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Written on March 18, 2014 at 8:36 am, by Eric Cressey
Metabolic resistance training (MRT) has been all the rage in the fitness industry over the past few years. And, while people have started to appreciate that interval training is a better option for fat loss than steady-state aerobic activity, that doesn't mean that they've learned to effectively program this interval training – especially when it involves appreciable resistance, as with MRT. In other words, it's much easier to program intervals on the recumbent bike than it is to include kettlebell swings, as one obviously has to be much more cognizant of perfect technique with the swing. With that in mind, with today's post, I'll highlight five characteristics of safe and effective metabolic resistance training programs.
1. They must include self-limiting exercises.
With self-limiting exercises, fatigue stops you from completing a rep before your technique can break down. A perfect example would be sled pushing or dragging. It's virtually impossible to have technique break down with these exercises, especially in a trained athlete, and even under considerable loading. And, I can't say that I've ever seen anyone injured while using a sled.
Taking this a step further, I'd note that there are exercises that might not be self-limiting initially, but reach that point eventually. For example, with a beginner, a suspension trainer inverted row is not self-limiting at all; there are several important technique elements that a lifter needs to master because doing the exercise under conditions of fatigue.
Push-ups would be another example. We've all seen the classic push-up form deterioration under fatigued conditions: a sagging, excessively arched lower back; forward head posture; and elbows flaring out. It's the classic "panic mode" strategy employed by beginners. However, you never see it in experienced lifters; they'll simply fail before the technique breaks down. Part of this comes from technical proficiency, but it's also related to the fact that the limiting factor shifts from anterior core stability to upper body strength/endurance as an individual gets more experienced.
With all this in mind, it shouldn't surprise you that what's appropriate for a MRT program changes over the course of a training career.
2. There has to be sufficient total work to achieve a training effect.
I hate to burst anyone's bubble, but doing 5-10s intervals probably isn't going to do much for you – unless you're doing a ton of them, or using really short rest intervals. Essentially, you have to get to the point where you shift over from the ATP-PC to the glycolitic (anaerobic) system. This is a sweet spot where intensity of exercise is high while volume remains up – and that's how you create the "metabolic debt" that makes interval training so beneficial.
I think it's better to look at total work than just reps in a given set, as not all drills are created equal. For example, if you do a barbell complex consisting of five snatches, five cleans, five front squats, five barbell rows, and five deadlifts, you've done a ton more work than if you just did 25 medicine ball throws. The loading capabilities are greater with the barbell complex, and the bar travels over a greater distance. Since work equals force times distance, it's a more powerful stimulus than the medicine ball throws.
3. The work intervals must be short enough to preserve a high effort level and good technique.
This could be considered the "corollary" to #2. Doing a set of 100 barbell snatches is absurd, as technique breaks down, and the amount of weight an athlete can use is almost too trivial to even call it metabolic RESISTANCE training. Plus, it would likely take about 2-3 minutes to complete, which means that you're getting much more aerobic, even if an athlete is "working hard." My feeling is that you use your work bouts to challenge anaerobic systems, and your recovery period to condition the aerobic energy system. Let's be honest: most strength training enthusiasts care more about the aerobic system for recovery than actual aerobic exercise performance, anyway.
4. The programming must appreciate the influence of "other" stress.
My wife takes bootcamps at Cressey Performance three days a week, and they're heavily focused on MRT. Accordingly, she only does "true" strength training sessions two days a week.
I, on the other hand, don't take bootcamps, but have more traditional lifting sessions four days a week. I'll usually supplement them with one metabolic resistance training, sprinting, or rowing intervals session, as well as one low intensity "blood flow" day.
Our dog, Tank, on the other hand, lays around all the time and doesn't do a damn thing.
Effectively, the harder you train on the strength side of things, the less you can do on the conditioning side of things.
This also applies to those with considerable stress outside the gym. Stress is stress, so if your life is crazy hectic, it may not be appropriate to do a lot of high volume MRT. Some low-key aerobic activity might be a better supplement to your strength training work until you can get your stress sorted out.
5. There must be adequate equipment and sufficient space available.
This is an incredibly important, but commonly overlooked factor that heavily influences a metabolic resistance training program's success. While you can usually get by with minimal equipment with a MRT program, body weight only can get old very quickly. Fortunately, just adding a kettlebell, band, suspension trainer, barbell, or other implement can quickly expand your exercise selection pool. It's important to realize that a little bit can go a long way, especially if you're training in a busy gym and can't monopolize pieces of equipment for too long without someone walking off with them!
Space is a different story, though. If you have a 10'x10' home gym with low ceilings, it's going to be tough to do barbell complexes, sled pushes, or farmer's walks.
Likewise, using our busy gym example from above, do you really want to even attempt a barbell complex in a busy commercial gym? You might have pristine form, but some inattenive gymgoer might still walk right into you in a middle of a set of power cleans. Make sure that your area is big – and secure – enough.
As you can see, there is a lot more that goes into designing a safe and effective metabolic resistance training program than meets the eye. To that end, I highly recommend Jen Sinkler's new resource on the topic: Lift Weights Faster.
The depth of this product really blew me away, as there are 138 pages of sample MRT workouts using all sorts of different equipment, or none at all. There are some great ideas in there for fitness professionals and fitness enthusiasts alike, and I'll certainly be implementing some of the techniques Jen describes in our programming at Cressey Performance. It's on sale at a great introductory price this week, so be sure to check it out.
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