Circuit Training

Time is a precious commodity. Most of us don't have nearly as much as we would like. It is difficult to balance school with training and family commitments. Many people have a difficult time fitting in both aerobic training and strength training. How is it possible to juggle everything and still have an effective workout? The answer is circuit training.

Circuit training has been around for many years. Traditionally circuits have consisted of either bodyweight exercises or low weight high rep weight training exercises designed to increase strength endurance. While this has been the norm circuit training can be so much more. When designed properly circuit training can be an effective way of increasing strength.

Designing a Strength Circuit

The concept behind circuit training stays the same whether you are training for strength or strength endurance. A series of exercises are performed one after the other with little or no break between the exercises. The difference between strength and endurance circuits is found in the intensity and volume.

Intensity

Intensity refers to the amount of weight you are lifting. It is usually expressed as a percentage fo the maximum amount of weight that you can lift. In order to increase strength you need to work with at least 60% of your max, a weight you could handle for 15 reps. Usually strength circuits will be performed between 60% and 75% of your max (a weight you could handle for 8 reps). Exercising with an intensity that is higher than this places a greater demand on the nervous system, requiring more rest between sets, making it difficult to perform circuit style. Endurance circuits would be done with less than 50% 1RM, a weight you could handle for 20 or more reps.

Volume

Volume is the total amount of work. It is usually calculated by adding up the total number of repetitions for each exercise. For instance 6 sets of 5 reps would be a volume of 30. For strength increases the volume of training for each exercise is normally 15-40 repetitions. This doesn't mean 15-40 reps per set but rather the total volume is 15-40. If you did 3 x 10 on the bench press you would have done a volume of 30 if you did 6 x 5 you would also have a volume of 30. More volume in a session does not mean more strength gain. The stimulus to increase strength is like the button on an elevator. Push it and it will come, pushing the button more doesn't make the elevator come any faster. More volume in a training session will only increase the time it takes to recover.

Controlling Fatigue

In order for a strength circuit to be effective you need to control fatigue. Fatigue during strength training circuits will be caused by either a depletion of ATP-CP, the immediate source of energy in the muscles, or an accumulation of lactic acid. If the fatigue is caused by depleting ATP-CP that's fine because this energy system can recovery very quickly, 2-4 minutes for complete recovery, and allows you continue to work at the right intensity.  The recovery time form high levels of lactic acid can be as much as two hours. High levels of lactic acid will make it difficult to work at the appropriate intensity, decreasing the effectiveness of the workout. To make sure that lactic acid is not causing fatigue the duration of each station in the circuit should be kept to 15 seconds or less. When the whole circuit is completed a 2-4 minute rest is taken before the next round to allow full recovery of your ATP-CP stores.

The order of exercises in the circuit will also affect fatigue levels. Upperbody and lower body exercises need to be alternated to spread the fatigue as much as possible. You should alternate push and pull as well. For instance if your circuit starts with a pulling exercise like bench pulls you would then move to a lower body exercise like leg press, your next upperbody exercise would then need to be a pushing exercise like bench press and the lower body exercise would need to be a leg curl for the hamstrings.

Sample Circuit

Exercise

Circuit I Time/reps

Circuit II Time/reps

Circuit III Time/reps

Circuit IV Time/reps

Circuit V Time/reps

Totals

Bench Pull

15s/ 8

15s/ 8

15s/ 8

15s/ 8

15s/0

32 reps

Leg Press

15s/ 6

15s/ 6

15s/ 6

15s/ 6

15s/ 6

30 reps

Bench Press

15s/ 6

15s/ 6

15s/ 6

15s/ 6

15s/6

30 reps

Leg Curl

15s/ 6

15s/ 6

15s/ 6

15s/ 6

15s/6

30 reps

Arm Curl

15 s/10

15 s/10

15 s/10

15s/0

15s/0

30 reps

Calf Raise

15s/15

15s/15

15s/0

15s/0

15s/0

30 reps

Overhead Press

15s/ 6

15s/ 6

15s/ 6

15s/ 6

15s/6

30 reps

Back Extension

15s/ 6

15s/ 6

15s/ 6

15s/ 6

15s/ 6

30 reps

Tricep Press

15s/ 10

15s/ 10

15s/ 10

15s/0

15s/0

30 reps

 

Rest
2 min

Rest
2 min

Rest
2 min

Rest
2 min

 

This is a circuit designed to give a total volume of about 30 reps for each body part with an intensity of about 70% 1RM, a weight you could handle for 10-12 reps. You won't be near a failure point where you cannot lift the weight on your own on any of the exercises. This is fine since failure is not necessary to increase strength.

The number of repetitions you do in each 15 second set will depend on the exercise. Arm curls and calf raises have a much shorter range of motion that back extensions or leg press so you can do more reps in 15 seconds.

When you achieve the desired volume, 30 reps in this example for an exercise, then the exercise is eliminated from the circuit and you take a 15 second rest when you get to that station. If you look at the calf raises you will see that after two circuits you have done the required 30 reps. For the remaining circuits you now take a 15 second rest when you get to the calf raise station. Do not continue to do calf raises because this will increase the volume too much and potentially overtrain your calves. Make sure to take the rest period. Do not move onto the next exercise and skip the rest period because you will ruin the upperbody-lowerbody pattern that you need to follow.

Under ideal conditions you can complete this circuit in under 25 minutes. If you need to wait for equipment or take a long time between stations your time will obviously increase. This type of full body circuit can be done 2-5 days per week  making it a very time efficient way to fit strength training into a busy schedule.


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