As an elite British Royal Marine Commando, I had to be fit for everything. I needed to be able to march and run long distances but also strong enough to handle the heavy equipment. This was all part of daily military life.
Most workout wisdom says that to build muscle and get stronger, you need to strength train. on the flip side, if you want to get fit or burn fat, you must do cardio. However, such a two-pronged approach is time-consuming. It can also be tiring and could even be counterproductive.
Frustrated after years of time-consuming workouts and slow progress, I sought alternative ways to train. One of the most effective methods I found was metabolic training.
Metabolic training builds muscle, strength, and fitness simultaneously. It also burns fat like a blowtorch. I went on to use metabolic almost exclusively in my military life. Decades later, I’m still using it, so I don’t have to spend all my free time exercising.
In this article, I share everything I know about metabolic training so you can also enjoy the benefits of this type of workout.
- What is Metabolic Training?
- The Science of Metabolic Training
- Types and Examples of Metabolic Workouts
- Safety and Suitability
- Closing Thoughts
What is Metabolic Training?
Metabolic resistance training, or, more simply, metabolic training, is a style of workout that maximizes caloric expenditure during and after exercise.
In simple terms, a metabolic workout involves doing several compound or multi-joint exercises back-to-back. Rests between exercises are minimal or non-existent. You then repeat the exercise sequence for multiple rounds.
This high-intensity method burns fat, builds muscle, and increases fitness, all at the same time. As such, metabolic training is incredibly time-efficient. It saves you from doing strength and cardio training separately.
This isn’t just my opinion, either. A 2021 meta-analysis (a collection of separate studies and research) published on PubMed suggests that variations of metabolic training are as effective as longer, conventional workouts (1).
There are several types of metabolic training, all of which work in much the same way. Some use traditional strength training exercises, such as squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. Others focus more on calisthenic moves, like burpees, pull-ups, and bodyweight squats. Some metabolic training workouts combine both methods.
In reality, there is no single way to do metabolic training. That flexibility means you can adapt it to your circumstances and goals.
Core Principles of Metabolic Training
As mentioned, there are several ways to do metabolic training. However, the core principles are the same for each one. These are:
High Intensity – there are no easy metabolic training workouts. Each exercise and set should leave your heart pounding and lungs heaving. While the loads won’t be maximal, your level of perceived exertion will be high. There is a price to pay for such an effective workout, and the cost is sweat!
Rest Intervals – rests between exercises should be short. You want to recover just enough to catch your breath, but not so long that the next movement feels easy. 10-20 seconds between exercises and 1-2 minutes between rounds is typical.
Duration – you can train hard, or you can train long, but you can’t do both. If you’ve got the intensity right, your metabolic training workout should last 20-40 minutes. If you feel like you can do more, probably not working hard enough.
Big Exercises = Big Results – isolation exercises won’t give you the total body training effect you are after. Instead, build your workouts around compound exercises that challenge your muscles and your cardiorespiratory system. Good metabolic training exercises include:
- Kettlebell swings
- Bent-over rows
- Inverted rows
- Power cleans
- Medicine ball slams
- Military presses
Full-Body Workouts – the most effective metabolic training workouts use all your major muscles. This is the best way to burn lots of calories and enhances time efficiency. While split routines are ideal for bodybuilders, full-body metabolic workouts are better for fat loss.
Training Frequency – don’t expect to do this type of training every day. If you do, you’ll soon be in the throes of over-training. Instead, train every other day, e.g., Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, to allow adequate time for rest and recovery.
Metabolic Training Goals
With the above points in mind, a well-designed metabolic training workout should achieve the following goals:
High Rate of Calorie Expenditure – compound exercises, moderate to high reps, sets taken close to failure, short rests, multiple rounds? This all adds up to a workout that uses a lot of energy. Expect to burn more calories with metabolic training than almost any other workout.
Increase Post-Exercise Metabolic Rate – such an intense workout will rev up your metabolism. So much so that it remains elevated in the hours that follow, further increasing caloric expenditure. This is called EPOC, short for excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. You can read more about EPOC in the next section.
Build Muscle and Strength – even high-rep sets build muscle and strength. While the muscle-building effect of metabolic training does not compare to bodybuilding, it can still help you get jacked. There is a reason that top CrossFitters and MMA fighters look the way they do (hint: it’s metabolic training!).
Improve Aerobic and Anaerobic Fitness – back-to-back compound strength training exercises will affect your body like cardio. It will strengthen your heart and lungs and improve your aerobic (with oxygen) and anaerobic (without oxygen) fitness.
A PubMed meta-analysis determined that HIIT, a type of metabolic training, can have a significant impact on your V02 max. This is despite workouts being very short (2). Simply put, a few weeks of metabolic training will get you fit for anything, which is why it’s a popular form of training in the military.
Increase Mental Toughness and Determination – metabolic training is intense, and there will be times when you’ll want to slow down and stop. However, with drive and determination, you’ll keep on going because you know the value of your workout. After all, nothing worth having comes easy, right?!
Pushing through discomfort will develop mental toughness and determination. These are qualities you’ll be able to use outside of the gym.
The Science of Metabolic Training
So, what makes metabolic training so effective for fitness and fat loss? It’s all in the science!
Simply put, doing several exercises back-to-back challenges all three energy systems. This gets your metabolism burning calories like a blast furnace and increases your post-exercise oxygen consumption, further increasing caloric expenditure.
The ATP/CP System
The ATP/CP system is your energy start-up system. It runs on stored chemical energy (adenosine triphosphate and creatine phosphate) and only lasts about ten seconds. Once it’s exhausted, the ATP/CP system passes the responsibility of energy production onto the lactate system. The ATP/CP system is most active when intensity is highest.
The Lactate System
As the ATP/CP system fatigues, the lactate system steps up and takes charge. This system uses glucose for fuel. Unfortunately, converting ATP into energy in an oxygen-free environment causes the buildup of lactate and hydrogen ions. Accumulation of these substances produces fatigue. You know the lactate system is working when you feel your muscles are burning.
The Aerobic System
The lactate system lasts about 90 seconds to two minutes. After that, it can’t keep up with the demand for energy. This is where the aerobic system comes into play. The aerobic system runs on a combination of fat and glucose. However, during metabolic training, glucose is the primary fuel.
The aerobic system uses fat and carbs in an oxygen-rich environment, making your heart and lungs work harder. This system is especially active between rounds of metabolic training when it works to get you out of “oxygen debt” and ready for your next bout of exercise.
All three systems are active during metabolic training, explaining why this is such an effective workout method.
All that hard work results in what was once known as oxygen debt. Now known as excess-post oxygen consumption, EPOC describes how, after intensive exercise, your body has to work harder than usual to return your body to its pre-workout state. For this reason, it’s also called the afterburn effect.
In simple terms, your body must use more oxygen than usual to clear the lactate from your muscles and blood. This process uses lots of energy. The EPOC effect increases your post-exercise metabolism and calorie expenditure. A study published on PubMed suggests EPOC can last as long as 48 hours (3). Most of the energy used during EPOC comes from fat.
Pushing your muscles close to their limits triggers increases in size and strength. These adaptations occur even when you perform high-rep sets. That said, if you are serious about bodybuilding or getting powerlifter-strong, you should follow a more specific type of training program.
Types and Examples of Metabolic Workouts
There is more than one way to do metabolic training, each one with similar benefits. Choosing the right one depends on your exercise preferences, the facilities you have available, and what you feel like doing at the time.
Here are the main types of metabolic training with sample workouts to try.
Circuit Weight Training (CWT)
Circuit weight training is the godfather of metabolic workouts. Devised in the UK in the 1960s, this exercise method has stood the test of time and always produces reliable results. In simple terms, CWT involves doing a typical full-body workout. But instead of doing several sets of each exercise before moving on, you do one set of each in order.
You can do the exercises for reps or time, depending on how you write your CWT workout. Transitions between exercises, which we call stations in circuit terminology, should be as short as possible. Therefore, consider the layout of your gym before doing CWT. Ideally, you should move from one exercise to the next in 15 seconds or less.
Here is an example circuit workout using a mixture of freeweight and resistance machine exercises:
|1||Barbell squat||2-4 depending on your fitness and time available||12-20 reps or 40-60 seconds per exercise||10-15 seconds between exercises, 2-3 minutes between rounds|
Integrated Circuit Training
Known as ICT for short, integrated circuit training combines high-intensity cardio with rapid-fire strength training. Like CWT, you perform this workout in rounds. However, those rounds tend to be pretty short, which means an even faster pace. This is an excellent training method for MMA fighters, boxers, and other combat athletes.
Here’s an example workout to try:
|1||Run/row||3-5 depending on your fitness and time available||400 meters||No rest between exercises, 2-3 minutes between rounds|
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
HIIT can involve pure cardio, but it’s equally effective when you use strength exercises. Movements are generally done for time, and calisthenic and plyometric exercises work best. That’s because they allow you to crank out lots of reps and move quickly from one station to the next.
Try this sample workout to experience the power of HIIT for yourself:
|1||Jumping lunges||2-4 depending on your fitness and time available||45-60 seconds||30 seconds between exercises, 2-3 minutes between rounds|
Tabatas are a sort of interval training where you work as hard as possible for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, and repeat for eight rounds. This adds up to four minutes. Don’t let this brevity fool you; a correctly performed Tabata will feel like the longest four minutes of your life!
A study published on PubMed in 2013 revealed that Tabata workouts, despite their brevity, improve aerobic and anaerobic fitness. Additionally, they burn significantly more calories per minute than conventional workouts (4).
Tabatas fall into a gray area for metabolic training as traditional Tabatas utilize cardio exercises, e.g., rowing, cycling, running, etc. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t use the Tabata method, so it delivers the benefits of metabolic training.
There are several ways to do this, including:
- Single Tabatas with full-body exercises, e.g., burpees, power cleans, thrusters, etc.
- Tabata supersets, e.g., do two opposing exercises back-to-back.
- Tabata circuits, e.g., four or more exercises done back to back “Tabata style.”
Example Tabata Workouts:
|1||Burpees||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|2||Burpees||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|3||Burpees||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|4||Burpees||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|5||Burpees||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|6||Burpees||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|7||Burpees||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|8||Burpees||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|Rest and repeat as necessary|
|1||Kettlebell swings||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|2||Push-ups||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|3||Kettlebell swings||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|4||Push-ups||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|5||Kettlebell swings||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|6||Push-ups||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|7||Kettlebell swings||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|8||Push-ups||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|Rest and repeat as necessary|
|1||Jump rope double-unders||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|2||Plyo push-ups||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|3||Sumo deadlift high-pull||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|4||Dumbbell thruster||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|5||Jump rope double-unders||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|6||Plyo push-ups||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|7||Sumo deadlift high-pull||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|8||Dumbbell thruster||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|9||Jump rope double-unders||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|10||Plyo push-ups||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|11||Sumo deadlift high-pull||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|12||Dumbbell thruster||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|13||Jump rope double-unders||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|14||Plyo push-ups||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|15||Sumo deadlift high-pull||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|16||Dumbbell thruster||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|Rest and repeat as necessary|
With so many ways to use metabolic training, you should have no problem writing your own workouts. However, please remember that workouts that look doable on paper are seldom so easy. Keeping that in mind, don’t try and do too much too soon, or you may regret it! You can always do more next time.
Safety and Suitability
While metabolic training can be safe and very effective, it’s not without risks. But that’s true for all types of workout. However, because metabolic training is high-intensity and usually involves rapid movements, it’s not suitable for all exercisers. Subsequently, there are a few precautions you must take to minimize your risk of injury and illness.
Consider the following before trying metabolic training for the first time:
Warm-Ups are Compulsory
While you don’t need to warm up much for most cardio workouts, you should never skip this phase for metabolic training. Warming up prepares your muscles and joints for what you are about to do. It also gets your energy systems “online,” so they’re working optimally.
To warm up for metabolic training, do the following:
- 5-10 minutes of easy cardio.
- Mobility and dynamic flexibility exercises for your main muscles and joints.
- A few reps of the exercises you are about to do for practice.
- An easy run-through of the first round of your workout.
Stage four is not always necessary. However, it provides a valuable opportunity to assess how you are feeling, practice the exercises you’re planning to do, and make sure you’ve laid out your workout correctly. Like we used to say in the Marines, prior planning and practice prevent poor performance!
Hydrate Like a Boss
Metabolic workouts are usually sweaty workouts! All that high-intensity energy system activity creates a lot of heat, so you’re going to perspire to keep your body cool. It’s critical you replace lost fluids to avoid dehydration.
Obviously, during a fast-paced round of metabolic training, you can’t stop to drink. Doing so would ruin the flow of your workout. However, you should have a couple of minutes between rounds where you can take on water and rehydrate. Drink little and often to replace lost fluids.
Technique Matters Most
I’ve noticed that metabolic training does something funny to some exerciser’s technique. Where they used to be form-perfect, the moment they have to work against the clock, their technique falls apart. Needless to say, this is not a good thing!
The intention to work as hard as possible is applaudable. But it should not come at the cost of good form. Poor exercise form can cause injuries. Bottom line: do not sacrifice good technique for more reps – it’s not worth the risk.
Listen to Your Body
Pay attention to the messages your body sends you during your workout. If you experience pain, nausea, dizziness, faintness, or otherwise feel unwell, you should stop. So, don’t be a slave to your workout. Stop early or modify your plan if you feel like you’re overdoing it.
Wanting to push yourself hard is usually a good thing. That said, it’s also easy to do too much, and backing off is the smartest thing to do.
Consider Your Suitability
Intense workouts like metabolic training are not suitable for everyone. For some people, they’re too demanding to be safe. People who should avoid metabolic training include:
- Pregnant women (pre and post-natal)
- Beginners and very unfit individuals
- People with musculoskeletal issues
- People suffering from coronary heart disease and other circulatory disorders
- People with breathing problems, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
If you have a medical condition, please check with your doctor before trying metabolic training. Those new to this type of workout should seek advice from a fitness professional. Anyone new to metabolic training should start slow and build up the intensity and volume gradually.
Time is arguably your most valuable resource. When it’s short, the first casualty is often your workouts. That’s because a lot of people split their strength and cardio training, necessitating frequent, lengthy trips to the gym.
Metabolic training combines the muscle and strength-building benefits of resistance workouts with the fat-burning, fitness-improving effects of cardio. Doing both types of training simultaneously will save you a lot of time and avoid unnecessary trips to the gym.
You don’t need to work out for an hour or more six days a week. Rather, you can achieve similar benefits from three far shorter workouts.
On the downside, metabolic training isn’t easy. However, that’s the price you have to pay for such a time-efficient workout. Remember, you can train hard, or you can train long, but you can’t do both.
Is metabolic training right for you? The only way to find out is to try it! Take one of our tried-and-tested workouts for a spin, or create your own. But don’t forget your water bottle; things are about to get sweaty!
- Ramos-Campo DJ, Andreu Caravaca L, Martínez-Rodríguez A, Rubio-Arias JÁ. Effects of Resistance Circuit-Based Training on Body Composition, Strength and Cardiorespiratory Fitness: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Biology (Basel). 2021 Apr 28;10(5):377. doi: 10.3390/biology10050377. PMID: 33924785; PMCID: PMC8145598.
- Wen D, Utesch T, Wu J, Robertson S, Liu J, Hu G, Chen H. Effects of different protocols of high intensity interval training for VO2max improvements in adults: A meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. J Sci Med Sport. 2019 Aug;22(8):941-947. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2019.01.013. Epub 2019 Jan 29. PMID: 30733142.
- Schuenke MD, Mikat RP, McBride JM. Effect of an acute period of resistance exercise on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption: implications for body mass management. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002 Mar;86(5):411-7. doi: 10.1007/s00421-001-0568-y. Epub 2002 Jan 29. PMID: 11882927.
- Emberts T, Porcari J, Dobers-Tein S, Steffen J, Foster C. Exercise intensity and energy expenditure of a Tabata workout. J Sports Sci Med. 2013 Sep 1;12(3):612-3. PMID: 24137082; PMCID: PMC3772611.