Metabolic Conditioning – Energy Systems Pathways

by Edward A. Patterson on July 14, 2011

One of the questions I often get comes as a result of our marketing because we advertise “scientifically designed metabolic workouts.” So, what exactly is a metabolic workout and what is the exercise science that we use in our exercise program design? This series of articles will address these questions.

Our aim at Torrington “MissFits” Boot Camp is help our Campers become as fit as possible. One of the primary considerations for fitness is body composition, as in the percentage of body fat versus lean body mass. However, fitness as it relates to physical skills is determined by cardiorespiratory fitness, strength, power, agility, coordination, stamina, flexibility, balance, and accuracy.

Any general fitness training program that ignores a particular physical skill does so to the detriment of the trainee. Fitness is multidimensional and most training programs are one, or two, dimensional at best. Creating improvements in all the physical skills will, by nature, help to create faster improvements in body composition as well.

Creating a training environment that hits upon ALL areas of fitness requires examining several aspects of fitness and related physiology and developing a set of training principles. This set of principles can then be used as a guide to creating an efficient general fitness training program. People get the “biggest bang for their buck” in terms of both time and money.

As is often the case, such examination of fitness and exercise physiology reveals many common misconceptions. Cardiorespiratory fitness is one such category.

Aerobic Cardio

The common perception is that you do “cardio” by performing some activity at a low to moderate intensity to elevate the heart and respiratory rate for an extended period of time. This type of activity is often called aerobic, and in this sense, “cardio” and “aerobics” are often used interchangeably.

You’ll derive some cardiorespiratory improvements and burn some fat. True enough, up to a point. The thing is your body will soon adapt and you’ll quickly reach the limits to those improvements. As an “aerobic” activity, it’s a one-dimensional approach.

The 3 Energy Pathways

Metabolic training has to do with conditioning meant to increase the storage, production, and delivery of energy. Without getting into the complexities of molecular biochemistry, the human body, in general, employs three energy systems pathways. They are the Phosphagen pathway, the Glycolytic pathway, and the Oxidative pathway. The purpose of these energy pathways is to produce fuel for muscle contraction. That fuel is adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Carbohydrates, fat, and protein will travel one of the three energy pathways to become ATP. The energy released from the breakdown of ATP allows muscle to contract and no contraction can take place without it.

The Phosphagen pathway provides the majority of energy used in short-burst, high-powered activities lasting up to about ten seconds. The second pathway, the Glycolytic pathway, is the dominant source of energy for moderate powered activities that last up to around two minutes. Finally, the Oxidative pathway provides most of the energy for low-powered activities that last in excess of several minutes.

All energy systems are engaged at all times. However, theduration and the intensity of the activity will determine the dominant energy system. This makes sense when you consider the first two pathways take place without oxygen and are considered anaerobic. The oxidative pathway is therefore aerobic.

Anaerobic activities are fast, high-powered, and therefore short-termed because of the limiting factors involved in the metabolic processes. In general, all out effort that last two-minutes or less and is unsustainable is anaerobic, while effort that lasts longer and is sustainable is aerobic.

To favor one or two of the energy pathways to the exclusion of the others is to deprive ourselves of significant training benefits. What if we could burn more fat, develop anaerobic as well as aerobic capacity, improve cardiovascular health, increase speed, power, and strength, build and preserve muscle, and do it in less time?

Metabolic conditioning does just that. In what is also referred to as High Intensity Interval Training, this kind of conditioning invokes a high degree of metabolic disturbance in your body.

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) alternates short periods of high intensity work with short periods of low intensity work or rest in repeated timed intervals. The general idea is to perform a high volume of high intensity work in a limited time. Ultimately, it is nothing more than anaer­obic training with controlled rest periods.

In our next article we will look closer at differences between how carbs and fat are used for fuel and whether you should be trying to burn fat durring your workouts.

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