Paleo Fitness and Metabolic Conditioning

By Kellyann Petrucci, Melissa Joulwan, Patrick Flynn, Adriana Harlan

Metabolic conditioning is essential to Paleo fitness. The human body relies on a substance known as ATP (adenosine triphosphate) to supply energy, commonly referred to as the body’s “energy currency.” The human body can use carbohydrates, fats, and protein to supply itself with this energy currency. Metabolic conditioning is any form of exercise aimed to increase your body’s efficiency for storing and delivering energy (ATP).

To further understand this process, you must also know that three energy systems, or metabolic pathways, in the human body supply ATP:

  • Phosphagen: The phosphagen energy system fuels the high-intensity and shortest-lived bouts of movement (typically ten seconds or less), such as the swinging of a baseball bat, a jump over a creek, or the first couple of seconds of a sprint. This system is anaerobic, meaning it doesn’t require oxygen to fuel metabolism.

  • Glycolytic: The glycolytic pathway is the traditional carb pathway that fuels moderately intense and relatively short-lived exercise (lasting only a few minutes). It takes over after the phosphagen system. Also, the conversion of carbs into ATP results in the production of lactate, which leads to that burning sensation in your muscles. This system is also anaerobic.

  • Oxidative: The oxidative energy system is the primary endurance system that supports long-term, low-intensity forms of exercise, such as jogging, hiking, and so on. This system is aerobic, meaning it uses oxygen to fuel metabolism.

In short, when you increase the efficiency of the various metabolic pathways, you increase your overall work capacity, which in turn leads to the ability to perform a broad range of physical tasks with general competency.

The body responds to stress by becoming more efficient. Strength is a form of efficiency and so is conditioning.

You can use a number of fitness methods for metabolic conditioning. As long as the multiple pathways are all appropriately taxed, you’ll achieve the desired effect.

The benefits of metabolic conditioning

Work capacity is your ability to produce and maintain work of various intensities and durations. It’s a desirable trait for any type of athlete because when your sport-specific skills match your opponent’s, the sheer ability to outwork your opponent often leads to victory.

And because the direct result of metabolic conditioning is an increase in work capacity, it can literally help you defeat your opponents. Through metabolic conditioning, you’ll be able to go harder, go farther, and go longer. Now that is a competitive advantage. Moreover, short and intense metcon sessions have a profoundly positive hormonal impact, surging the production of natural growth hormone.

Too much intense exercise is not a good thing, though. In fact, almost all the positive hormonal benefits of intense exercise may be reversed if you push it for too long or too often.

The miraculous fat-loss effects brought about by metabolic conditioning are likely to interest you the most. Nothing cuts through fat quicker than short, intense metabolic conditioning sessions. And here’s why: Short, intense metcon workouts create a huge oxygen debt, also known as exercise post oxygen consumption (EPOC) or, informally, the after-burn effect.

EPOC brings about an elevated and prolonged consumption of fuel — that fuel being calories. It also results in the breakdown of fatty acids into the bloodstream, where, if your body takes proper advantage of it, the fatty acids may then be oxidized (burned off).

So metabolic conditioning results not only in a long-term calorie burn — that is, your metabolism may stay elevated for up to 48 hours post workout — but also in the immediate breakdown of stored body fat. In this vulnerable state, fat burning may be swiftly executed by following up your short and intense metcon sessions with low-intensity cardiovascular efforts.

Switch on your fat-burning furnace

If there’s an ultimate exercise formula for fat loss, here it is:

High-intensity metabolic conditioning (short duration) + Low-intensity cardiovascular efforts (moderate to long duration)

The simplest example of this combination is to pair 15 minutes of sprints with 30 to 60 minutes of walking. The goal is to use the power of high-intensity metcon work to drive the fatty acids into the bloodstream and then switch over to the low-intensity cardiovascular efforts to oxidize (burn off) those fatty acids.

Metabolic conditioning alone is primarily an anaerobic endeavor and doesn’t rely heavily on fatty acids for fuel as much as low-intensity aerobics do. The down side to just working aerobics, however, is that you miss out on all the positive hormonal benefits of high-intensity work as well as the huge caloric after-burn. When you combine these efforts, you’re truly able to switch on your natural fat-burning furnace.

Instead of eating after a high-intensity workout, go for a brisk 20-minute walk, and then eat. This little tweak can really make a difference in your fat-loss results.

Get results in just 15 minutes

When you’re cooking something, say, a piece of chicken, you typically cook it only until it’s done, right? You don’t continue to cook it after it’s done, because then it’s overdone, and that’s bad.

You need to approach exercise the very same way. You want to apply just the right amount you need to get the job done and no more. You can easily overdo exercise with metabolic conditioning. And in this case, less is better.

So how much do you need exactly? Well, the answer is, as any good coach will tell you, it depends. And mostly it depends on what you want to achieve.

You can typically achieve the best results with as little as 15 minutes of metabolic conditioning! Yes, believe it or not, this stuff is so potent that 15 minutes is usually the most you’ll ever need at any one time.

A good exercise program shouldn’t be designed to destroy you and leave you feeling crushed, dismantled, or obliterated. A good exercise program should challenge you but leave you feeling charged, confident, and successful. So even if you feel like you can do a lot more, rarely does that mean you should.