When it comes to strength training, most coaches and even clients understand the concept of progressing in a structured and systematic way, using percentages to build strength slowly over time.
But, for some reason, when it comes to metabolic conditioning, fitness becomes a free-flowing ocean of random, high-intensity efforts, filled with varied, whatever modalities are en vogue that week:
- Kipping pull-ups
- Hang snatches
Since wall walks recently became a thing when they burst onto the scene during the CrossFit Open 20.1, we can now add wall walks to the cool movement club.
Though it’s tempting for many athletes and coaches to enjoy wild-west-style metabolic conditioning training, it's not what's best for most people.
It's certainly not what's best for longevity, explained veteran Opex coach Georgia Smith.
“If you do it too soon, and you don’t build a proper base of support, there can be some negative characteristics that come from that, and you can end up hurting their long-term health and vitality and their progression with metabolic conditioning,” she said.
So, like strength training, to avoid developing compensatory movement patterns that can lead to injuries, and to improve recovery and produce sustainable, long-term results, metabolic conditioning needs to be progressed in a systematic, structured way, Smith explained in Opex's free course: Metabolic Conditioning: Principles and Progressions.
For metabolic conditioning to be sustainable, Smith offered four principles to always keep in mind when programming for individual clients.
Principle 1: Repeatability
"Everything a client does should be repeatable," Smith explained.
- If they do a five-minute conditioning piece and take five minutes rest, they should repeat that piece and achieve the same result.
- Or, if they do a 30-minute AMRAP, they need to know how to pace the 30 minutes equally, meaning maintaining the same pace throughout the piece, as opposed to flying and dying.
Principle 2: Slow to Fast
When programming for new, inexperienced clients, Smith emphasized the importance of programming slower efforts first, and in time, as they gain experience, you can move to faster actions.
Principle 3: Long to Short
Metabolic conditioning needs to progress from longer (slower) efforts to shorter (harder) efforts as the client becomes more experienced and fit.
Principle 4: Simple to Complex
Smith explained that movements in a metabolic conditioning environment need to be kept incredibly simple for inexperienced clients (think biking and rowing instead of thrusters and cleans).
Including movements that are too complex too soon can lead to poor movement patterns and, often, the intention of the workout gets lost.
For example, a thruster movement might end up being more about muscular endurance than the session's intention—aerobic conditioning.
Progressions – The Four Cs: 1. Cyclical
Smith recommends introducing metabolic conditioning to new, inexperienced clients as cyclical training sessions.
4 x 1,000-meter row or bike
Rest 90 seconds between sets.
The idea here is to help the client figure out how to pace these low-skilled, low impact, non-dynamic intervals, where the goal is to maintain the same speed throughout each interval or overall piece.
In this way, the client will start to build a more robust aerobic system while learning how to pace workouts according to their fitness level.
Progressions – The Four Cs: 2. Circuit
Once the client has developed themselves aerobically and understands pacing, you can start introducing circuit workouts,
Smith explained. These can be AMRAP-style or workouts for time, where you're repeating various rounds of various modalities throughout the piece.
- The key here is to include movements where the client has the technical proficiency to put it into a metabolic conditioning piece. If their form breaks down after 20 wall balls, it makes little sense to include an AMRAP where they are asked to do 30 wall balls multiple times.
- Like cyclical work, circuit training should be repeatable and sustainable in terms of the person's pace. If they do the first round in one minute and the third round in four minutes, they're probably not ready for this type of training.
Progressions – The Four Cs: 3. Chipper
Chipper-style workouts are, of course, when you go through a list of exercises one at a time.
50 Calorie row 40 Toes-to-bar 30 Wall balls 20 Burpees 10 Power cleans
These are tougher for someone to learn how to pace because it's hard for inexperienced athletes to know how to break up the repetitions.
As a coach, you don't want someone reaching muscular failure on a movement, which is why they introduce them to circuit-style pieces first.
Progressions – The Four Cs: 4. Constant Variance
An example of a constant variance workout would be to complete the chipper above, rest, and then repeat it two more times, but both times with the movements in a different order.
- These are particularly hard for less experienced athletes, as they'll be lost regarding how to pace themselves. Thus, Smith recommends constant variance workouts for advanced level athletes only, who have spent a ton of time progressing through cyclical, circuit, and chopper-style workouts first.
- Smith said that the only people who need to know how to tackle constant variance-style workouts are athletes competing in fitness sports, adding that the average person probably never needs to progress to this level.
Final tip from Smith: For all four of the above style workouts—cyclical, circuit, chipper, and constant variance, remember to consider the four key principles in making program design decisions: Repeatable, slow to fast, long to short, and simple to complex.