And How to Fix It
Lift Weights Faster. Those words—so simple, so powerful—perfectly encapsulate the underlying premise that drives one of the most popular fat loss training methods in the world: Metabolic Resistance Training1.
Before we go any further, we should define the term. There are a lot of definitions floating around, but my favorite comes from Eric Cressey:
any strength training session that employs a series of (predominantly multi-joint) exercises while utilizing little (i.e., under 30 seconds) to no rest between sets.
Over the past 10 years (and in particular, the past 5), MRT has become the dominant training methodology for fat loss programming. And rightly so: it’s thoroughly studied, highly efficient, and phenomenally effective.
The combined efficacy and ubiquity has made metabolic prevalent that there’s no longer just MRT – there are types of MRT. For example, my density training for fat loss workouts are obviously different from something you’d see at CrossFit, but they both fall under the umbrella of MRT.
Taking it a step further, we have something like Jen Sinkler’s Lift Weights Faster. While LWF is a compendium of dozens upon dozens of metabolic resistance training workouts, each one of them is very different—some use ladders, some use cluster sets, some are density based.
My point is, MRT is no longer just one thing; it’s many things. And they’re all great. In general, metabolic resistance training itself is awesome. But there is a problem with it, and today I’d like to talk about that.
I’ve spent the past 10+ years designing metabolic workouts, and I’ve written more than I can count. I’ve read probably twice as many. And they all have one thing in common: they’re hard.
This, of course, is partially the point. If I may quote the great Jimmy Dugan:
Firstly, let’s all just take a moment to appreciate that I just worked in a reference to A League of Their Own. Secondly, if you didn’t enjoy that reference, or don’t like A League of Their Own, I’m done with you.
Anyway. With regard to MRT, it really is the hard that makes it great. Because they’re hard, metabolic resistance workouts place tremendous demands on you both aerobically and anaerobically. They involve a lot of muscles, requiring tremendous energy expenditure. And because they push you, metabolic workouts force rapid adaptation.
The result is massive fat burning, increased work capacity, and enhanced local muscular endurance.
This is all great stuff. So what’s the problem with MRT workouts? Well…they’re hard. The very thing that makes them great is what makes them problematic for a lot of people.
In the world of gen-pop fitness training, people who utilize MRT tend to laud it for its efficiency:
“Forget hours of mind-numbing cardio! Forget two-hour marathon workouts! You can get better results with just one 45-minute MRT workout!”
And that’s true. In terms of fat loss, the cost:benefit ratio is much better with metabolic training than either split workouts or long duration cardio—as long as the cost is time. It’s fast and more effective. Great.
It’s also hard as fuck. As we’ve established, that’s part of what makes it awesome, but that creates a complication most trainers seem to have just discarded entirely: your clients might not be ready for it.
Before we get into further discussion about that, I want to tell you a quick story that might help frame this correctly.
Recently, my friend Jade gifted me with a truly lovely bottle of Scotch—a Macallan 18 Single Malt. I’m told it’s awesome. Now, anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m a bourbon man, but I’m looking forward to branching out.
Here’s the problem: currently, I know nothing about Scotch; in fact, until I googled it for this article, I had no idea just how nice the gift was: the bottle apparently retails for over $220!
If I opened the Macallan 18, it would be wasted on me. I have no real frame of reference to appreciate its quality, and I don’t have the tasting experience to be able to distinguish the various notes and flavors from one another.
Put simply, the Macallan is just a bit beyond me at the moment.
Whether or not you know anything about Scotch, I think we can all agree that jumping into a 220-dollar bottle is a stupid and wasteful way to learn.
Sure, the Macallan will “do its job,” and give me a buzz. But in order to get the absolute most out of it, I have to spend some time educating my palate.
I need to work up to the Macallan.
Just as most people need to work up to metabolic resistance training.
As written, most metabolic workouts you’re going to see online are just too challenging to perform as written for the average client.
Trainers have fallen so in love with metabolic training and become so accustomed to writing these fast-paced workouts that it has skewed our perspective; that is, because MRT is everywhere, we assume everyone can do it and keep prescribing it.
No one would debate whether a 220-dollar bottle of Macallan 18 is “good”; it’s just accepted as fact. So if you want to give someone a bottle of Scotch, it can’t miss—you’re giving them a great gift.
Unless the person doesn’t drink Scotch, and you just gave them something they can’t use2.
But this is something trainers are doing every day: it’s accepted that MRT is the best, and we want to put out awesome content and do right by our clients. So we just keep writing these balls-to-the-wall workouts comprised of multiple 5-exercise circuits with almost no rest.
And, yes, like the Macallan, they’re awesome. If you can use them.
Here’s the quasi-Catch-22: one of the primary benefits of MRT is that it increases work capacity—but in order to really get the most out of a metabolic workouts, you need to come in at a pretty decent starting place.
Work capacity isn’t just a quality that needs to be improved; it’s a facet of fitness that needs to be cultivated before it can become the keystone upon which programming rests. And when it comes to MRT, that’s really what it is.
And the truth is, most clients just aren’t there at the beginning—but they don’t know that.
So they get a new program, try one of the workouts, and do their best to perform it as written. They do all these challenging exercises, keep rest periods to 30 seconds, and perform as many rounds possible…and they break down.
Educated trainers are quick to lambast CrossFit for just trying to bury people, but then publish workouts that effectively do the same thing, and claim superiority because their workout conforms to a more advanced training paradigm.
Before you think I’m attacking anyone, let me just be the first to admit that I’m as guilty as everyone else: I love writing kick-ass workouts, and my stuff is often very challenging.
When I first started programming MRT in 2004, I had clients complain that they threw up, or almost passed out, or were simply so exhausted that they had to bail out after 20 minutes and then lay on the floor for a half an hour before they could get up and leave the gym.
This still happens occasionally…
Outside of that being uncomfortable for the client, it’s irresponsible on the part of the trainer, in a number of respects.
The primary thing to consider is this: it’s not that the workouts we write aren’t good, from an absolute perspective; they’re very good. These workouts are just beyond the abilities of clients who are new to it, just as the Macallan is beyond me.
In the case of either Scotch or metabolic resistance training, if you want to help people get the most out of things, you have two choices.
The first option isn’t completely useless: if people just keep doing the workouts over and over, eventually they’ll adapt and be able to perform them correctly. And in the meantime, those workouts probably will help them burn fat and get in better shape.
Similarly, if I just keep drinking Macallan 18, I’ll eventually be able to appreciate Scotch…and in the meantime will certainly get drunk.
But between now and eventually there’s a lot of wasted time, effort, and money.
Which is why I prefer option two: meeting people at their level. I always aim to give people something they can use for maximum benefit now, but that will also help them improve to the point where they can get the most out of more advanced stuff later.
The question is, if we acknowledge that metabolic resistance training is the best method for fat loss, but is often too hard for people…how can we make adjustments to help them lose fat now and improve work capacity down the line?
There are a few ways to do this. Let’s look at two of my favorites.
One of the hallmarks of traditional MRT is how fast-paced it is: the rest periods are timed, and usually very short; in the case of density training, you may be timing your sets and trying to perform as many reps as possible.
We’re gonna cut that shit out for a while.
Until I have a truly accurate handle on someone’s work capacity, I don’t make them time rest periods. I just prescribe that they keep rest to a minimum, and move at a good clip through the individual circuits and the workout as a whole.
This sets you in a completely different frame of mind than timing rest periods; things are in your hands. Rather than watching the clock, focus on form and execution, and don’t feel obligated to work yourself into the ground.
Of course, this could lead to a ton of lollygagging and render the session completely ineffective, right? To make sure that this doesn’t happen, time the session as a whole.
After writing the workout, I make a general assessment of how long I think it should take with a reasonable amount of rest built in. From there, these are the instructions:
After that, my clients can give me some information. If they were able to complete the workout, they let me know how much time was left on the clock; if they were not, they let me know how much of the prescribed workout was left over.
After one or two sessions, I have some pretty telling information and can make adjustments. For example:
Whatever the case, you’re still getting an effective training session that will move you towards your goal while collecting valuable insight that can be used to continually make the program better and consistently challenge you.
For about 30% of my clients, we start with this approach. In the absolute sense, will the workout be as “good” as a hardcore MRT workout? No. But it’s better for them, and that’s what matters.
My favorite method of working people up to MRT is with what I’ve always called “Break’em In Workouts”, but for the sake of using a term that sounds less sexual, we can refer to as Metabolic Ramp-Up Training, or MRUT.
As you would expect, this is a modified version of MRT that allows the client to train pretty hard and burn fat without ever breaking. Executed correctly, MRUT helps you consistently get close to your threshold, then pulls you back and allows you to recover.
I started writing these Break’em In Workouts in late 2004; as I said, I made the mistake of overworking a few clients early on, so had to come up with a way to avoid that while still moving them forward.
Essentially: MRUT consists of truncated MRT circuits, performed for pre-determined time blocks (rather than timing individual rest periods). These blocks are alternated with timed blocks of fairly easy active recovery—this keeps you moving, but allows you to get your shit together.
Here are some basic rules I use for constructing these workouts:
That’s really it. They’re not the most advanced workouts in the world, but they are incredibly effective. Again, the goal is to consistently approach your threshold, and then back off; assuming you’re actually pushing hard during the work circuits, this is pretty automatic.
Workouts will typically last 35-40 minutes (accounting for transitions). You’ll be be moving, but you’ll be working for about half of that time.
Just because I’m awesome and I want to give you guys a real understanding of this, I’m giving you a full MRUT workout for you to try today.
Check it out:
SET-UP: Perform the A1-A3 sequentially, completing the prescribed number of reps for each exercise before moving on to the next. Moving quickly throughout the circuit, keeping rest to a minimum.
A1) Goblet Squat – 12 reps
A2) Push-up – 8 reps
A3) Plank – 30 seconds
PROCEDURE: Perform this circuit for a total of 5 rounds or 5 minutes, whichever comes first. After completing your 5th round (or the expiration of the 5-minute block), proceed immediately to your Active Recovery Block.
On a rowing ERG, row at a speed and resistance that challenges you, but does not overly tax you. Complete a total of 5 minutes and proceed to the next work circuit.
SET-UP: Perform the B1 and B2 alternately, completing the prescribed number of reps for each exercise before moving on to the next. Moving quickly throughout the circuit, keeping rest to a minimum.
B1) Barbell RDL – 15 reps
B2) Barbell Row – 6-10 reps
PROCEDURE: Using the same weight for both exercises, perform this circuit for a total of 6 rounds or 4 minutes, whichever comes first. After completing your 6th round (or the expiration of the 4-minute block), proceed immediately to your Active Recovery Block.
Pedal on a stationary bike at a resistance and speed that challenges you but does not overly tax you. Complete a total of 3 minutes and proceed to the next work circuit.
SET-UP: Perform the C1-C3 sequentially, completing the prescribed number of reps for each exercise before moving on to the next. Moving quickly throughout the circuit, keeping rest to a minimum.
C1) Walking Lunge – 15 steps per leg
C2) DB Overhead Press – 8 reps
C2) DB High Pull – 10-12 reps
PROCEDURE: Perform this circuit for a total of 5 rounds or 8 minutes, whichever comes first. After completing your 5th round (or the expiration of the 8-minute block), proceed immediately to your Final Active Recovery Block.
Walk on a treadmill at a minimum of a 10-degree incline and a speed that challenges you, but does not overly tax you. Complete a total of 15 minutes.
Boom. That’s it. The total work time (including active recovery) is 40 minutes, so with set up and transitions you’ll be done in about 45 minutes—just like a typical metabolic workout.
The difference is, if you’re new to metabolic training, or you need to improve work capacity before you can dive (safely and effectively) in to MRT, Break’em In Workouts are actually superior to “the real thing.” They’ll allow you to get fantastic results without overtaxing you, and are designed to progress you towards something that can continue to help you later on.
Keep in mind that one of the most challenging aspects of losing fat is staying ahead of the adaptation curve. By using metabolic ramp-up training first, you also get to “save” MRT for later in your programming without compromising it’s efficacy.
As I said, I truly believe metabolic resistance training is great; and, as you probably know, it makes up the bulk of my fat loss programming. But the fact is, it is not without it’s problems, and it is not for everyone—at least not right way.
These problems are solvable, and I’ve got something that will solve them for you.
Just last week, I put the finishing touches on an entire series of Metabolic Ramp-Up Training workouts. I’ve been working on it on-and-off for a while, and I was finally inspired to finish it.
The workouts in this manual are fast, effective, and a great intro to MRT.
But they’re not just for people who are “new” to metabolic training. They’re also great for experienced trainers who have been focusing on other things for a while.
If you’ve ever spent 12-16 weeks working on strength, and then tried a fat loss program, chances are you didn’t have much success…because your work capacity was just shit. These are great for you.
So, whether you’re just getting started or just getting back into it, MRUT is a fantastic way to start getting lean and improve your work capacity so you can keep progressing.
Let’s be real. Metabolic Resistance Training is numero uno for a reason; it’s a nearly perfect method for losing fat. If you’re looking for something more in-depth, Jen Sinkler’s Lift Weights Faster 2 has over 180 metabolic workouts. ONE HUNDRED EIGHTY of them! You’ve got workouts for the next year, and that’s if you train every other day and don’t repeat any.
Jen is one of the best coaches in the business, and she’s known for the high quality of her work. Plus, she stacked the value like crazy. LWF is a resource you’ll continue to use for the rest of your life. Whether you like kettlebells, barbells, bodyweight training, or a combination, Jen’s got you covered. I guarantee you’ll be using the workouts in here for years to come.
And I can’t wait for you to try them.