Minimalist Workouts and Metabolic Conditioning - Optimize Fitness & Performance

For many people, the ‘how’ of getting into shape or losing fat isn’t always the issue. At a minimum, they know they should be lifting weights and performing some type of cardiovascular activity. They know the basics of nutrition. There’s no shortage of information there, for better or worse. The problem is often a lack of time. In this article, I’ll list some of my preferred time-saving workout methods and examples of each. The goal is for each workout to be completed in less than 20 minutes.

Many of my clients (and readers) are busy parents, professionals, or students. With my stay-at-home moms, a sick kid can mean the difference between making a session or cancelling. With travelers, it’s a similar dilemna.

Additionally, some clients require longer warm ups, additional corrective exercise, are frequently late, or simply have shorter training sessions (<30 minutes). In each scenario, time-effective, challenging workouts are the key. The goal is to improve physical strength while challenging cardiovascular fitness.

Both situations require back-up programs that can be done in a small space with minimal equipment. John Berardi of Precision Nutrition made excellent points on the effectiveness of minimalist workouts in a recent article, which I referenced here. I’ll keep the exercise selections very basic, make progressions where you can knowing your ability.

What is Metabolic Resistance Training?

Metabolic Resistance Training (Metabolic Conditioning, Metcon, etc.) is an industry buzzword these days. Simply put, it needs to do a few things:

  • Elevate the metabolism for 24-48 hours after the workout
  • Burn a significant amount of calories during the session
  • Build muscle mass and promote muscle strength and endurance.
  • Elevate the heart rate and cause a cardiovascular adaptation that increases endurance, whether in the aerobic (long duration) or anaerobic (short duration) fashion.

It doesn’t need to be fancy. It needs to be simple enough to be performed anywhere, and with minimal equipment. It’s an integral part of Crossfit’s methodology. It’s also a key component of bootcamp-style workouts and workout finishers.

Equipment & Exercise Selection

Thankfully, not much is needed. I typically select bodyweight exercises, but also encourage clients to purchase a suspension trainer (TRX, Jungle Gym, Trainer in a Bag), a dumbbell pair, or a kettlebell. At the minimum, I’ll recommend a jump rope ($5). Superbands are an excellent option, as they are very inexpensive, durable, and vastly expand exercise selection.

Compound exercises are the key. Squats, lunges, waiter bows (or kettlebell swings / band good mornings), pushups, pullups, inverted rows, dips (bench dips place excessive strain on the shoulder, however), and various calisthenics (mountain climbers, squat thrusts, burpees) are staples.

A common difficulty is adding a pulling exercise (rows or pullups), and so I’ll often use scapular wallslides, scarecrows, and other upper back / scapular stability exercises as bodyweight alternatives when chinups aren’t feasible.

Circuit Training

While embodied by Nautilus circuits, it can take other forms. It can be as simple as exercises performed back to back, with a set rest period afterwards. It can also be exercises performed for a set time interval. Circuit training is also excellent for group training.

Examples:

  1. 10 Squats, 10 Pushups, 10 Wallslides, Jump Rope for 30s, rest for 60s.
    Repeat 5-6x for a 12-15 minute workout.
  2. Squats for 40s, rest for 20s. Pushups for 40s, rest for 20s. TRX Rows for 40s, rest for 20s. Plank for 40s, rest for 60s.
    Repeat 4x for a 20 minute workout.

Escalated Density Training / As Many Reps As Possible (AMRAP) / Block Training

Popularized by Charles Staley (here and here), and CrossFit, it boils down to a simple premise: how many reps can you do in a set period of time. Staley’s EDT concept is much more structured and is an actual training methodology, but AMRAPs make for great conditioning in a crunch. The beauty is that it’s self-limiting in a way, as less experienced exercisers will be naturally limited by their strength levels or cardio fitness.

A key is not to train into failure, whether that’s technical or muscular. I prefer to decrease reps as fatigue sets in to maintain proper technique. I may begin with 8 pushups per round and regress, which looks like: 8 reps, 8, 8, 7, 6, 6, 5, 4, etc.

  1. 6:00 Block of 8 Swings / Waiter Bows paired with 8 Pushups
    Rest 3:00 (Foam Roll or other Mobility)
    6:00 Block of 6 Lunges per side with 8 TRX Rows or Wallslides
  2. 15:00 Block of 8 Bulgarian Split Squats per side, 8 Pullups, 8 Dips
  3. Cindy – A Crossfit workout that’s beautifully simple. 20:00 of 5 pullups, 10 pushups, 15 squats.

Complexes

A complex is a series of exercises performed back to back, typically with a set weight. An easy example is a kettlebell, dumbbell set, or barbell. Weight is obviously limited by the weakest exercise in the circuit. They provide an excellent hypertrophic effect, while being very challenging for conditioning.

  1. Kettlebell complex – 6 cleans per side, 6 goblet squats, 6 presses per side, 12 swings.
  2. Bodyweight complex – 8 squats, 8 reverse lunges per side, 8 pushups, 20 mountain climbers, 20 flutterkicks.
  3. Band complex – 8 band thrusters, 8 band lunges, 8 band waiter bows, 8 seated band rows, 8 band walks per side.

Medleys, Countdowns, and Ladders

I use these predominantly as finishers but they were also great for me as a wrestler and a cadet.

  1. Countdown – This example is from either Alwyn Cosgrove or Mike Robertson, but it’s tremendously effective. Start with 10 burpees and 10 kettlebell swings, back to back without resting. Work down to 9/9, 8/8, 7/7, 6/6, until you reach 1/1.
  2. Ladder – The opposite of a countdown. 1 pushup, 1 pullup, 1 squat. 2/2/2, 3/3/3, up to 10 or a chosen number. Record your time and attempt to beat it as weeks progress. Can also be used with Turkish Get Ups, working up to 5 per side.
  3. KB Run the Rack – I’ll grab 4-5 kettlebells of ascending weight. 10 swings with each, with 30s of jump rope between weights. Start light, work to the heaviest weight, and work back down. Increase the # of swings as fitness improves.
  4. Medley – Great for parks or your backyard. Combination of exercises with a cardio exercise to finish. My favorite in college was squats, pushups, pullups, dips, situps, followed by a 100m run or 50m bearcrawl.
  5. Time-Based Finisher – 5:00 of burpees (squats, swings, etc.). Picked this one up at a seminar with BJ Gaddour and loved the simplicity.
    2 minutes of 10s of Burpees, rest 20s.
    2 minutes of 15s of Burpees, rest 15s.
    1 minute of 20s of Burpees, rest 20s.

Tabata

An excellent example of “less is more” and the idea of a minimum effective dose for conditioning. 4:00 and done! 8 rounds of 20s of work, with a 10s rest.

  1. Battling Ropes – Alternating Wave followed by Double Wave
  2. Air Squats, another Crossfit favorite
  3. Kettlebell swings (go lighter than you expect)
  4. Jump rope.
  5. Pushups and TRX rows, as a drop set. Start on the toes, regress to kneeling or lying pushups. They loved this method in college with cadet remedial pushup groups.

Sprints

If you’re ready to sprint (excellent article on this here), it’s an excellent way to improve your fitness and burn some fat. Hill sprints are a perfect, as they have a natural rest period built in. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a sled, sled pushes are especially effective. If not, consider burpees or kettlebell swings. Push very hard for a short duration, recover, and go again.

Conclusion

Needless to say, there is a lot more that can be written about this topic. I stuck with basic exercises to make this simple to understand and implement, but use your creativity and knowledge of your own limitations. Overall, it doesn’t need to be fancy to work. Great results can come from very simple methods, at least on paper. These also make for great end-of-workout finishers. Coaches that have taken these methods very far are Alwyn Cosgrove and BJ Gaddour, for starters.

Pick a method, customize it for yourself, and execute it the next time you’re stuck at home or on the road! There’s rarely a real reason to miss a workout. Take the 15 minutes you apply to facebook, wikipedia, or funny cat pictures, and get something in! Or crank a quick workout while watching cartoons with your sick kid!