and his ability to generate force is significantly diminished.
Few sets are performed, his execution is sloppy because he's tired, and the weight used for the extra work is sub par. The amount of overall tension generated for the training session is fairly low due to all of these factors.
Fred then decides to add some progressively harder conditioning work over the next several weeks. Soon he's able to complete the 5 sets of 5 reps in a much shorter period of time. For the rest of his workouts he has energy to spare for the movements performed after squats, and he can now do more sets using more weight and great execution. The amount of tension generated for the entire workout is significantly higher than when he was in poor condition.
After a few weeks, Fred is now doing 8 sets of 5 with 500 pounds in the same amount of time it used to take him to do 5 sets of 5. Why? Because he's recovering faster between sets. Now his tonnage on squats alone has risen from 12,500 pounds to 20,000 pounds worth of work. He's still able to go on and do the extra work with a high degree of intensity and poundage. He's doing more work – better work – in the same amount of time, sometimes less.
Total tonnage increased and overall training tension increased. Not only that, Fred's training sessions don't take the same systemic toll on his recovery curve as before. His body adapts to doing more work in less time because it now has the capability to do so.
If you can do more work in the same amount of time and increase tension and total tonnage, that means your body has increased its work capacity. And that will mean more growth.
Conditioning and Muscle Growth
The biggest players in the muscle growth game are frequency, volume, tension, and intensity (weight on the bar). To maximize hypertrophy, you need to be able to train often, with a great amount of volume, creating a significant degree of tension through proper movement execution with the appropriate amount of weight. Of course, all of this has to be dialed in so that you can actually recover from it.
For muscle growth, a very efficient method of training is required in order to elicit the greatest degree of stimulation with the least amount of systemic fatigue. After all, if you can't recover properly, then growth will not take place.
The part where growth stimulus gets short-circuited is when guys aren't in good enough shape to perform all-out sets to failure within high enough rep ranges with a significant amount of volume, and can't do so frequently enough – either on the big movements or the smaller ones.
You've probably been told that lifting heavy is the key to muscle growth, but this is misguided. Sure, progressive overload is foundational in growth, especially in the beginning stages of your training. But once you reach a much higher level of development, there's a few caveats that come with it.
The first is that once you start reaching the ceiling for your maximum strength potential for your degree of muscle mass, increasing maximal strength does little to increase overall muscle growth. There comes a point of diminishing returns in regards to adding pounds on the bar with low reps and increasing muscle mass.
Getting stronger within a rep range that produces enough time under tension to create the stimulation for growth is far more effective, especially if we're taking other factors into consideration like training volume and frequency. For muscle growth, a routine based on singles, doubles, or triples is significantly inferior to a routine based around rep ranges in the 8-20 range.
And no, adding 30 pounds of "bodyweight" while doing a powerlifting routine on doubles and triples doesn't mean it was an effective hypertrophy plan. Diet the fat off and tell me where you land after that. My guess? Same place you were before.
Maximal strength has a huge neurological basis that requires a completely different type of training to maximize it. This is why it's important to decide whether you're going to train for maximal growth or maximal strength. You can't maximize both at the same time no matter how many times you've read you can.
Give me an out of shape guy who's been doing nothing but power-based training using sets of 3-5 reps and have him perform tough sets of 15 on squats, leg presses, and stiff-legged deadlifts and I can promise you the amount of volume he'll be able to perform will be limited.
Not only that, but systemically his ability to recover from it will suck ass as well. Meaning, going back to the gym the next day to repeat such efforts will be diminished because of fatigue. And if you're looking to maximize growth, then frequency might just be the biggest component in speeding up the growth process – even more important than volume or pounds on the bar.
This doesn't mean training like a pansy while making a bunch of visits to the gym. It still requires training incredibly hard and using appropriate loading so that movements can be done properly within the desired rep ranges. But if you can train hard often, your body is going to grow. And grow fast. And this is where conditioning plays a major role in that process.
Where To Start
So let's say you've been a 3-rep sloth for months on end. You're the guy who thinks, "Anything more than 5 reps is cardio." What should you do?
If you haven't been doing any conditioning, build your base on walking. Now, I'm talking about a brisk walk at a meaningful pace. Not that shit you see old people doing in the mall before the stores have even opened. There should be some knee to chest action going on here.
A simple and easy way to approach walking is to find a distance to walk and just decrease the amount of time it takes you make that trek. Leave your house, walk 10 minutes, check the spot you made it to in 10 minutes, then walk home. From there, simply work on decreasing the amount of time it takes you go the same distance without actually sprinting at any point on each walk.
Once you go from 20 minutes to around 15, throw in a casual run at some point along the walk. Again, casual. So basically, a bit of a jog. It doesn't have to be a long jaunt. Just get it in. After a few weeks of this, throw another one into your walk.
Once you're able to do this same distance in 10-12 minutes, you're ready to actually implement an interval plan that will really increase your work capacity and translate into far more productive weight room sessions.
This is a very easy plan to apply to your training. It can be done twice a week on non-weight training days.
- Week 1: 10 sprints @ 60% speed @ 40 yards
- Week 2: 10 sprints @ 70% speed @ 40 yards
- Week 3: 12 sprints @ 70% speed @ 40 yards
- Week 4: 15 sprints @ 75% speed @ 40 yards
- Week 5: 20 sprints @ 80% speed @ 40 yards
- Week 6: 20 sprints @ 85% speed @ 40 yards
Your "rest" is simply the 40 yard walk back to start. Then you sprint again.
Remember your purpose here. You're not trying out for the NFL. Nor are you trying to prepare for the 100-meter dash in the Olympics. The purpose is to simply increase your conditioning so that weight room work becomes far easier to recover from.
You don't need to do more conditioning over time either. You simply need to get in good enough shape and maintain a level of conditioning that complements your lifting.
However, if you do want to increase the amount of conditioning work from week 6 on out, then simply increase the number of sprints you do, or the distance you're sprinting. I don't advise full-out 100% sprints as it's a nice recipe for an injury. But you can do these uphill which actually makes them slightly safer by shortening the stride length and lessening the chance for a pulled hammy.
The sled or Prowler or bike all work as well. You can use the same outline above for the sled or Prowler with some minor adjustments. For the stationary bike, my recommendation is even easier.
Simple Stationary Bike Conditioning
- Go 15 seconds as fast as possible.
- Followed by 45 seconds of easy pedaling.
- Repeat 12-15 times.