Back to basics with circuit training

An introduction to how and why you should include circuits in your training

Circuit training:

•    is a series of exercises performed in rotation

•    involves exercises that can be performed with or without external resistance (just bodyweight)

•    can include rest periods between the exercises and/or at the end of each circuit, or there can be no recovery periods at all. It all depends on the fitness of the athlete/athletes doing the circuit and what their training requirements are. If the aim of the circuit is to improve endurance, then the recoveries will ideally be short. However, should the aim be to increase power or speed, then recoveries will normally need to be longer to allow for quality of movement to be less/unaffected by fatigue.

Why include circuits in a training programme?

•    Circuits can easily be managed in a group situation.

•    Circuits can be tailored to the individual.

•    Circuits – particularly if no extra resistance is involved – can be performed almost anywhere.

•    Circuits can be designed to target various training goals.

Who uses circuit training?

Circuit training is perhaps the most versatile of all training options and potentially one of the most effective

For people from all walks of life, from the office worker who goes to the local gym, to the amateur to elite sportsman or sportswoman, whether a Sunday league footballer, an athletics club sprinter, or World or Olympic Champion rower or 400m runner – circuit training is perhaps the most versatile of all training options and potentially one of the most effective.

Circuit resistance

Circuit training using only bodyweight as resistance, such as press-ups or jump squats, can be as hard a workout as you want it to be. However, these workouts are of moderate intensity and can often be performed 2-3 times a week by fitness enthusiasts. It usually only takes 24 hours to recover from this type of workout. However, for sportsmen and sportswomen fitting circuits into their intense and full training plan it can be more problematic given their need to train at a high intensity, cover numerous elements of performance and compete on a regular basis.

I will often programme bodyweight circuit training workouts for lower intensity training days. They are often used in conjunction with tempo running (runs performed at 70-80% effort with the emphasis on technique) and medicine ball throwing. All these training options develop and maintain general fitness in my athletes and assist their recovery process, following high intensity sessions such as sprinting or heavy weights, which are performed on other days.

If, for example, Sunday is a high intensity training or match day, then Monday and Tuesday should be recovery days and would be a good time to programme in a circuit training unit. They can be performed again later in the week, perhaps a day or two after a second high intensity session.

I believe that when using circuit training for general conditioning – and if including it with other elements of training in one session – it should be performed last, with the quality, speed, skill and agility work performed first.

Getting started

Types of circuit

Circuit style circuits are performed on the basis of each exercise being performed for a given number of reps, then the next and the next and so on, before returning to the first exercise to start the second circuit. Recovery between exercises and sets is determined according to the athlete’s fitness, the number of reps, and the time in the training year.

Series style circuits require each set of the same exercise to be performed before moving onto the next – a rest can be taken at the end of each set or between all the exercises in the series

How many reps and sets?

The number of reps you perform each set will be determined by how fit you are, the time in the training year and more specifically the number of sets you decide upon. Most instructors/coaches base their circuit sessions on three sets. A good starting point for the beginner is three sets of 10 repetitions per exercise (the UK armed forces advocate this as a starting figure – of which more later).

However, you may wish to test yourself first and work at a percentage of the maximum repetitions you can perform to failure in 60 seconds – 50% of maximum would be a good starting point. Thus if you were able to perform 50 press-ups in a minute your starting number would be 25. However, if you are a total beginner, the test to maximum could well leave you stiff and sore for a few days, so it’s best to be conservative and select a comfortable number of reps as your starting number. You will soon improve and be able to tackle more intense workouts. Starting circuit training conservatively will minimise residual muscle soreness, which will in itself be a motivating factor.

Having worked with most of my athletes for several years I know what they are capable of and tend to set a time limit of 20 seconds per exercise to begin with, working at three sets, increasing to 30 seconds over a period of weeks, with the number of sets remaining the same.

This means that I can vary the exercises as much as I feel necessary without having to test the athlete’s maximums each time I introduce a different exercise to the circuit. They only perform as many reps they can manage within the time allocated – some exercises are much tougher than others. I have also discovered that different athletes excel at certain exercises that others will find difficult – all have differing strengths and weaknesses.

Note: it is not advisable to introduce totally new exercises into a circuit, as a lack of specific technique could lead to injury.

Circuits with resistance

If using a circuit format for training with resistance – most commonly weights (although resistance bands and weighted jackets can also be used) – the same principles should be applied. In most cases I tend to programme weight training in a circuit format with intensities up to 75% of  one repetition maximum. Any lifts at a higher intensity are performed in series format.

The same principles apply as with bodyweight circuits and I tend to couple these circuits with low intensity tempo. However, resistance based circuit training can be included in the athlete’s training as units in their own right. They can be a tough workout option. I will give examples of the type of circuit workouts I use with my athletes later in this article.

The physiological aspects of circuit training

Local muscular endurance (the most common reason for using circuit training)

The ability to perform repeated muscular actions is essential in sport, whether they are whole body actions or single joint actions. Many sportsmen and sportswomen are required to reproduce dynamic movements with a high power output. Conditioning the body to re-produce maximal efforts with little or no drop-off in quality of performance is the cornerstone of any effective and relevant conditioning programme.

To avoid muscle and joint imbalances the training programme should include movements for every joint/muscle group. It is a mistake to focus solely on the athlete’s sport specific muscle groups and joints as this will lead to imbalances that could result in injury. A perfect example is that of the tennis player who only focuses on the ‘hitting muscles’ and not on the supportive stabilising ones, with the result that they develop shoulder problems.

Consequently, I believe that it is advisable whenever possible to include a pulling (flexion) exercise for every pushing (extension) exercise. This ensures that the joint/muscle group worked is being strengthened in both directions. Typical examples include combining leg extensions (for extension) and leg curls (for flexion) and biceps (for flexion) and triceps curls (for extension) into the same circuit.

As well as placing potential strain on the body’s muscular-skeletal system, the lack of a balanced circuit (and other training) programme can result in poor posture. A typical example is the sportsman or sportswoman who has spent a lot of time developing their chest muscles, with exercises such as the bench press, but has neglected to develop the muscles of the rear shoulder and upper back. Consequentially they develop a ‘round shouldered’ look, which is often associated with poor posture of the upper back and potential for back pain.

And it is important to remember that although jumping and short acceleration running involves mainly a pushing actions from the legs, many generic sporting movements (including top speed sprinting) entail predominantly pulling movements. This should also be taken into account when planning a strength-training programme (of which circuit training will probably play a major role).

Circuit training for fitness

Recently the British Army has ventured into a ‘war’ of a different kind – against obesity. Its circuits are being advocated as a great way for the population to get fit.

With good reason, as circuit training is the cornerstone of military fitness training. Fitness tests related to circuit training are used as part of the selection process for all disciplines and trades from infantry to catering. Every new recruit then undergoes a couple of months of basic training, of which fitness is a primary aspect. This initial training involves gruelling circuit training sessions.

Circuits – the British Army way

Military physical training instructors (PTIs) have an interesting method of organising circuit training workouts. They pair participants, sometimes with similar abilities, sometimes with opposite strengths and weaknesses, for example, a physically strong person working with a recruit with good endurance.

While one recruit in the pair runs five times around a sports hall, for example, the other performs a bodyweight exercise, for example a press up. When the laps are completed they both stop and immediately swap disciplines. The running laps determine the time spent on the exercises and this can be altered to work on either of the strengths or weaknesses of the pairings or emphasise a certain type of fitness development. Fewer laps would result in a greater strength development and more laps, increased endurance.

The participants can also be split into groups of three or four if using limited resources such as a gym bike or rower. Part of the team would work on the machine/s while the others would run around the sports hall for ‘x’ amount of laps.

Other types of circuits used by the British army

I have provided some interesting variations on the circuit themes used by the British Army when training their recruits. As with the example above, you may wish to include them in your training or in that of those you coach:

1)    Gym based

Format: circuit

Develops: aerobic endurance

Circuit Table 1

The circuit is repeated and the recruits are encouraged to beat their distance scores from the first circuit.

For those fit enough, the effort times can be increased to four minutes!

2)    Swimming pool and pool side

Format: circuit

Develops: aerobic endurance and local muscular endurance

Circuit Table 2

Note: recruits must pull themselves out of the pool and not use the steps

The number of widths swum/exercises performed and repetitions completed depend on the fitness levels of the recruits at the time. The circuit can be progressed by increasing the number of widths swum to three or even four.

The high levels of general fitness achieved by the Royal Marines enables them to carry out very strenuous and mentally complex tasks in their training while still being able to make effective decisions while under stress – this prepares them for combat situations where making the correct decisions under immense pressure is really a matter of life and death. This fact was recognised by the backroom staff of the 2003 England Rugby Union team who enrolled the services of the Royal Marines instructors to put the prospective World Cup squad through their paces.

If you want to experience a military style workout, search the web. You’ll find numerous organisations and personal trainers running military style circuit workouts.

Circuit training offers a great deal to the sportsman and sportswoman and their coach. Hopefully the information provided in this article will act as a great starting point on basic circuit types, their specific design and the implementation of circuits into your sports or fitness training.

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