How to design a killer training program: Circuit Training

workout 2

Now that we’ve covered the importance of a warm-up, it’s time to move into the next phase of training – structuring your session. While I say structure, I mean that in a pretty loose sense as I tend to take a more fluid and intuitive (rather than programmed/regimented) approach to my workouts. You will see some of that reflected in this post.

 

In this post, I am going to focus on circuit training. I chose circuit training because it is one of my favorite styles of training and it gives you the most bang for your buck. I particularly love it because:

 

  • It’s full body: Circuits, normally incorporate the whole body. This is important because when we live a mostly sedentary life (for my corporate folks – even if you work out every day but sit for the next ten hours, you would be classified as living a sedentary life) we can’t afford to ignore half of our body (or more) during the precious hour we get to spend at the gym each day. You can certainly focus on a particular muscle group, but ideally, you should be activating your whole body
  • It works your heart: Circuits get your heart pumping. They’re an easy way to enter your max heart rate zones and thus increase your capacity for cardiovascular activity (beware…while that is good, you also want to be cognizant of how long you are staying in each zone…but more on that later)
  • It’s quick: If you are strapped for time, as most of us are, circuits are the best. You can bang out a killer circuit in 20 – 30 minutes (less if you are reeeeally strapped for time) which will definitely give you enough time for a nice warm-up 🙂
  • You can do it anywhere: As a management consultant who has spent so much time on the road trying to stay fit, circuit training has been a lifesaver for me. There are so many amazing circuits you can put together that can be done without a single piece of equipment – all you need is your body. This, coupled with the fact that they are so quick, gives you no excuse to miss a workout
  • It’s fun: They’re intense, challenging, and creative. I love designing circuits and finding new ways to challenge myself. Once you get into your rhythm, I’m confident you will too
  • It makes you happy: high intensity training releases more of your feel good chemicals like endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin than more traditional lower intensity workouts…something this world needs much more of

 

Disclaimer: while circuits are my favorite, they represent one style of training. Depending on your goals, there may be other training styles enable you to meet your goals more effectively. If you’re trying to build 22 inch arms, this is not the program you want to follow.

 

Here are some of the goals that circuit training will achieve:

  • Improve overall physical fitness level
  • Improve muscular and cardiovascular endurance
  • Increase muscle strength
  • Reduce body fat
  • Improve overall mood – reduce stress, increase happiness

 

Given the qualities and the outcomes of circuit training, I feel that it is the best form of training for someone working a high demand corporate job (I say corporate job because if you are working a high demand landscaping job, you are using your whole body throughout the day and therefore can afford to focus on specific muscles during your time in the gym – circuits are still a great option for you though!)

 

Now that we understand the value of a circuit, let’s get into what they actually are and how you can build them.

 

Circuit training is a form of body conditioning which blends a mixture of endurance training and/or resistance training at high intensity. It targets strength building/muscular endurance. An exercise “circuit” is one completion of all prescribed exercises in the program. When one circuit is complete, one begins the first exercise again for the next circuit…(definition by Wikipedia, reviewed and approved by yours truly)

 

The objective is to sufficiently work your muscles while keeping your heart pumping through the entire workout with minimal rest..sounds easy right?

 

…wrong.

 

Circuits are intense and it’s really easy to fatigue your muscles. If pure endurance is your goal, I guess that’s okay, but if  you become too tired, too fast you won’t be able to put your muscles under the stress they need to grow and build strength. That’s why there is an art to designing a circuit – you need to keep your muscles fresh while you pump your heart throughout the session.

 

Circuits can get pretty complex but I am going to start with 2 easy tips for you to think about as you start to structure your programs.

  • Push – Pull
  • Top half – Bottom half

 

Push-Pull:

A large majority of movements (outside of twisting) can be categorized as either push or pull. The reason the push-pull concept is so important is because the push motion and the pull motion utilize distinct muscle groups. The push-pull method is very useful when designing your circuit because it enables you to give one set of muscles a rest while you work a new set of muscles, still keeping your heart rate up. Let’s explore…

Push exercises get the name because you are pushing things away from you, you can be pushing a weight (bench press), or pushing the ground away from your body (push-up).

Pull exercises get the name because you are pulling things toward you. You can be pulling a weight (dumbbell rows), or pulling your body towards something (pull-up).

Capisce (kah-peesh)?

 

Concept applied:

  • Let’s take a classic push example, the push-up (primary muscles: chest / secondary muscles: triceps and shoulder area)
  • Say your first workout in the circuit is a set of 25 push-ups. When you finish, those muscles are going to be fatigued. Since it’s a circuit, you only get ~15 seconds to rest, maximum. If your next workout is another push exercise, shoulder press (primary muscles: shoulders / secondary muscles: chest and triceps) you will need to use very similar muscles as your previous exercise. Here you can risk an injury from overuse or just inhibit your gains because you are exhausted and can’t add as much stress to your muscles as you normally would
  • If you apply the push-pull methodology however, things get a bit different
  • Start with the same set of 25 push-ups. Now, when you finish, you follow-up with a pull exercise, pull-ups (primary muscles: lats / secondary muscles: biceps) now you are using a fresh set of muscles and your fatigue from the previous exercise will have minimal impact on the current set
  • Simple, yet effective

 

Top Half, Bottom Half:

I’m sure you can pretty easily guess what this concept is all about…

That’s right, following the same logic as push pull, the muscles you use when you work the top half of your body are different than the ones you use while working the bottom half of your body (thanks, captain obvious). Top half <-> Bottom half gives you one more opportunity to let your muscles rest during a circuit.

Using the push-pull technique is great, but the truth is that it will only get you so far. For both push and pull exercises, while the primary and secondary muscle groups may differ, there are a lot of other smaller (stabilization) muscles that get used (and tired) for both. This means that going from push to pull to push to pull will ultimately wear you down.

UNLESS – you throw some top half, bottom half, into the mix.

Going push-pull on the top half of your body, followed by an exercise for the lower body (or better yet…a push-pull combination on the lower body) is going to give your upper body muscles the time they need to fully recover for the next time you need them, all while you continue to power through your workout, keeping your heart rate pumping 🙂

 

Putting it all together:

So, when you put it all together, it may look a little something like this

Example Circuit:

Perform each of the following exercises in sequence resting no more than 25 seconds in between each exercise. When you complete the entire sequence of exercises, that is one circuit. Perform the circuit 4 times resting up to 2 minutes between each circuit.

Circuit:

  • WARM UP
  • 10 burpees
  • 8-10 pull-ups
  • 15 push-ups
  • 15 squat jumps
  • 12 hamstring bridges
  • 12 down-dog push-ups (push-up, then in a high plank press yourself back to down dog)
  • 10 prone cobras (with 3 second pause)
  • 20 alternating lunges (bonus points for alternating jumping lunges)

 

I chose these exercises because you can do them virtually anywhere. Try it out and feel free to plug in new exercises that work the same (or similar) muscles (i.e. swapping out push-ups for shoulder press or dips.)

 

Be patient: at first, circuits may seem like a lot. It’s a lot to do/remember so feel free to write them down when you get started. Also, as you build your library of workouts and develop a better understanding of which workouts work which muscles, you will get much better at designing circuits that work for you. The best way to get better at this is to continue to experiment. Commit to a month of circuit training to start to recognize the effects. Everyone I’ve ever trained has done circuit training and they all love it, that’s why I am confident you will too.

 

Quick note on over-training: I’ll likely make this its own post but it’s also important to mention now. Beware of over-training with this style workout. It’s easy to want to do too much, too quick – especially because its summer and we all want to see our abs after unlimited cocktails and appetizers all weekend. Unfortunately, I can’t assess each person’s level of fitness. The example circuit above is designed to be accessible for people with a moderate level of fitness. If you are just getting back into the gym for the first time in a while or for the first time in your life, this will likely be a difficult circuit, please send me an email or DM me and I can give you some guidance on how you can build your way up to this circuit. There is an art to knowing when your body wants a break and when your body needs a break. Push yourself, but respect your limitations at the moment, knowing that with time and dedication, those limits will become a mere memory.

 

Enjoy your session!

 

Matt

One thought on “How to design a killer training program: Circuit Training

  1. Fully agree with this post and the value of training. As an Army Infantry officer, the circuit training is key to build the strength of soldiers for the field of battle and keep spirits high. Full body fitness is the way to go — feel good, look good, live fierce.

    Liked by 1 person

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