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©2020 by Jonathon Reid

  • Jon Reid

Metabolic Conditioning for Fat Burning

When training with the aim of burning fat, conditioning sessions that focus on lots of short bursts of intense activity are very effective.

This type of training is commonly referred to as high intensity interval training (HIIT) which is a form of metabolic conditioning.

What is Metabolic Conditioning? Metabolic conditioning is basically a way of structuring training to elicit exercise induced metabolic stress (EIMS).

Stress!? Do I Want Exercise Induced Metabolic Stress!? Exercise induced metabolic stress is a fancy way of describing your metabolism when, upon you partaking in high intensity exercise, it says: ‘holy smokes this is tough, what the heck is going on, I better provide a lot of energy quickly.’ (I couldn’t find a journal to reference.)

EIMS will increase your metabolic rate (the rate at which you burn calories) during and after your session. Increasing metabolic rate during exercise is nothing special but the increased energy expenditure after your session has finished, when you are at home eating a salad on the couch, is one of the major benefits of metabolic conditioning. It is this ‘afterburn’ effect that most point to when explaining the benefits of HIIT training over lower intensity and steady state types of conditioning such as jogging.

Another major plus point of high intensity conditioning is that the short rest periods and nature of the exercises often used in high intensity interval training stimulate the release of hormones that play a role in building muscle and burning fat.

How do I do Metabolic Conditioning?

There is no one single way or type of exercise to use for high intensity conditioning.

Several exercises can be performed back to back in a circuit style manner for several minutes, or you might pick one exercise and do 20 seconds on and 10 seconds off (Tabata training).

Whatever exercise or exercises used, the principle of metabolic conditioning training is that the work period is of high intensity and the rest periods are short.

Exercise Selection

The exercises used for metabolic conditioning sessions should not be highly technical.

Metabolic conditioning generally means a moderate to high volume of work (lots of repetitions). The subsequent build-up of fatigue makes it difficult to maintain stable positions in highly technical movements, and it is for this reason that highly technical movements are not advised for HIIT training.

Yes, part of metabolic conditioning sessions is the challenge of being able to maintain good movement quality under fatigue, but, highly complex movements such as the Olympic lifts, in my opinion, should be avoided when training for conditioning purposes.

Similarly, exercises, such as many plyometrics, that involve intense eccentric loading (landing) are not advised for HIIT sessions.

Those people (perhaps CrossFitters) who are determined to use Olympic lifting as part of metabolic conditioning sessions, should at least try to limit the potential to damage. This can be done by performing the Olympic lifts at the very start of any circuit-style training (when the person will be at their freshest) or by utilising formats, such as every-minute-on-the-minute (EMOM), which provides at least some prolonged recovery between efforts.

But, again, I advise not using Olympic lifts or plyometrics for conditioning purposes.


There are so many different ways to structure metabolic conditioning sessions.

One of the classics, and most effective methods, is to perform 'rounds' of back to back exercises, followed by a towel over the head, a motivational quote from Mickey before getting back in for Round dos.

How many rounds and for how long? Due to its high intensity, metabolic conditioning can only be sustained for short periods of time. As such the work periods are generally between 15 seconds and 3-5 minutes, depending on the exercises used and the specific structure. The longer your work periods are, the lower the intensity will be.

Exact rest times are not overly important unless you are using a specific session as some kind of objective measure of progress. Generally, just take ten deep breaths and then get back to it. Push yourself sensibly and make sure the quality of your work is high.

If you’re not gassing, then best hit the accelerator, but if you’re gassing so much that you’re movement is ugly enough to break a mirror, then stop now or you'll pay later.

Give me some ideas…

In the Gym

25 seconds of:

  1. Bodyweight squats (squat movement pattern)

  2. Inverted rows (horizontal pull movement pattern)

  3. Push ups (horizontal push movement pattern)

  4. Skipping

  5. Battle ropes

Take 10s to transition between exercises for a total round time of 2:45 (total work time 2:05, total rest time 40s).

Rest for around a minute and repeat according to your capabilities. The movements, work times and rest times can be scaled according to individual capabilities; always start conservatively and add more when necessary.

In the Outside

  • Perform 15 technically perfecto squats

  • Sprint 200m

  • 15 squats with that same technique

  • Breathe and repeat.

This is especially good outdoors in the summer. Any bodyweight exercise can be used in place of the squats.

In the River

Row 500m fast. Breathe until you’ve got your breath back (say 30 seconds rest). Row 400m. Breathe. Row 300m….and so on and so forth.

In the Anywhere

Pick one bodyweight exercise (squat, reverse lunge, press up etc.) and go flat out for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds.

Repeat this for four minutes (eight sets of 20 seconds).

This is called a ‘Tabata'. Tabatas are tough, quick and effective.

Vary the Exercises, Duration and Intensity

High intensity conditioning is slightly different to strength training, during which you’re adding a little bit more weight to the same exercise and progressively overloading your system.

In contrast to strength training, you are not seeking for your body to become familiar with your conditioning sessions.

With metabolic conditioning we essentially want your metabolism to be saying "Holy smokes, what the fudge cake is going on here!? My body really needs energy, and needs it now so I better speed up."

This is how conditioning helps burn fat, as it is this response that causes the metabolic discomfort that leads to a major calorie burn during and after the session.

Varying the exercises and structure will ensure your body is unaccustomed to the stimulus and the positive responses will occur without you having to add more and more work each time you do a metabolic conditioning session. Variety can be as simple as using new exercises, reversing the order you did exercises in or increasing, decreasing or changing work and rest periods.


Metabolic conditioning is tough and effective.

It's a quick way to burn fat, get the heart rate up and test your capabilities. Metabolic conditioning is useful for body composition training as well as training specific energy systems used in various sports.

Try to include some form of metabolic conditioning in your weekly training, it can take as little as 15 minutes. Keep it simple and work hard. Give it a go and enjoy!

Help others induce metabolic stress by sharing this article with them. Thanks!