Circuit Training Methods

On Monday, I wrote an article about my thoughts on separating strength and conditioning and the importance of thinking about them as a singular entity (Strength & Conditioning: Keeping it All Together).  Today I just want to lay out a few circuit training methods that I have used over the years.  The number of times per week you perform these and which method you choose will depend on what you are looking to get out of your training at that time.  Of course you don’t have to use circuits in your training program and may opt to just do straight sets of exercises.  There are different times to use different methods and that is going to be up to your individual situation, the athlete(s) you are working with, the amount of time you have to devote to training, and what you are trying to achieve.

There are a number of ways to perform circuits and I generally group circuits into four categories (Please note that the terminology of this stuff often confuses people.  The terms that I use to describe the circuits are just for me so to have a way of classifying how I think about intensity and the work to rest ratio of a given circuit):

  1. General fitness/aerobic circuits
  2. Alactic-aerobic circuits
  3. Strength circuits
  4. Anaerobic-glycolytic circuits (further divided into extensive and intensive circuits)

General fitness/aerobic circuits

General fitness/aerobic circuits are simply to raise work capacity, improve fitness, and can also be used as a recovery modality on days when the athlete is beat up and needs to back off. The intensity of these circuits is low and the rest interval between movements is minimal, allowing the athlete to move from one exercise to the next at their own pace.  The only time I assign a rest interval for this circuit is if we use resistance and the individual is performing 8-12 repetitions using a 15-20RM load, followed by 30-60sec rest.  However, if we are doing these circuits for recovery purposes, we rarely approach intensity/effort like that, usually just performing various mobility drills and/or core work.

The exercise selection is up to you as a coach (Note: for total beginners to resistance training, I will use body weight or very low intensity, however their rep ranges will be 5-8 reps per exercise to allow them to learn the movement and not have technique deteriorate.).  I find that the exercises in this circuit can range from the normal resistance training exercises, body weight exercises, specific mobility/corrective exercises (FMS correctives fit in well here), or core work.  We are looking to work for > 30min in a circuit workout and they are allowed to take a little bit longer rest at the end of a complete circuit (90-120sec) before starting over. The number of circuits you do in this time will depend on the number of exercises you use and how long you plan to work for. Commonly, a workout using this format would consist of a warm up (10-15min), 30min of circuit work, and then 30-40min of tempo work on the bike or running in a field.  When using this method of circuit training for recovery purposes, we tend to focus more on joint mobility exercises, various stretches (yoga type sequences), and dynamic mobility activities.

Strength circuits

Strength circuits are focused on improving strength, just as the name implies. Usually I go to a superset of two main exercises with a mobility or core exercise in between them or I do a circuit of push, pull, legs, core. The important thing here is the rest interval, which so many do not obey. If you are able to perform this sort of work with no rest interval or very little rest then you probably need to place more weight on the bar and work towards getting more strength.

Reps in this circuit are </= 5 per set and the rest interval is anywhere from 3-5min. Rest can be active rest, which is why I use the mobility or core work in between; however, there are times when complete rest is going to be desired in order to allow for full recovery.  Additionally, I do not pressure the individual to move rapidly from one movement to the next, rather, I allow them to take their time when moving to the mobility/core exercise so that they can get sufficient rest and prepare for the next exercise or next set. The rest interval is very important here to allow for recovery and allow them to output as much force as they can.

Alactic-aerobic circuits

Alactic-aerobic circuits are used to try and improve the individual’s ability to repeat their effort in an explosive task. You wouldn’t really be at this type of circuit if the athlete does not have a well-developed work capacity to tolerate this sort of activity. However, you can scale back the intensity and perform aerobic plyometrics (a method that Joel Jamieson covers in his book Ultimate MMA Conditioning).

Aerobic plyometrics can be good for preparing an athlete to develop a sport specific work capacity. These are similar to the alactic-aerobic circuits; however, the intensity of the jumping activities you choose is much lower. For example, when using aerobic plyometrics, I am a fan of the skipping activities that Gary Gray/Todd Wright have talked about (multi-directional skips and hops) and various medicine ball throws. You would perform these in a work to rest ratio of 6-10sec  or 8-10  reps of work followed by 10-30sec rest and you would do this continuously for 5-10min.  This is a great way to train sports and athletic movements in the initial phases of training when an athlete may not be prepared to tolerate more intense methods of jumping or plyometrics and may need to work on more general type movements.

The alactic-aerobic circuit can be performed in a similar fashion however the intensity of the activities will be greater – more intense jumps, skips, hops, or sprints. The work period is again around 6-10sec or 8-10 reps followed by a rest interval of 20-40sec depending on the intensity of the exercises choosen and you ability to recover.  For example, 10yrd sprints with 30sec recovery, or a circuit of  jumps and/or hops for a desired number of repetitions.

Anaerobic-glycolytic circuits

These are what most people think about when they hear the word “circuit”.  These sorts of circuits have gained popularity recently with the various bootcamp and crossfit type of training methods out there.  Oftentimes people refer to these as “metabolic circuits” or “metabolic training”.  I would, however, caution people from using these circuits so frequently and/or year round.  The intensity of these types of circuits can take their toll on the body and this type of work is not a great starting point for someone beginning training with a limited training background.

Anaerobic circuits can be divided into extensive or intensive. These can be timed sets of work or they can consist of lifting weights to failure or near failure in the 6-8 rep range (similar to the repetitive effort method talked about by Mel Siff in Supertraining and made popular by Westside Barbell).

If the sets are timed they can be anywhere from 30sec to 2min. The 30-60sec intervals are what I would call more intensive and the 75-120sec intervals are what I would call more extensive. The rest interval in with these circuits is typically a 1:1, 1:2, or 1:3 work to rest ratio (so work for 30sec rest for 30sec or work for 30sec rest for 60sec, or work for 30sec rest for 90sec).  This type of work would be used only at the appropriate time in the training program. I do not start with this sort of work with people and it may only occupy a short block (2-3weeks) in a training program.

The type of exercises I choose here would be either general resistance training exercises (if you are using 6-8reps to failure or 1-rep shy of failure), some sort of complex (barbell complex, KB complex, DB complex), or sprinting activities (bike or running).  Another thing I have used are medicine ball circuits where we have a specific number of repetitions for each of the different throws and I time how long it takes them to go through the circuit and have them rest 1-2x’s their working set.

The important thing with anaerobic-glycolytic circuits in the intensity you are working at.  This method could easily fall under the general fitness circuit method if the intensity is too low.  Medicine ball circuits can be used in either an aerobic or anaerobic fashion as can various complexes (DB, KB, BB) depending on the weight on the bar and how hard you are working.  However, if the goal is to develop the anaerobic-glycolytic system then the intensity needs to be appropriately chosen for the given work duration.

Rest Intervals

The rest interval for the various circuits is essential!  Too often coaches and athletes cut their rest interval short in order to try and “do more work”or just get things done in a faster period of time.  If you want to properly develop some of these energy systems then the rest interval is an important rule to follow as it will ensure that you are able to put the greatest amount of effort into the work interval.  There are times when doing things under fatigue and trying to repeat your effort in this manner are important, however, you should work up to this sort of training by first making sure that you can give 100% and slowly lowering the rest interval until you can repeat maximal or near maximal efforts with minimal rest.