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Circuit Training For Size!

This week’s article is a guest post from up and coming Strength and Conditioning Coach Bradley Westell. Bradley has recently returned from a weekend shadowing the Strength and Conditioning coaches at one of the UK’s biggest Premiership Rugby clubs where he witnessed the methods this elite club uses to pack muscle onto their academy players. In this article Bradley outlines what he learned about the use of Circuit Training to transform the Rugby stars of tomorrow into some of the biggest and fastest athletes on the planet!

Traditionally, hypertrophy (muscle building) training consists of one compound movement such as the bench press, performed for 3-5 sets of 10-15 reps with around 60-120 seconds rest between sets. This is typically followed by a number of ‘assistance’ exercises which work the same or similar muscle groups again using the same set, rest and rep scheme.

Although this is an age old method of building muscle, exclusively working in these higher rep ranges can neglect the heavier weights required to build the sort of brute strength required to dominate your opposition on the rugby pitch, meaning you run the risk of becoming one of those guys or girls who ‘looks like Tarzan but lifts like Jane’!


Circuits for Hypertrophy

The Circuits described in this article are made up of 3 separate exercises, all focused on the same muscle group. The first exercise will be performed for 6 reps; this provides a balance between a weight heavy enough to build strength, and reps high enough to build muscle. The following two exercises will be performed for 12 and 15 reps respectively placing them firmly in the ‘muscle building’ rep ranges.

One set of each exercise completes one round of the circuit.  Perform 5 rounds resting 90-120 seconds between rounds.

When progressing through the exercises, walk from one to the next, focus on your breathing then set yourself before commencing the lift. During this time make sure you are adequately hydrated by sipping water or an intra-workout drink.


Exercise Selection

The first exercise chosen for the circuit should be a big compound lift such as a deadlift or standing overhead press. The subsequent two exercises should be “accessory lifts” to that body part or particular movement: (see examples below)


Pushing/Shoulder Circuit:                                                    Pulling/Back Circuit:

1a) Military Press x 6                                                              1a) Deadlift x 6

1b) Seated Arnold Press x 12                                                1b) BB Bent Over Row x 12

1c) Lateral Raise x 15                                                             1c) Lat Pull Down x 15


The idea is that the first exercise in the circuit will always be undertaken after a period of rest – allowing you to go heavy and push hard. This also reduces the risk of failure or injury due to excessive fatigue.

When selecting the accessory exercises, be sure they are appropriate to the body part/movement you are focusing on and that you can complete all of the prescribed reps with good form.


Selecting the Weight

The weight of each exercise you choose should reflect the amount reps each exercise is going to require. Keep in mind that fatigue will be a factor and the focus should be on quality reps using sound technique and full range of motion. I tend to use 70-80% of my 1RM for the first lift in the circuit but this is just a guideline. For the accessory lifts I select weights which are light enough to be used with sound technique but heavy enough to provide adequate stimulus.
Note: If you find that a weight has become ‘too heavy’ at any point and is affecting form… drop the weight!


The Reps Add Up

As previously mentioned each circuit should be performed 5 times in a workout– this is where the reps add up to provide the ‘volume’ necessary to achieve hypertrophy!

[For a more in depth look at the importance of volume to muscle building see Body Building the PPG Wayin the Performance Vault].

For example, let’s look at the overall number of reps that will be performed when completing the overhead pressing circuit:-

Military Press:                         6 reps x 5 sets = 30 reps

Seated Arnold Press:               12 reps x 5 sets = 60 reps

Lateral Raise:                          15 reps x 5 sets = 75 reps

Total Reps:                              165 reps

As evidenced above, this is a great way to include plenty of volume within one circuit with the added bonus of building great work capacity!


It’s Not a Race

A crucial element to remember when undertaking CT for hypertrophy is that it isn’t a WOD – although rest breaks are timed and hypertrophy CT can streamline your training, there are no prizes for “fastest completion of the circuit”. Regardless if you are training for hypertrophy, strength, or power the quality of the reps should be held in the highest regard.


Giving it a Go

I hope this article has outlined another use for circuit training and has given you some ideas on adding new or extra stimulus to your training. If you would like any help trying out the methods discussed in this article feel free to drop into Plymouth Performance Gym – Will & the team will be happy to oblige!

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