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Metcons in the Military

Shorter, more challenging workouts can produce greater combat efficiency for today's soldiers

Crowded schedules, limited equipment and an ever-evolving understanding of the athleticism of modern combat have precipitated drastic changes in military training methodologies. Forget about 90-plus leisurely minutes in a franchise gym – those in uniform, whether on base or on deployment abroad, often have to find the most time-efficient ways to maintain or increase their physical capabilities. One way that they are doing that is by adopting the principles of metabolic conditioning (or metcon), which provides marked increases in strength, explosiveness, agility and stamina. In other words, it bolsters the physical ability of the already tactically astute warrior to close with the enemy, no matter the theater.


The Metcon Dossier

“Metabolic conditioning is best defined as activity which will increase the storage and delivery of energy ready for muscular use,” says Phil Gephart, MS, CSCS, a Newport Beach-based (Calif.) trainer ( and exercise science professor.

While it is not uncommon for a soldier to hump miles across rugged terrain carrying cumbersome loads of gear, many conflicts occur in much smaller bouts. Running for cover, subduing an enemy combatant, climbing a wall – such acts require short bursts of energy, so it makes sense to train accordingly.

“ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, is necessary for quick muscular contraction,” says Gephart. “Unfortunately, the body only has very limited stores of this on hand – about 15-25 seconds worth. Hence the need for military personal to have some type of metabolic conditioning in their arsenal. This will help them to be better equipped for battle situations. When the time arrives for the soldier to move quickly and explosively, they will be more ready.”

However, metcon doesn’t simply boost short burst output. A peripheral benefit, Gephart says, is your cardiovascular capacity (read: endurance).

“Running enthusiasts will insist traditional cardiovascular training is necessary for heart health,” he says. “But the truth is that you will get an even better heart response doing a giant circuit with multi-joint movements in the weight room than a slow five-mile jog.”

Fort Polk Army NCOs Sprinting Exercise

Fort Polk junior NCOs take part in a sprint exercise during a class on the Army’s physical readiness training program. The class, hosted by the post’s NCO Academy, gave the young leaders a first-hand look at the new program. U.S. Army photo by Chuck Cannon

Essentially, metabolic conditioning provides the bulk of what is needed in battle – in less time.


Metcon “How To”

“Metcon is best done using large, compound movements that train multiple muscle groups in unison,” says Gephart, referencing pull-ups, deadlifts, bench presses and rows. “Out in the field you’re not going to need to do a biceps curl with your rifle for multiple sets. You’ll be jumping, running, crawling, pulling – bodily movements that are functional and that use many muscle groups.”

Metcon can take many forms in the gym in terms of exercise selection, rest periods and loads. But if you stumble upon a routine that uses most major muscle groups that has your heart, lungs and muscle bellies screaming for mercy, chances are you’re doing it right. Gephart adds that the short-burst energy protocols that are applied to weight training can also be used for sprint work, as described below.

An added perk to metcon training is a drastic improvement in body composition. By increasing training intensity, civilians and soldiers alike will increase their body’s post-workout calorie consumption more and for longer than when performing lighter, less-intense work. This also tends to increase your body’s natural output of growth hormone, which can increase muscle mass and decrease body fat.


In the Weight Room

Try this condensed program, inspired by strength coach Charles Poliquin, offered by Gephart:

Exercise                     Sets/Reps

Superset 1

Deadlift                                5/6

-superset with-

Chin-up                               5/6

Superset 2

Dumbbell step-up               4/8

-superset with-

Dip                                       4/8

Perform the exercises within each superset back-to-back with no rest in between exercises. Repeat until all supersets prescribed have been completed. Rest three minutes after Superset 1, then immediately perform Superset 2.


On the Treadmill/Track

This 20-minute workout will boost your battlefield quicks, as well as your overall stamina:

Activity                        Duration

Sprint                               8 sec.

Walk/Rest                       12 sec.

Perform this workout after 2-3 minutes of slow jogging as a warm-up. Repeat cycle three times each minute for 20 minutes, or 60 total cycles.