Metabolic Workouts: Speed It Up. Get Cut Fast. Bust Out of Your Plateau.

By L.K. Regan

Stuck in a serious gym rut? If you want to change things up, reenergize, and get cut, then we've got a workout for you. It’s a spectacularly brutal version of a circuit, called a metabolic workout, and it comes to RealJock via Devin Wicks (ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach), fitness operations director at UC Berkeley and specialty strength coach for some of the university’s elite sports teams.

Metabolic Workout Defined
A metabolic workout is a fast-paced circuit, in which you set up a series of fairly simple weightlifting exercises and do them on a fixed—and very short—time schedule. The weights you lift will be heavy enough to hurt, but not so heavy that you can’t get through the workout. Instead of lifting for volume, you’ll focus on lifting within a set period of time. The faster you lift, the more time you’ll have left for recovery. But of course, you’ll be that much more tired while you’re recovering. The idea is to create a very high-intensity workout, one that burns fat as it adds muscle tone.

Metabolic Workout Benefits
What makes metabolic workouts so great? These fast, challenging workouts provide the following major benefits:
  1. Increased cardiovascular efficiency
  2. Local muscular development
  3. Fat burning
  4. Increased definition in existing muscle
Who Should Do This Workout
Metabolic workouts are not for everyday use, but breaking from your regular workouts for a week of metabolic workouts can seriously kick you back into the fast fitness lane. You should try a week of metabolic workouts if you:
  1. Need a break from a heavy lifting program.
  2. Are stuck on a plateau and need a shock to your system. Muscles respond best to changing stimulus. If you want to maximize your muscle gains, you need to break up the heavy lifting with some different kinds of stimulation. But you don’t want to lose ground when you do this. The metabolic workout offers a great solution.
  3. Want to get lean and cut in a short period of time. This program won’t get you big if you aren’t already. But it will add definition to your existing muscle and help you build lean muscle. It’s also a great fat-burning program if you want to shave off a little fat and add some clarity to your muscle structure.
  4. Need a fast workout to get you in and out of the gym quickly.
  5. Are in between phases of a periodized workout program. Try this workout on a recovery week or between months of a longer program.
  6. Are starting back to lifting after a break. If you want to get back in shape using a manageable lifting program with a cardio component, a metabolic workout will get you up to speed—fast.
Tool of the Trade: A Decent Watch
To do metabolic workouts correctly, you'll need a watch with a countdown timer, one that can be set to recount at specific intervals. For example, if you put two minutes on the watch, it will count down to zero and then immediately reset to start again at two minutes.

Notes on Weights and Rep Max
For each exercise in a metabolic workout circuit, you want to set up your weights to be at 70 percent of your strength max. That means you want to choose a weight that will have you reach fatigue in 10 repetitions of that exercise -- it's a substantial but manageable amount of weight. Try to be as precise as you can about getting your rep max in 10 repetitions. Remember, this will be the point at which you could do another repetition, but not without compromising your form; when form breaks down, you’re at your rep max.

Sample Metabolic Workout Program
Below is a sample circuit of exercises to get you started—but note this program is endlessly adaptable. You should feel free to substitute other exercises in place of those provided.

The sample metabolic workout is a basic circuit, consisting of three sets of 10 repetitions of a series of exercises targeting the legs (squats), chest (bench press, flys), and back (cable rows, pull-downs). The circuit targets each muscle group twice.

To get started, put one minute and twenty seconds on your countdown clock. This is all the time you have to do an entire set of each exercise and to recover. Start the first set of squats. Wicks estimates the squats will take about 25-30 seconds. However much time you have left on the clock is your recovery. Enjoy it while it lasts, because when the watch beeps that time is up and you need to start the second squat set, again allowing one minute and twenty seconds to get through it and recover. After the third squat set done in this manner, move on to the next exercise—barbell presses—again allowing yourself only one minute and twenty seconds for each set. Continue through the circuit, sticking to the clock.

So far, so good. But here’s the kicker—you’ll probably get through the first run-through OK, but then you need to repeat the entire circuit a second time, with absolutely no pausing between circuits outside of that 1:20 timeframe. “The second circuit really starts to suck,” says Wicks. Ouch.

Wicks points out that the beauty of this workout is its endless flexibility. You can choose any exercises you like for this workout, and do them in the order you choose—but you have to be a slave to the watch to get the full benefits. It gets very tempting to slow down and take a break. Keep pushing. Do not give in.
Exercise Primary Muscles Worked Time Per Set Set 1 Reps Set 2 Reps Set 3 Reps Weight
Squats Legs 1:20 per set 10 10 10 70% Rep Max
Flat Bench Barbell Presses Chest 1:20 per set 10 10 10 70% Rep Max
Seated Cable Rows Back (lats, rhomboids) 1:20 per set 10 10 10 70% Rep Max
Squats Legs 1:20 per set 10 10 10 70% Rep Max
Flat Bench Dumbbell Flys Chest 1:20 per set 10 10 10 70% Rep Max
Wide-Grip Lat Pull-Downs Back 1:20 per set 10 10 10 70% Rep Max
Advanced Metabolic Workout: Bonus Circuit
If you want a more advanced workout that also works your arms, add the following three-exercise circuit immediately after you do the previous circuit twice through—and do this one twice through as well, again without stopping.
Exercise Primary Muscles Worked Time Per Set Set 1 Reps Set 2 Reps Set 3 Reps Weight
Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Presses Shoulders 1:20 per set 10 10 10 70% Rep Max
Standing Barbell Curls Biceps 1:20 per set 10 10 10 70% Rep Max
Dumbbell Skull Crushers Triceps 1:20 per set 10 10 10 70% Rep Max
Have Questions About the Program?
If you have questions about the Metabolic Workout program, check out this Metabolic Workout Forum for Q&A with trainer Devin Wicks.