Balancing Movement Quality and Metabolic Conditioning

When it comes to programming metabolic conditioning or “MC” for clients fitness professionals usually go about this in one of two ways.

  1. Disregard movement quality and just “get after it”:

In this scenario, the client is pushed to their limits and things like posture, spinal position, knee position and general movement quality are NOT significant factors in programming

  1. A very conservative approach is taken and the client never really gets the “metabolic training effect”:
    1. This scenario can occur because the trainer is very technical and puts movement at a premium (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing from a safety perspective)
    2. This might also occur because the trainer is timid when it comes to pushing clients out of their comfort zone
    3. This can also occur because the trainer recognizes the client has some movement limitations. Instead of getting to the root of the movement issues and fixing them MC is avoided.

Can we hold movement quality at a premium, but still program in MC when a client has dysfunction? This is inevitably the time where you start to think about your approach to the challenge of balancing movement quality and MC. Do you sacrifice movement quality in the name of fat loss? If so, then to what degree? Do you sacrifice fat loss for movement quality? Have you found a middle ground?

exhausted-from-exercise-400x400   vs   singleleghiphinge

This topic isn’t addressed very often (in literature, articles, etc.), but should be. It’s critical fitness professionals find a way to improve movement and add MC sooner rather than later? Why you ask… well… because Americans have a movement quality problem AND an obesity problem. The remainder of this article will address this topic from the perspective of two fitness professionals:

Erik Miller: A strength and conditioning coach working with large groups who uses his coach’s eye to evaluate movement quality

Joe Chaitkin: A personal trainer working in 1-1 and small group setting who uses the FMS and additional movement-based assessments to evaluate movement quality

Erik’s Approach:

As a coach of large groups, most of which are teenagers or younger, improving movement skill is almost entirely what I do. MC is secondary to learning and polishing movement skills. Due to time constraints (even though it is probably optimal to do it first), a formal “movement screen” is not possible. If it is clear that practice and coaching is not producing the desired results (improved movement skills) then a movement screen is performed. (When this point is reached, I introduce the student and his/her parents to Joe!) I tend to be aligned with the mindset that everyone should be able to take part in the basics of human movement, even if there are some flaws. All should practice the squat, deadlift, press, and pull. However, there are many times when completing the full range of motion is impossible. For example, if one cannot keep the spine neutral when deadlifting off the floor, I will raise the bar up on blocks to shorten the range of motion. I implement the same strategy with squats and push-ups. The benefit of training the movement pattern remains intact and we will build up to performing the full range of motion.

So… what do I do if we need to take part in some metabolic conditioning work? First, we practice the basic movement patterns and do lots and lots of submaximal form work. For most beginners this stimulus is enough to present a challenge at the onset of training. Once form is pretty dialed in, it is time to increase intensity. Adding a “metabolic stimulus” is a great way to determine weaknesses and lingering movement flaws.

For example:

A student of mine, who we’ll call Bill had finally learned to proficiently squat and deadlift with light weight. After a few sessions, his major flaw in when performing these movements, a valgus collapse of his right knee, was under control at light weight and slow speed. It was now time to challenge him with some metabolic conditioning. A triplet workout was designed which included a goal time to complete four rounds of the following:

  1. Goblet squats
  2. Push-ups
  3. Running

After the first round, Bill was doing well. No sign of a valgus collapse. The same was true after the second round. However, on the third round of squats, things started to get ugly. As fatigue from the accumulated workload started to set in, the knee started caving in. Bill’s underlying movement flaws came rushing to the surface. Instead of pushing through, we stopped after the third round and he was made to rest, get a drink of water, and received instruction on what was going on (He was unaware his knee was collapsing). Because Bill is a teenager who participates in many sports, it is very important to put him under stress and see how his movement holds up. He had to be pushed with a metabolic stimulus because of the demands of his sports.

Some food for thought; he couldn’t keep the problem (valgus knee) in check for six minutes. Imagine what happens during a 2-hour basketball practice. This student was ultimately referred for an FMS.

Another example is of a one-on-one client. He had zero ability to hold a barbell or dumbbell on his shoulders without his elbows flaring out to the side. This immediately told me he was seriously lacking external rotation while his shoulders were in flexion. Pressing overhead or combined movements like thrusters were not an option in the metabolic conditioning portion of our workouts.

We still could get a great metabolic stimulus by working around his flaw: Implementing exercises he does well, like squats, push-ups, and swings got us to his fat loss goal, and it did so without him risking injury. Because he is a “desk jockey” it wasn’t “required” that we take the time to restore mobility to his shoulders. He was overweight with poor cholesterol readings so it was more important to address those issues than to improve his ability to reach overhead.

How Erik bridges this gap:

Grading movement helps guide my decision to alter a workout or adjust the range of motion. This is the basic idea – all strength work and skill work should score in the “A” range. Fatigue is not an issue and improving skills is the main goal. To get stronger, “A” level movement is required! However, when transitioning into metabolic conditioning work, I will allow my clients to sacrifice a perfect grade for the sake of metabolic stimulus. I will only sacrifice one letter grade though. If someone is performing a movement in the “B” range, that is acceptable. Now, determining grade levels is up to you. My standards might not be the same as another S&C Coach, but having consistent standards in place allows for a focus on movement quality and safe metabolic improvements.

Joe’s Approach:

I’ll be honest with you here and admit that at some point in my career I’ve taken each of the approaches mentioned earlier in this article. However, over the years my though process and as a result my approach to MC has changed dramatically. I place movement quality at a premium… I’ve become one of those “FMS guys”. However, I also value the impact of metabolic conditioning.


How Joe bridges this gap:

I use Functional Movement Screen ® (FMS) results as my guide to qualify and disqualify clients from performing particular movements in metabolic conditioning sessions. In fact, if a client’s movement quality is poor from a global perspective (they score a 10 or lower) I will keep metabolic conditioning or even circuit training to a minimum until movement improves to an acceptable level. FYI: on the FMS scale a 14 represents “adequate” movement quality with no increased risk of suffering a non-contact injury.

For example:

A poor score active straight leg raise (think posterior chain limitations and/or core dysfunction) tells me the client is disqualified from the following exercises:

  1. Kettlebell swings
  2. Deadlifts
  3. Lower body plyometrics
  4. Squats

A poor score on the shoulder mobility screen tells me the client is disqualified from the following exercises:

  1. Overhead press
  2. “Advanced” push ups
  3. Pull ups
  4. Heavy rows
  5. Kettlebell swings

It is important to recognize that most people have strengths and weaknesses as it relates to their movement quality. Therefore, if a client scores poorly on their shoulder mobility screen, but performs well elsewhere I can aggressively program (i.e. program MC) as long as I stay away from the list of items above.

Here’s a sample MC program for a client with poor shoulder mobility and good movement quality in all other patterns:

  1. Squat jump Interval
  2. Deadlifts Interval
  3. Traditional Push Up Interval
  4. Battling Rope Interval


Assuming the work to rest ratios and weight loads are appropriate for the client this program is clearly advanced, would provide an adequate stimulus to produce a metabolic training effect, yet is still safe for a client with poor shoulder mobility.

Notice both the “coach’s eye” and “FMS” approach are simply different paths leading to the same destination. Both evaluate the quality of movement patterns and use this information to qualify or disqualify particular movements in MC. The take home point is that its critical to develop a system for evaluating movement that can be consistently implemented and serves as a means to guide your programming. Just think of this as installing checks and balances into your programming. Without such a system, programming for MC becomes challenging for you and dangerous for your client.

Interested in learning more about Metabolic Conditioning? Our next seminar is Saturday, 10/22/16 in NYC. Only $225 with coupon code METABOLIC until 9/22/16. Learn More

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