29 Jan Our First Email Question: What is Metabolic Conditioning?
This is the first of the Q/A articles that I will be posting as questions come in. It’s a great question and one that I had intended on writing an article on in the future, anyhow. Remember, any questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org and will be answered here!
Q: Hey Andy,
I read your new article about programming at urbanevo, I really liked it. It’s also the first time I saw the term “metabolic conditioning”, and so I’ve been intrigued. Would you mind going into the basics about metabolic conditioning, or point me to some reliable resources to read about it?
A: I feel that, especially in the Parkour community, there is some confusion as to what “conditioning” means. We often hear statements along the lines of, “In Parkour, you must condition in order to keep yourself safe from injury.” However, it is not a well-conditioned athlete that is most likely to remain safe. Not specifically, anyhow. It is a strong athlete that remains “bulletproof.”
Conditioning refers to the body’s ability to adapt to stress. An athlete becomes well-conditioned in a wide variety of manners, with strength being a particular facet. However, strength is in its own realm (hence why we call it “strength & conditioning”) because of the primacy of and complexity of strength training itself. Conditioning has changed in response, referring to primarily the body’s ability to endure and adapt to the demands of other aspects of athleticism. While strength is the basis of all aspects of conditioning, everything else falls into this category: power, agility, speed, balance, flexibility, stamina, endurance, etc.
Metabolic conditioning, often shortened to “metcon,” is the marriage of stamina and endurance training. We all know what endurance is: the ability for the human body to cardiovascularly handle more and more volume. A lot of the times, endurance and stamina are confused. Stamina is a term used to specifically refer to local muscular endurance; that is your ability to keep doing a movement before your muscles give in to failure. A metcon program, properly done, will tax everything in your body by volume: your heart blast-beats in time to Finnish death metal, you suck in air and it feels like chainsaws down your throat, your arms and legs are wobbling as if they were made of hot, burning, agonizingly painful rubber. And then you keep going.
In sports, it makes a whole lot of sense. What’s the point of being strong and powerful if you can’t last? MMA fighters almost exclusively train in the world of the metcon, only seldom going into proper strength and power training. For traceurs, gymnasts, trickers, and acrobats of all sorts, metabolic conditioning is key, but strength and power tend to be just slightly more important.
I want to tell you folks a story. It takes place several years ago, when I was a young buck and no one in their right mind would call me an “athlete.” I was overweight (roughly 205lbs at a height of 5’6″) and the most competitive thing I had ever done in my life was play video games. This was when my journey into Parkour began and as many of you know, my training took place in Canada under the tutelage of Dan Iaboni, the owner and head coach of The Monkey Vault in Toronto.
You see, we didn’t have Parkour gyms back then. We trained on concrete, and when we were really lucky, we got to play in gymnastic facilities. We didn’t know about the benefits of strength or power training. Parkour was still in its infancy, and while we weren’t strong, we prepared through conditioning. That was the buzzword in my day of Parkour: conditioning! It’s easy to forget now that we know about strength. The issue was, back then, I wasn’t in good condition. At all.
I remember one of my first indoor sessions with Dan. He was leading a group of us from the city of Hamilton, inside a facility in Burlington. I remember his words after, before we even attempted any “Parkour” movement. “Parkour is about the real world,” said Dan. “And the real world doesn’t care if you’re too tired to do a muscle-up or make a gap jump.” He destroyed me. He beat me into the ground until every muscle in my body felt like hot and searing acid had been poured down on it. Dan was an altruist at heart, if even his methods were quite painful. He knew at some point, I would return to America. And he wanted to make sure what I brought back with me would be useful. When I returned home for the summer, I trained diligently. I focused on the nuances of movement and I thought Dan couldn’t beat me up again. How wrong I was.
As much as I trained, I couldn’t match the fitness of those around me even when I returned. Was it Canadians were just in better shape? I didn’t remember being so weak the past summer with my American brethren. Dan was leading a conditioning session across the gymnastic floor. QM this, QM that. Forward, backward. Burpees. Now one arm, one leg. Burpees. Roll. Jump. Did I mention burpees? I didn’t make it through the session. Actually, I excused myself and proceeded to vomit into the toilet. I would excuse myself with the asthma that wrought my lungs, with the excess dead-weight that sagged about my midsection, with this or with that. I think Dan only tolerated this from me because he knew his tolerance bit into my soul. Despite all the excuses, if I was really dedicated, then I would train past them. I would condition myself so that my asthma would no longer be a problem, or my muscles had the stamina to go on forever. But I didn’t. No matter how hard I thought I was training, I always knew I could push myself just a little bit harder. So Dan would tolerate the excuses and every time he said “Okay, go on. Take a break,” he knew that I winced inside, and that I would go home and angrily fall asleep. In the morning, I would push my body to extinction. Little by little, I would progress.
Being strong is great for our performance in Parkour, in acrobatics, in running or any other sport you want to think of. Being strong is the foundation. I’m one of the last people who should be trumpeting the benefits of conditioning, because it isn’t my strength. It is, without a doubt, my weakness. Night after night, Coach Mike runs the UrbanFitters into the ground and I’m the first one to go down. But I will ask you this: Are you really that good at your sport if you can’t last? If you’re too tired to keep going? And there’s no denying that after destroying yourself like that, you are self-validated. It wasn’t us who got you through it. It was you. Your pain. Your misery. Your triumphant determination to not let it beat you! Half of us will say, “Keep going! Don’t stop! You gotta finish!” The other half will coo gently, “No, it’s okay. Take a break.” Use both. Fuel the fire. Do not let yourself be weak. At the end of it, I promise you that you will feel great. Nothing can bring you down after you chose to get up when it was the very last thing you wanted to do. And when’s the last time you can say you did that? When’s the last time you endured brutal suffering for no other reason than your own self-betterment? There is this consideration: are you really pushing yourself as hard as you can? How much are you really capable of handling? When’s the last time you were training, felt every cell in your body quivering in fear, begging and pleading you to stop, with sweat stingingly dripping into your blood-red eyes, and you fought with all your might to keep going? Just another minute. Just another step. Just another swing, push, pull? When’s the last time you collapsed on your gym floor like a ragdoll?
Maybe it’s time to condition.
Andy Tran is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the NSCA. He has been involved in North America’s Parkour community for over six years and is one of Urban Evolution’s lead instructors. Andy is also a competitive powerlifter, holding a state title and the raw open records in Virginia for squat, bench press, deadlift, and total at 148lbs with USA Powerlifting.