Circuit training (CT) is as old as training itself, in recent years it has become a dirty word in some circles and taken the place of all other forms of training in others. As per usual my personal philosophy on the subject falls somewhere in between.
Circuits are most often associated with conditioning, conjuring up images of pools of sweat and puke buckets. The reality is that CT is an incredibly versatile training method which can be used to train pretty much every physical quality. In this article I will explain one of my favourite ways to employ CT in my own and my clients training.
Circuits for Strength
The most common way I employ CT with my clients is not as you might assume for building ‘fitness’ but for developing strength. I tend to use Strength Circuits with athletes following a twice weekly ‘whole body’ training plan, usually Boxers, Mixed Martial Artists or Brazillian Jiu Jitsu fighters, or for team sport athletes who are in season. These guys have a tremendous amount of training to fit in on top of their Strength and Conditioning so I limit their gym based training to 2 sessions per week. This doesn’t sound like much but using this method we achieve excellent results without causing a detrimental effect on their actual sport practice. I don’t like to have these guys stuck in the gym for too long and as such they are a great choice for recreational gym goers who are on a tight schedule.
Keep in Mind…
It is important to remember that a strength circuit will rarely if ever make up an entire training session. I will always programme a main strength exercise, usually a squat or deadlift which will be performed on its own before the circuit begins.
Exercise selection in all circuit training is critical. Each exercise must always be chosen with the subsequent ones in mind. For a whole body Strength Circuit we will select one upper body pushing exercise, one upper body pulling exercise and one or two lower body exercises.
1a) Millitary Press
1b) Pull ups
1c) Split Squats
How It Works
Traditionally, when training for strength, you would complete all the programmed sets of one exercise before moving onto the next, resting around 2 minutes between sets. By training them in a circuit fashion it is possible to complete the same amount of work in a far shorter time. You are essentially cracking on with training a separate muscle group while you wait for the previous one to recover. After a set of 6 reps on the military press your shoulders and triceps will be fatigued but your legs will be fresh and able to perform the split squats; the same will subsequently be true of your lats when you move onto the pull ups. By the time you have finished a set of split squats and one of pull ups your shoulders and triceps will be ready for another set of presses and so on. For this reason it is critical to avoid selecting multiple exercises which work the same muscle group when circuit training for strength.
Strength Training NOT Conditioning
You must be careful to avoid blurring the line between Strength Training and Conditioning when performing these circuits. The weight should be kept reasonably heavy, somewhere in the 6-10 rep max area and there should be no pressure to rush from exercise to exercise. Having said that, you are likely to experience an elevated heart rate and the subsequent associated fatigue when training in this manner. You will have to tread a fine line here. Don’t rest excessively between exercises but equally don’t sacrifice reps or weight on the bar in an effort to blast through the circuit in record time: remember you are strength training!
How To Do It
I tend to have my athletes complete a set of one exercise WALK over to the next, take 3-4 deep breaths and maybe apply some chalk before starting the next. This usually takes 30-45 seconds. Run through the circuit 3-5 times. The first time you train this way it can be brutal but you will build excellent work capacity this way and quickly adapt, the first session is often the worst but this type of fitness develops extremely quickly and you will be able to manage comfortably in no time!
When it comes to exercise selection I ALWAYS follow two rules:
1) Compound exercises only. No curls or tricep push downs!
2) Make sure the exercises are low on technical difficulty and easy to bail out of in case of emergency. Remember you may well be breathing hard and sweating while performing these circuits, so benching is probably a no go along with any other movement where there is a chance you could drop a barbell on your face!
What They Can’t Do
Remember, while strength circuits are a great way of HELPING to build strength they shouldn’t make up the majority of your strength training. Dedicate the start of your session to a single exercise such as a deadlift performed in the 1-5 rep range with plenty of rest between sets before moving onto your strength circuit.
Giving it a Go
Hopefully I’ve given you some ideas about how to streamline your training and gone some way towards de-stigmatising ‘circuit’ training. There is nothing magical about circuits but any training method which has stood the test of time deserves to be taken seriously. If you would like any help trying out the methods discussed in this article feel free to drop into Plymouth Performance Gym and we’ll be happy to oblige!