There is more to circuit training than just getting tired. Each type of circuit should have a purpose: to improve your endurance, muscular endurance, strength, or power. Errors are made in planning when a mish-mash of exercises is put together and there is no clear aim. It is also an error to start with your favorite exercise and then cobble together a plan around it, no matter its relevance to the goal.
Whilst there are few if any, ‘bad’ exercises, there are many ‘bad’ plans. In this article, I shall show you how a simple exercise, the squat, can have a place in every circuit, but only if it is adapted. I shall outline the basic premise behind the four different circuits listed above and some exercises that simply don’t fit into each one, but do in others.
Four basic circuit goals
Before you start planning your circuit you need to know what you are trying to achieve. This must be the first thing you write down. There are several different goals but I shall list four here with their basic sets/ reps/ work/rest structure. There is room for variation and I have simplified it for the purpose of the article.
An important safety point: before starting circuit training, ensure that you learn the exercises separately and can do them with good form. If you are unable to do one good press-up or squat, then you need to regress the difficulty of the exercise and build up accordingly.
You are trying to improve the central cardio-respiratory system by improving capillarization, oxygen intake capacity, and aerobic capacity. The intensity is low, the duration is long and the rest periods are short. Running, skipping, jumping rope, exercise bikes and rowing machines can all be used.
The work-to-rest ratios could be 6:1 or higher. Work for one minute, rest for 10 seconds, and then go again. In practice, this means that changing from one exercise to another is the rest period. By the time you get off the rower and onto the bike, 10 seconds will have passed.
Bodyweight exercises, such as the squat, can be used for repetitions above 20.
E.g. Row 2 minutes, 20 squats, row 2 minutes, 20 press-ups, row 2 minutes, 20 back extensions, row 2 minutes. Rest for 1 minute, and repeat.
This is a very simple plan and the exercises are simple too: they need to be for high repetitions.
Exercise that doesn’t fit into this circuit: any jumping exercise because the quality of movement will deteriorate.
2) Muscular Endurance
You are trying to improve the work capacity of the peripheral system: anaerobic in nature, through greater capillarization and improved removal of waste products. There will be an improvement in aerobic capacity too. Timing of exercises can be used here: 15-30 seconds of strength work, recovery of 30-90 seconds, or repetitions of 15-20.
Exercises used will be dependent on good form and some external loads can be introduced: medicine balls, sandbags, and dumbbells are all easily picked up and put down and are lighter than barbells.
For some people, 15-20 reps of bodyweight squats will be enough stimulus but some people might have dumbbells or hold a medicine ball. Lunges in different directions, crawling, squat variations, and upper body dumbbell exercises such as presses or curls can be used.
Exercises that don’t fit into this circuit: any jumping exercises because the quality of movement will deteriorate.
Sample: 15 seconds of work, 30 seconds of recovery (move between exercises in the recovery period). Try to get as many repetitions completed in the 15 seconds as possible: this means that speed of movement is important and any weights shouldn’t slow you down.
- Squats (dbells on shoulders optional).
- Crawl forwards/backwards/sideways
- Lateral lunges (dbells optional).
- Dbell press
- Medicine ball loops
- Reverse back extensions (chest on the floor, raise legs up and down).
You are trying to improve the coordination of muscles and increase the size of the muscle-cross section area. There will be some anaerobic capacity improvement. 8-12 repetitions of each exercise or 8-15 seconds if doing times, with 60-120 seconds of rest (depending on the order of exercises).
Except for beginners and the deconditioned, external loads will be needed to provide enough stimulus. Barbell exercises can be included or machine weights as well as other equipment. Exercises that don’t fit into this type of circuit: planks (not enough stimulus) and loaded jumping exercises (quality of movement again).
Sample: 8-12 repetitions of each exercise, 60 seconds rest before the next one, done in a sequence for three sets. All exercises use either a barbell or dumbbell depending on the availability and strength level of the athlete.
- Bent over row
- Military press
- Good mornings
- Alternate press (dumbells for this one).
To improve the ability to produce force quickly through improved coordination, strength, and speed of contractions. 1-4 repetitions, or less than 7 seconds, multiple sets with rest periods of 90 seconds to 5 minutes. Complex exercises that work across multiple joints with near maximum efforts can be included: snatch, clean and jerk, throwing heavy objects, and heavier loads on the strength exercises.
Unsuitable exercises: single-joint exercises such as bicep curls or abdominal crunches.
Sample: 3 repetitions of each exercise, 90 seconds rest before moving on to the next one.
- Behind head overhead medicine ball throw
- Power clean
- Jump squats (dumbbells or sandbags)
- Push press
By having a clear aim and planning accordingly, the exercises are easier to choose. It is a mistake to start with an exercise and try to fit the plan around that. Exercises are there to help us achieve our goals rather than be an end in themself. Make sure that you can perform each exercise correctly before attempting to lift heavier loads or do more in a short time.