Metabolic Training 101: Definition, Benefits, and Exercises

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What is Metabolic Training?

The short definition of metabolic training is completing structural and compound exercises with little rest in between exercises in an effort to maximize calorie burn and increase metabolic rate during and after the workout.

FYI, your metabolism (aka metabolic rate) is how many calories your body burns at rest. For more on calorie burn, check out How to Calculate Your Calorie Burn.

So that’s the short definition, but here’s a deeper look at metabolic training:

1) Metabolic Training Uses Large Muscle Groups

“Structural and compound exercises” are types of exercises that require a maximum amount of energy because multiple joints are involved like a Squat with a Press. Sitting down and doing a biceps curl is like the exact opposite of hard core metabolic training.

A metabolic training purist may tell you almost all exercises should be structural, which means the spine is loaded and the legs are engaged to some degree during the exercise. I think you can still make a workout metabolic without engaging the legs every exercise as long as the weight lifted is heavy enough, or the intensity of the exercise is very high. For example, doing a bench press then a chin up back to back can be quite metabolically intense.

2) Metabolic Training is High Intensity

Metabolic training is high intensity anaerobic exercise that makes you breathless. If you are completing a metabolic workout and you are not breathing hard and sweating, something is wrong. Ideally you should be lifting as heavy as you can and resting as little as possible between sets.

The downside in my mind of some metabolic training is that it can be so intense so that your lips turn white and you want to puke. Personally, I like workouts that are tough, but not so tough that I never want to work out again. From a 1 to 10 scale, the workouts that I do and those I designed for the BuiltLean Program are around 5 to 8 in terms of their metabolic intensity. If you are doing very metabolic workouts all the time, your body may not be able to recover properly.

The extreme of metabolic training is CrossFit, where a few intense exercises will be repeated in a circuit with little to no rest to push the body to its absolute limit. This training is usually reserved for seasoned athletes and the military, but more recently has been taken up by average fitness enthusiasts for better, or worse.

3) Metabolic Training Makes You Feel The Burn

A metabolic workout should help create a burning sensation in your muscles as you are working out. So by your last rep of a given exercise, you should be feeling a burn in your muscles. While the depth of the muscle stimulation from metabolic training is not as deep as a bodybuilding program where you hit one muscle the entire workout, it’s still significant.

It’s not clear exactly what causes muscle burn (the old theory of lactic acid build up has since been debunked (See: 5 Fitness Facts You Don’t Know). We do know that with an increase in muscle burn comes a favorable hormonal response to help the body burn fat and/or build muscle. I’m a big believer in working muscles intensely and going for that muscle burn.

Metabolic Training Benefits

Below are just a few of the benefits of a metabolic style of training:

Metabolic Training Benefit #1: Improved cardiovascular capacity

While metabolic training is not “aerobic” like going for a jog, some studies have shown anaerobic exercise such as HIIT can increase in V02 max beyond that experienced by exercisers following an aerobic program.

Metabolic Training Benefit #2: Improved hormonal profile

Several studies have shown that hormones that promote “lipolysis” (the technical term for fat loss) increase as a results of high intensity strength training. I don’t want to bore you with all the studies, but strength training in general has been shown to help improve hormonal profile, and metabolic training is debatably the best type of strength training to elicit the most powerful hormonal response.

Metabolic Training Benefit #3: Serious calorie burn

While calorie burn studies come to different conclusions as to the total calorie burn of metabolic training, it certainly burns a ton of calories. The calorie burn during a workout is easily around 500 calories for a 30 minute workout, but it also increases metabolic rate from anywhere between 10% to 25% for up to 48 hours, with some studies showing an increase in metabolic rate for up to even 72 hours. This equates to hundreds of extra calories, which over the course of a few workouts can become significant.

Intuitively I think the “afterburn effect” as it’s called makes sense, because you are shocking your body, creating an oxygen debt (i.e. excess post-exercise oxygen consumption), and causing muscle damage (in a good way), which the body needs to repair to become fitter and stronger. This extra repair to get your body back to homeostasis requires a lot of extra energy, it’s just difficult for researchers to measure perfectly, especially after exercise. From my practical experience, the metabolic effect of intense strength training is real and it’s powerful.

Example Metabolic Training Exercises

Here are just a few examples of what would be considered “metabolic exercises”.

  • Hang Clean & Press
  • Push Press
  • Snatch
  • Squats
  • Jump Squats holding dumbbells
  • Jump Lunges holding dumbbells
  • Deadlift

    If you are looking for workout example, here’s a Metabolic Workout I put together. I want to emphasize there are all different types of metabolic workouts, so I would classify this one as more of a traditional weightlifting type of metabolic workout.

    I think making your workout more metabolic is worth a try and I find simply categorizing a workout based on its metabolic intensity can be useful.

    Hope this was helpful!

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    29 Comments on “Metabolic Training 101: Definition, Benefits, and Exercises

    1. Katrina
      February 29, 2012 #

      Very well written article! This makes it easy for people to actually understand metabolic training unlike some out there. Thanks for sharing :-)

      1. February 29, 2012 #

        @Katrina – Happy you liked the article Katrina!

    2. Mr Glass
      March 14, 2012 #

      I have been bulking for a few months now and I’m finnally getting to the size I want and like. My trainer wants me to do all Metalbolic training now. But I do not want to lose size at all. I also really would like my chest and arms to keep getting a little bit bigger. Is this the right plan? Also why cant I power lift and then go run 4 or 5 miles im still burning calleries I dont understand the method. But mainly I dont want to give up the strenght or size. Please help.

      1. March 15, 2012 #

        @Mr. Glass – Your concern is valid, but as long as you eat enough protein (1 gram per 1lb LBM) and you don’t notice any major differences in your lifts, you’ll be fine. I’m a bit of a headcase about losing muscle as well, but it simply doesn’t happen unless (1) you eat very few calories (2) eat very little protein (3) go very low carb and (4) stop lifting heavy at all. If you are over 10% body fat, then you really have nothing to worry about. When you start getting into single digit bf, then things can get tricker.

        In terms of getting your arms bigger, I would wait to do that after you get lean, then you can play with calorie cycling. For more info on muscle gain vs. fat loss, check out this article: Can I lose fat and build muscle at the same time?

    3. Mr Glass
      March 14, 2012 #

      BTW great article really breaks it down to an understandible level!!!

      1. March 15, 2012 #

        Thank you!

    4. Lara Wright
      March 24, 2012 #

      Hi Marc, when you superset or triset .. can one do this everyday if you are NOT using very heavy weights or must you have rest day inbetween??? I like to use this as my cardio as i hate using treadmill, Arc. many thanks

      1. March 25, 2012 #

        @Lara – That’s a great question and I do think it depends on the amount of weight you are using and the rep range. So if you are doing let’s say a kettlebell circuit with lighter weight and you feel no soreness the next day (or the day after), then yes, you absolutely can lift weights as cardio instead of going for a jog and you can do it “everyday” which I take to mean 5 days per week. It really depends on how your body feels, so just be mindful of that.

      2. March 25, 2012 #

        Oh, and I would actually use like 4-5 exercises as part of a circuit if I were trying to make it more cardio based and less intense on the muscles, kind of like this – Metabolic Conditioning Circuit.

    5. Mike
      March 29, 2012 #

      Very well written article. I googled “Metabolic Training” and Marc’s article was #1 in the google search results. I found this term after reading something about one of Jillian Michaels DVD workouts. I’ve been doing her ’30 Day Shred’ DVD for the past week and a half. I switched to it after I gained too much weight on ‘Insanity.’ I did some research and I heard that for some people the workouts are too intense for their body and that can raise cortisol levels which then causes the body to store more body fat.

      I’d be interested in hearing your opinion on this. Both what you think of Jillian Michaels workouts and the thing about the cortisol. I really don’t think the weight I gained was solely from water weight retention. 3 pounds okay yes. But not going above 5, 6, 7 + pounds. Something was very wrong there. Oh, it could’ve also been that I was supposed to eat 2500 calories. I couldn’t do that. But I don’t think it mattered in the first two weeks.

      1. April 1, 2012 #

        @Mike – Thanks for the kudos on the article. I don’t know about Jillian Michael’s workouts, so can’t offer my opinion on them. Cortisol can certainly effect the bodies ability to lose fat and elevates especially if you are stressed, or have a stressful job and/or don’t get enough sleep. If you are doing an intense exercise program if you have a generally stressful lifestyle, it can be tough on your body. In terms of number of calories, 2500 sounds high to me although I don’t know your height/weight. Most guys around 1800-2000 is a good number. Check out this article for more info – How Many Calories Should You Eat To Lose Weight?

        1. Mike
          April 20, 2012 #

          Thanks Marc. I clicked on your link and the calculation came out to be around 1800 calories. (205 lbs x 14 x 35%). I’m 5’10. I will never know if it was high cortisol levels or not. I don’t have a stressful life nor job. I do have trouble staying asleep, though. I just never read of another person who gained 8-10 pounds doing intense exercise like Insanity or 30 Day Shred. 3 lbs at the max. The weight is starting to come off now that I stopped both programs. I’m doing a mix of pilates/yoga/calisthenics anything involving my own body weight to build strength now. And then for cardio I just do 60 -90 minutr walks. Will try to mix that with jogging until my feet feel ready for it. I would like to get into weight lifting eventually and perhaps buy your book before I ever do that. As long as there’s no high intensity stuff in there to make me gain again.

        2. April 23, 2012 #

          @Mike – I have to say your predicament is very unusual. One possibility is maybe you were eating more than you thought while working on those other programs. Usually that’s the case, but you never know. Also, drinking enough water can make a big difference. So if you are chronically dehydrated, your body will retain water, as much as 5lb. One quick way to lose “weight” is to drink a gallon of water, which helps flush out your system. Also, eating a lot of carbs combined with dehydration I’ve seen can even cause a 10lb increase in weight. Water is a very important nutrient and is actually directly involved in fat metabolism (science of fat loss).

    6. June 17, 2012 #

      very well written as usual. Great job Marc.

    7. June 22, 2012 #

      I agree with you whole heartedly… I am also a metabolic trainer and I teach these methods but I use the body weight way. It has gotten my clients extreme results, boosts their energy, gotten them lean, burned a whole lot of calories, they’ve gotten stronger as well as increased their vo max… This article is an excellent explanation of that type of style an I will be sharing this with all of my clients…

      1. Mike
        June 23, 2012 #

        Erick, what particular “body weight” exercises do you have your clients doing? I don’t have enough money for the gym right now so I would like to do a good body weight routine.

        1. June 28, 2012 #

          @Mike – I’m going to have a series of posts that go into the TRX, which is a type of equipment that uses body weight and can be done just about anywhere, so I do use the TRX with clients. I also do plyometrics like jump squats, jump lunges, body weight rows, various types of lunges (front, side, reverse), push ups, pull ups if they can do them, planks, those are basically the core exercises, and then I do a bunch of different variations of each one. You definitely don’t need a gym to stay in great shape, that’s for sure.

      2. June 28, 2012 #

        @Erick – Thanks, much appreciated!

    8. Mike
      June 28, 2012 #

      Hi Marc. I look forward to your series on body weight exercises. I’d rather it not be about TRX, though. That sounds like product-plugging. Won’t good old resistance bands just do?

      1. June 28, 2012 #

        @Mike – I would take a TRX over resistance bands. If you think I’m “plugging” a product I don’t even own, not sure how that makes sense.

    9. Mike
      June 28, 2012 #

      Okay sorry Marc. Just never heard of this TRX until now. I do look forward to the posts. I’d like to know which exercises exactly I should be doing. Unrealistic for me to be joining a gym anytime soon so don’t think your book would be ideal. I wish it wasn’t the case.

      1. July 2, 2012 #

        @Mike – I think sticking to the basics is the way to go – push ups, pull ups, squats, one legged squats, jump squats, lunges, jump lunges. May also consider investing in a weighted vest to make the exercises a bit more challenging. I do need to create some bodyweight workouts for sure.

    10. Dave
      June 29, 2012 #

      I’m curious, it there a difference between the HIIT that gets tossed about so much and Metabolic training?

      1. July 2, 2012 #

        @Dave – That’s a really great question. There is so much exercise mumbo jumbo sometimes I even find myself using buzz words. I would say HIIT is a style of working out that alternates between bouts of low intensity with bouts of very high intensity. Generally speaking, HIIT workouts refer to workouts that use cardio exercises like jogging, sprinting, rowing etc. Metabolic workouts tend to emphasize more resistance training protocols. The line is definitely blurry, because one could argue a sprint workout is metabolically intense. It’s really just semantics, but hope this is helpful. I’m looking forward to writing an article about the main considerations for an exercise program, which are (1) strength, (2) cardio, and (3) flexibility. That’s how I would think about fitness. Then for each bucket would be some measure of volume and intensity. For more detail on what fitness is all about, check out this article I wrote on the facets of physical fitness.

    11. August 30, 2012 #

      Marc, thanks for explaining what metabolic training is and why and when it is appropriate! Glad I found your site!

    12. September 5, 2012 #

      Metabolic training is a system of exercise designed to achieve those desired aims in the shortest possible time. It combines the two completely different training styles of resistance training and cardio to create a workout routine that is shorter and much more effective in burning fat. Metabolic Training consists in doing structural and compound exercises with minimal rest in between. The sessions are designed as short spurts of intense activity, followed by even shorter periods of rest to enable recovery. Metabolic training thus becomes an effective way of maintaining a raised metabolic rate. This heightened metabolic rate results in more efficient burning of fat.

      1. September 5, 2012 #

        @Brian – Thanks for the succinct explanation, Brian.

    13. todd sloan
      September 10, 2012 #

      what would you recomend for a person who has been training 30yrs needs to lose some weight…

      1. September 12, 2012 #

        @todd sloan – Focus on eating better. Track your nutrition by keeping a food journal. Nutrition is 80% of the equation. Good luck!

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