If you’re anything like I used to be, just the words circuit training will make you cringe like Homer Simpson when he thinks about eating carrots. In fact, I bet there’s even a good chance you have some of the same misconceptions about circuit training I used to have. Yes, I said “misconceptions”. Meaning you’re probably wrong. (I sure as hell used to be.) But we’ll come back to that.
First, see if either of these sound about right: When you think of “circuit training”, you think of some candy-ass “weight room”. Has a few light dumbbells. Maybe an exercise bench. A treadmill and an elliptical. The cornerstone of this “weight room” is some sort of “universal” machine that lets you do 738 exercises on one piece of equipment. (Ok, so *maybe* I exaggerated the whole 738 exercises thing. But not by much.) It’s the typical kinda thing you see in a lot of hotel “gyms”. “Gym” my ass.
But then there’s the old guy on the machine. Probably a nice old coot, but he definitely looks like somebody’s grandpa…like he’d be more at home sitting on the pier with a fishing pole than he would in the weight room. He’s going from station to station. Consistently busy and consistently working, but not really getting anything accomplished. He’s doing every single exercise the machine will let you do, and no less than 15 reps per exercise. After all, that’s a good “burn”, right?
Paw Paw doesn’t look like he’s getting a “burn”, though. In fact, with only a single plate on the stack, he’s not even breaking a sweat. Makes you wonder if he realizes that doing a few Pushups, Squats, and skipping the hotel elevator would do more for him than this “workout”.
Or there’s the another cringe-worthy example – the soccer mom. She’s middle-aged, and needs to drop a good 40lbs. The local gym is running a deal, so she joins because there’s no enrollment fee. She comes in a couple times each week, decked out from head-to-toe in the “gym workout starter kit” from the local sporting goods store. Matching tank top, shorts or yoga pants, shoes, socks, and even headband. Poor woman has no real idea what she’s doing, so she just cranks up the top-40 music on her mp3 player, and be-bops from machine to machine, doing a set or two of each. Once again, there’s no real rhyme or reason to any of it, but doing a lot of reps with hardly any weight seems like a good idea because she just wants to get “toned”.
Only thing is that after a few weeks, she doesn’t look (or feel) any different than when she first showed up.
Makes circuit training look bad, huh? It shouldn’t though – neither Paw Paw nor Soccer Mommy did it the right way. Because when you do finally hit the nail on the head and get in a proper circuit training workout, you’ll wonder why you haven’t been doing things this way all along. Trust me…I’m speaking from personal experience.
Some years back, I was looking for new methods to train MMA fighters (and regular guys) with. I wanted to help them be stronger than anything (or anybody) they came up against. I wanted them to be fast, athletic, and be able to have control over their own body. Because getting tired sucks, I wanted them to have unreal cardio and conditioning. Last but not least, building a lean, muscular, athletic physique was a must. Yeah, I know – looking good is a vanity thing. Which is true…and incidentally, makes it perfect for the regular guy. However, when you look good in the mirror, you’re generally more confident. And when you’re more confident, you generally perform better. So that could help the fighters. But I digress.
I was looking through my old copy of “The Art of Expressing the Human Body” – the John Little book about the various different exercise routines used by the legendary Bruce Lee.
One of them caught my eye. It was about a certain type of circuit training called “PHA” – short for Peripheral Heart Action – devised by Bob Gajda. Gajda was actually a former bodybuilder, winning both the Mr. America and Mr. Universe titles, and went on to be one of the world’s most prominent kinesiotherapists and sports trainers.
Looking for a way to help medical patients lose bodyfat quickly and improve heart health, Gajda had the idea of using weight training exercises to pump excessive amounts of blood to different bodyparts…preferably at opposite ends of the body.
So he’d do a shoulder exercise to pump a bunch of blood to the shoulders. But before resting and before his heart could slow down, he’d do a calf exercise to pump all that blood that was going to his shoulders all the way down his body to his calves. Then, without letting his heart rest again, he’d do a chest exercise to pump that blood back up the body to the pectoral muscles. He’d theorized that continually forcing the heart to pump the blood all the way up and down the body repeatedly, that he could improve heart health and cardio-respiratory ability, help people lose weight from all the activity, virtually eliminate the need for traditional forms of cardiovascular exercise while simultaneously improving muscle tone, strength, and more. He was right.
Not only was PHA helping medical patients, but Gajda himself was using the methods to build the physique that would go onto win the Mr. America title.
That was great…but what about performance? I had my own ideas on how to tweak Gajda’s methods for athletic performance, but I wanted to be sure I was on the right track. I finally found an interview with Gajda (which, unfortuantely, I’ve since been able to find again on the internet) in which he discussed the performance aspect of PHA-style training.
I recall him saying that he was actually *stronger* and could use *more weight* on exercises when he was doing PHA-style circuit training, than just doing straight sets.
For instance, if he was doing a 5-exercise complex that included Dumbbell Curls, he could use heavier dumbbells for said Curls (even though he was doing several exercises in a row without rest), than if he was just doing a set of Curls, resting, then repeating. I knew this was the direction to go and implemented it immediately…and with great results. In fact, there’s a link at the end of this article to get a free sample from a program I put together for a pro MMA fighter. A big part of that program uses the form of circuit training originally inspired by Gajda’s PHA system.
So we know that circuit training can help you drop bodyfat, build muscle, and even build strength and explosive power good enough for a pro MMA fighter. Does that mean that all circuit training is a good idea? Hardly. (Just take a look at Paw Paw and Soccer Mommy above.)
Circuit training fell victim to its users, the method itself getting a bad name and reputation because so many people screwed it up and did it entirely wrong.
So how do you know if you’re screwing up circuit training? Here’s three top ways:
There seems to be this idea that if you’re doing circuit training, you have to train with light weights. This is NOT the case. All circuit training is, is stacking exercises back-to-back-to-back. There’s nothing there that says you have to go super-light or even use crazy high reps (as you often see).
Think of it this way – you’ll often see bodybuilders do supersets (or even tri-sets…the “Blonde Bomber” Dave Draper was known for using a lot of tri-sets in his training). Does this automatically mean doing a bunch of reps on each exercise?
Of course not. Then why should it be that way with circuit training? Because, when you think about it, couldn’t you consider circuit training like an extended form of superset, spread across the entire body? Sure you could. Chances are you won’t be able to handle as much weight doing circuit training as you will with straight sets (examples like Gajda’s Curls above, I’ve found, are the exception to the rule), but that doesn’t mean you can’t get close.
Your weights will likely be much lighter at first when you’re acclimating yourself to circuit training, but you can soon start piling it on. Do it.
I gotta admit – I’ve seen some pretty stupid example circuits. Shit that literally just doesn’t make any sense.
Now I’ll also admit that I have my own “style” of how I like exercises to flow. In fact, I’ve devised my own style of circuit (you can see examples at that link below I mentioned) that I’ve found works best overall for putting on muscle, building athleticism, getting strong, improving cardio, and training a guy to be able to do as much work as possible. I also have certain orders I like to have exercises.
So there are definitely reasons to what goes where. Don’t just slap a bunch of exercises together and call it a circuit…which I see quite often. You wouldn’t hit the gym and just pick a bunch of random exercises at whim for no reason (unless you were CrossFit…but that’s a whole other story…lol). So why should you do it with your circuits? Simple – you shouldn’t.
Ok…hold on. A “circuit training screw-up” is not resting enough? But I thought the whole idea behind circuit training was to eliminate rests?
Lemme explain. Let’s say you were doing an upper body workout – Overhead Presses, Chins, Bench Presses, and Rows. Because you wanted to focus on strength and putting on muscle, you did each exercise for 5 sets of 6 reps. Now let’s say you want to add some cardio to the mix and build up work capacity (i.e. – the ability to just do a bunch of work). So instead of doing each exercise in straight sets, you create a circuit out of it. You’ll do a set of each exercise non-stop – no rest between. After the Rows, you’ll take a short rest, then repeat. If you’re able to keep the weights used (roughly) the same, it’s more or less the same workout, but with 75% of the rest breaks eliminated.
This is what increases the cardio, conditioning, work capacity, and such. Which is good, right?
Maybe. Ever hear the saying “Too Much of a Good Thing is a Bad Thing”? That’s what can happen here. Guys get on the circuit training bandwagon and get into the idea of eliminating rest breaks. But instead of doing it intelligently, they go overboard with it.After a round of a circuit, instead of taking a normal rest break (or even a slightly longer one, which can often be a good idea), they’ll often take a shorter one. They’ll also often (usually) reject the idea of taking any rest at all between exercises, instead choosing to try to get from one to the next as quickly as humanly possible.
This all sounds great in theory. And maybe if you’re doing a half-assed Paw Paw or Soccer Mommy circuit workout, that’s fine. But if you do a real circuit training workout…one that’s effectively based on PHA-style principles, you’ll kick your own ass in no time flat.
I should know…when I first started experimenting with circuit training myself, it happened to me. And it’s happened with a lot of people that I’ve tried to help get on circuit training programs. They’ll be all motivated, and hit the ground running. Start the workout and blast through the first round of the circuit, feeling good. Then they’ll hit the second round, and be *very* surprised at how much harder it was than the first. Now they’re sucking wind and their face is a bad shade of red. Start the third round, and after a couple exercises, they’re done – no more “oomph” left. All they can do is lie in a heap on the floor, sweat pouring and cussing the idea of trying this crazy shit out in the first place. Not a good result. Instead, they’d be much better implementing smart rest breaks.
First, rest a little longer between rounds. If you normally rest 60 seconds between sets, up it to 75-90. Even as long as two minutes. Much more than that is probably a bit too much, but it would depend on just how your workout was setup, how heavy you were going, what your goals were, and what sort of shape you were in.
Next, implement what I like to call “mini-rests” between exercises during the actual circuit itself. These aren’t full rest breaks by any means. Instead, take 5-8 deep breaths. So if we go back to our example workout, start with a set of Overhead Presses. Take 5-8 deep breaths. Then a set of Chins. 5-8 deep breaths. A set of Bench Press. 5-8 deep breaths. Finally, a set of Rows. Now rest your 1.5-2 minutes or so. Doing this will accomplish A LOT of things, but mostly it will manage fatigue. It’ll be just enough rest to let you recover ever so slightly so that your ass isn’t being handed to you after just a few rounds. At the same time, it will also allow you to manage mental fatigue.
When you get tired (especially when you’re winded), it becomes much easier to give up or quit. If you start that 3rd or 4th round and are already sucking wind, but you still have 5-6 exercises in front of you, it can be easy to think it’s too much and just say “to hell with it”.
But if you take a mini-rest between exercises, it’s much less daunting. Now, instead of saying “Shit, I still have all these exercises to go”, you can tell yourself “do this set and I get a short break”. Makes it MUCH more manageable. And often that little bit can be the difference between quitting a workout early, half-assing your way through it and kicking its ass. So there you go. If circuit training is something you’re thinking of giving a shot – and you should be – make sure you’re not making these three screw-ups. Because I’m sure Paw Paw and Soccer Mommy are both great people, but you sure as hell don’t wanna work out like them.
Author: Matt “Wiggy” Wiggins
Owner of WorkingClassFitness.com, Matt “Wiggy” Wiggins is a self-taught, 20+ year veteran of the “Iron Game” that focuses on helping MMA fighters, military/law enforcement, and “regular guys” all over the world get in “fighting shape”. TheGymLifestyle.com members can Click Here Now to get the workout he created for a Top-10 MMA fighter.