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6 Ways to Improve the Effectiveness of Your Resistance Training Circuits

By NCSF 1 comment

Circuits are a useful training system for anaerobic exercises as they allow for higher volumes of training in a shorter period of time. An added benefit of this style of training is its ability to help maximize caloric expenditure while performing exercises that promote lean mass maintenance. The work-to-rest ratios commonly used can also improve muscular endurance as well as add to cardiovascular efficiency. Circuits are a popular choice among personal trainers because of the time-tension relationship which helps with the two-three day workout schedules common of the clientele. Additionally it allows for diversity in a manner that addresses multiple goals simultaneously. The system can be employed in numerous ways, but in most cases anywhere from 6-12 exercises are performed in a sequential fashion for a predefined period of time or specific repetition range; with only transitional or short (15 sec) rest periods between actions. Newer clients may require a 1:1 rest ratio, but it should be short enough to maintain elevated heart rates. This schematic can allow a client to get a full-body workout in as little as 30 minutes. Warm-up (5 min) + three circuits (~18 min total [3 x 6 min each]) + rest periods between circuits (~5 min total [2.5 min before 2nd and 3rd circuits]) + cool down (3 min) = ~30 min. This leaves plenty of time for other activities that may be prioritized.

Based on the potential for programming variety, circuits can be modified by the trainer to match all types of goals and fitness levels. The following can be considered (as applicable) when using circuits with a client to help maximize the effectiveness of the training system in respect to the individual’s goals:

  1. Premeditate what exercises will be performed before the session begins and set up the equipment ahead of time: This is critical to success of the program particularly when working with groups. Considering the fact that a large number of activities will be performed sequentially with minimal rest, a trainer must be well organized and structured in implementation. Not having the stations set or having to move around a gym are two common errors. Circuits that require a variety of modalities becomes relatively challenging in larger, busy gyms (especially during peak hours) due to limitations resources. Personal trainers should become well versed in how to use only a few select modalities (e.g., one side of a cable cross-over, stability ball, body bar, plyo box and single set of dumbbells) to perform as many different actions as possible to deal with this potential issue. Those trainers who have their own specified space for working with clients may not have to deal with this, but premeditation still goes a long way to ensure no hiccups occur during implementation of the circuit.
  2. Modify the work-rest ratios used to match the client’s metabolic goals: The quantity of repetitions performed per exercises as well as the duration of intermittent rest periods will (in part) dictate total caloric expenditure and what metabolic system is predominant. Due to the nature of circuits, the glycolytic pathways are normally dominant. Therefore, for clients who are in better shape who can handle the intensity, use transitional rest (time it takes to get from station to station) and the repetition ranges that push the limits of 65%1RM. These individuals will be able to use circuits to maximize their lactate threshold and glycolytic efficiency to a given extent. For relatively deconditioned clients, the rest periods may be increased to give them a chance to buffer tissue acidity between actions.
  3. Modify the loads used to match the client’s musculoskeletal goals: Loading ties in directly with the previous consideration in a number of ways. The loads used in a traditional resistance training circuit will not rise much above 70% of the client’s 1RM (12 repetitions). Using very heavy loads in a circuit will often result in faulty lifting form and greatly increase the risk for injury - and is better suited for supersets or tri-sets. This being said, relatively heavier loads (e.g., 75% 1RM) can be employed to possibly improve strength and hypertrophy to a given extent – if the client has the work capacity (and psychological tenacity) to perform a number of heavier lifts sequentially. In these cases, 30 seconds recovery is warranted. Likewise, if loads of 70-75% are used, exercise order must be considered carefully as fatigue can cause movement detriment. Compound movements should always be first and progress toward easier movements with lighter loads. For many clients, starting out with 50-60% of the 1RM for each lift will result in high perceived intensity due to the prolonged work periods (e.g., 12 stations x 40 sec per station [~10 reps and transitional rest] = 8 minutes of near-continual work).
  4. Modify exercise order and muscle group emphasis to match the client’s goals: This is where the significant variety potential of circuits can be applied. First off, the trainer should decide whether to address many, or only a few select muscle groups/joint segments. Implementing a circuit that uses 5-7 exercises that all address muscles of the shoulder complex for example would place a greater emphasis on hypertrophy due to the repeated activation of the same muscles and motor units. Implementing a circuit that transitions from lower body to upper body in a repeated fashion may be more useful for improving strength by increasing recovery in tissue areas (from a circuit standpoint). This schematic can also be used for deconditioned clients. Circuits that include one exercise for each major muscle group is popular in a number of gyms because most clients will be able to handle the intensity and general muscular fitness improvement will be achieved. More intricate applications, such as using agonist-antagonist pairings (e.g., cable chest press followed by cable row) in the exercise order can be employed to help those clients with major flexibility issues, movement restrictions and strength imbalances.
  5. Don’t forget about stabilizer fatigue: This is a major aspect to consider in any circuit, but is especially important when using heavier loads or high volumes. The lower back is of special concern as it is commonly over-worked when employing circuits that include functional, full-body exercises or repeated compound lower body activities. Stabilizer fatigue and overuse can quickly lead to faulty biomechanics and an increased risk for injury. Try to alternate compound lifts that separate actions and reduce tension on the lower back to help ensure technique proficiency.
  6. Don’t forget about the fun factor:When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter how precise the trainer’s programming expertise is if they cause a person to stop exercising. If the client does not enjoy what they are doing they often progress to feelings that it is “not worth the effort”. The fun factor has a major part to play in long-term compliance as seen with popular programs today where people work out in group social settings and motivate each other to work hard. Don’t forget that training is not only physical in nature, but also psychological and social.

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John Strong
Great tips!!! So many "weekend warriors" miss the goals within the overall goal of circuit training. Stringing exercises together haphazardly without deference to any of the fine points made in this article. Well done. Some ideas to help out the "fun factor" would include incentivising the session or group of sessions with swag from the gym (good advertising for your gym and good motivation for your client) or challenging the client to improve upon previous best performances.