Constructing a Sports-specific Training Circuit - Part One

How to Construct a Training Circuit for your Sport - Rowing example

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Circuit training is used by many athletes, from numerous sports, usually to build strength endurance. It’s a part of pre-season training and is often continued until the season starts.

In part 1 we talk about ‘circuit styles’ and show you how to pull together a circuit that is specific to your sport and why exercise selection is crucial.

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'Normal' conditioning role of circuits

Circuits often comprise body weight and light-weight exercises and use high numbers of repetitions with short recoveries. This develops strength endurance – the ability of a muscle or muscle group to continue to contract under conditions of fatigue. However, it is possible to construct a circuit, for example, with a much greater quality emphasis; that could be used in-season for example, by a sprinter. We’ll look at these types of circuits in part 2.


Type of circuit - order

Circuit style

With this method you go from one exercise station to the next, having completed one set of the designated number of reps or time span. For example, you might perform 20 free standing squats and then move on to performing 20 press-ups. The recovery between exercises will be controlled – although for an advanced circuit there actually may be none, as you progress straight from one exercise to the next. At the end of the circuit the rest will be again controlled, although, as before, for the very advanced (and fit) there may be no rest.


In series style

This is considered to be the tougher option. Here the designated number of sets for each exercise are performed at the station before moving on to the next exercise. For example, you may perform 4 x 15 tuck jumps with 10 seconds’ recovery between sets, before moving on to the next exercise. As with the circuit style there may or may not be a rest between the stations.

There are numerous other ways to construct a circuit, using variations on these themes and others and these will be considered in part 2.


Selecting the most appropriate exercises

It’s often the case that on return to training from an end-of-season break circuits will be first on the list of workouts. This is no bad thing as they will develop general fitness and condition that can then be progressed into more specific sports fitness as the training period continues. However, particularly with power athletes, such as sprinters and football goal keepers, it is advisable that coach and athlete always focus on the relevance of the exercises being selected. Failure to do so could condition a training response that will actually be detrimental to future specific sports performance. A sprinter needs to be able to exert maximum force on the track for a very short period of time. They need very powerful explosive muscles. A circuit with multiple reps, that perhaps lasts 30 minutes and involves non-sprint specific exercises, could actually dull the responsiveness of these fibres. This is particularly the case with training mature athletes, who may have a decade of training behind them. For them the value of general circuit (and other) training preparation is much reduced (more on this in part 2.


Making your circuit sports specific

To make your circuit sports specific and create a greater likelihood of transference into your sport you should think of:

  • the movement patterns involved in your sport
  • the energy systems used
  • the areas of the body that might need to be strengthened to reduce injury potential
  • the speed of movement of the actions involved in your sport
  • the nature of the muscle actions involved – are they dynamic, multi-directional, or more constant?
  • the length of your sport

Doing this will enable you to develop a much more relevant circuit.

I have provided a circuit with comments below designed for indoor rowing. You’ll see that all the exercises selected have a relevance to the rowing action.


Constructing a sports-specific circuit – indoor rowing

Designed by Olympic rowing coach Terry O’Neill

See video of circuit

The circuit is based on the ultimate goal of the rower – to complete the 2k distance as fast as possible.

The exercises are:

  1. rowing specific
  2. they must be performed ultimately at a pace equivalent to actual stroke rate
  3. they must create conditions that mirror the heart rate and lactate* levels sustained during a 2k race and;
  4. reflect the time it takes to complete the race distance.

* Lactate is a body chemical that increases its rate of production in muscles the more intense the exercise. The fitter an endurance athlete becomes the more effective their muscles will become at buffering and using lactate to produce energy.

O’Neill progresses this circuit format from pre-season, to competition, increasing endurance, speed and power expression commensurately. As he says, ‘In this mesocycle (mid-length, training phase) the weight is reduced. This is so that the athlete can complete 45 seconds of continuous rhythmic exercise at a given rate at each station (exercise), and at the end of each station, the athlete moves on to the next exercise without stopping. This gives a total of 8 minutes of work, during which time the heart rate will rise to 85-95% of maximum. I get the athletes to rest for two minutes at the end of each complete circuit. The aim is for them to do 3 complete circuits during the first 3 weeks and 4 in weeks 4, 5 and 6 of the mesocycle.’


The exercises:

  • High pull
  • Press behind neck
  • Biceps curl
  • Bent-over rowing
  • Side bends to right and left
  • Squat
  • Bench press
  • Clean and press
  • Crunch
  • Bench pull
  • Hyper-extensions

Level of resistance

For all exercises the weight (where appropriate) is kept to 15-30kg to enable the speed component of the lift/exercise to remain high and closely match the rowing stroke.

 To watch a video of this circuit in action, click here

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With thanks to Concept2 and Terry O’Neill for the circuit and comments, go to


In the next part of Constructing a Sports-specific circuit we look at more speed-specific circuit construction for sprinting.
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