It’s pretty simple, but we often get this wrong. Skill work is designed to be light and instill perfect movement patterns. Strength work is to increase load and get stronger. MetCons, or metabolic conditioning, are intended to move quickly, get the heart rate high, and kick some ass. Unfortunately, all too often in the world of CrossFit, we get that wrong. Daily, we prescribe MetCons during our WOD that typically last for 5-20 minutes. This short period of time is a vital part of your workout. However, we get hung up on doing a certain prescribed load or movement that does not allow for us to be intense during our MetCon.
Let’s look at our three main goals of MetCons:
None of the above happens when intensity is not achieved. When you are gassed, trying to complete a movement you need more practice in, or lifting a load too heavy to cycle for a number of reps, you are massively missing out and doing your workout a disservice. In every workout we should be both practicing and training. MetCons have no place for practice. You should be sufficient in the movement and/or load during your conditioning portion of the workout. A good rule of thumb is load being about 50-60% of your 1 RM. Yes, there are exceptions to this rule. But, for the most part, it’s a pretty good rule to live by.
Let’s look at an example:
Fran (21-15-9 reps for time of thrusters/pull-ups) is a 4-7 minute workout for most mortals. If you are going RX and it takes you 15 minutes, you are not getting the most out of your workout. I have never done Fran slower than 5 minutes. That’s because it took me a couple of years to RX Fran. Instead of taking 15 minutes to finish, I scaled the load to a barbell. Each time I repeated the workout, I went heavier until I reached the RX load of 95. I knew my intensity with the workout wasn’t going to be there until my 1 rep max was around 185. The same would go if you can’t string together a solid set of pull-ups. Scale the pull-ups until you can hit sets of at least 3.
In addition, the lasting benefits of intense MetCons are endless. The most important for many of us is burning fat. It’s a fact that high intensity interval training burning tons of fat for up to 24 hours after a workout. But, if we aren’t being intense with out MetCons, you are getting any of that benefits. This is not to say you should also go super light or pick out movements that are easy – no way! You should still be challenging yourself through load and movement, but just sticking to exercises that allow for intensity to be achieved.
In short, your metabolic conditioning should be an intense period of time, not a time to try to lift heavy or practice a new movement. A good rule of thumb is going to be 50-60% 1 rep max for loaded exercises and being about to do at least 3 reps unbroken of a gymnastics movement. This general suggestion will ensure that intensity can be achieved throughout the workout. Once the WOD is completed, then you can feel free to put in the extra work at movements to get better at them!
Sean Spire is the Head Coach of ASL. He was a competitive swimmer who discovered CrossFit and Ironman Triathlons. He has his BS in Exercise Science from Florida State University.