Do It All With Circuits


A time-driven, circuit program can kick you into gear - or a life change - with a planned, steady pace of achievement.  Like this:

Choose some serious strength exercises. Compound exercises - the multi-joint movements - are best to put at the heart of a strength training plan, whatever your goals. And depending how you design your circuit, you get cardio as well.  And you can add moves that train balance and agility and get it all done.  We assume you're basically familiar with gyms, strength training concepts - you may have done some training - and are interested in learning more.

Your exercises could be bench presses, squats, deadlifts, rows and pull-downs.  All the good pushing, pulling, lifting movements. They hit all muscle groups.  Add other things you like. Good at chin ups?  Wall sits?  Add them.  Just make sure there's a basis of compound exercises. (The other exercise type is isolation exercises; they use one joint; such as biceps curls, pec flyes, leg curls)

Picture this. You've chosen your exercises. 5, say. Do twelve repetitions of each. That's a set. Do three sets of each exercise. Take 45 seconds rest between sets. That's a circuit.  (About 18 minutes) Take a 60 second rest, if you're doing more!  

Done carefully and thoroughly, this is a mighty workout for balanced goals of strength gain, cardio benefits and potentially weight loss, depending on what you eat.

From here, you have many choices.  Build on the existing circuit.  Create alternative plans for different days; or tune it for different emphasis, like cardio, or muscle endurance. If the first circuit had you struggling, lighten the loads, or increase rest times a bit, depending on where the pressure was.

Before you'd start - right at the outset, that is, you'd need to know what level weight or resistance to use for each exercise. You should be able to complete 12 repetitions per set. This means doing them at a close-to-maximum level, yet with good form (technique), avoiding injury.  (Injury brings pain and much lost training time!) If you're going too heavy, drop a level. Better too light than strain and later pain.  And remember we tend to overestimate what we can do in a short time, and underestimate what we can do in a longer time.

A key thing here is that you're out to find a balance between resistance (weight) levels, repetition frequency and rest periods, so that they meet your personal goal - mainly strength, cardio or weight loss?  The workout above is quite intense, and would typically bring gains in metabolic process (that is, burn calories for several hours or more after the workout), strength, and some cardio fitness improvement.  (And depending what you put in your mouth at other times, you'd lose fat) 

Lower the number of repetitions, increase the weight, increase rest length, and you'd build more strength and mass (provided other things support it, like consuming some protein) There's less cardio benefit.

Reduce resistance/weight, increase reps, shorten rests, and it becomes a program for strength maintenance, leanness and greater cardio gains.  And if you enjoy other cardio stuff...running, swimming, don't stop.  (As if you would!)   The main thing is that just about everybody benefits from serious strength training.  It's the biggest thing missing in modern views of fitness activity.  Just about every type of cardio-dependent sportsman or pro athlete includes strength training in their plans.  And at the heart of it should be the compound exercises we mentioned earlier. 

Note:  this is informal guidance.  The writer is not an exercise professional, just someone who's done a lot of exercise, and loves the circuit approach. We recommend you check with an exercise professional for advice if you're not experienced with strength training. 

What next?

  • Create a program along the lines above, with an upper body pushing and a pulling move - presses (press-up, or dumbbells), a pulling, (say an assisted chin up or dumbbells rows),  and for legs, squats  and a dead lift. 
  • Time per repetition: 5 seconds, (in and out in the movement, or out and back). Breathe out on the stress stroke, in on the relax stroke. Never hold your breath.
  • Accompany your training with a proper diet. 
  • Get plenty of rest between sessions  Train only every second day, or even each third day, if you're new to it. Strength training is built as much on rest as it is on activity. 
  • Alter programs after a while. Test different combinations of rep numbers, weight, rest lengths, types of exercises, etc...there's a host of resources from which to increase your knowledge and feed your imagination.

  • Here's a more detailed view of the do-it-all circuit plan we mentioned above, if you need one. The exercises are all in the picture at the top of the page.

    • Incline Press, a set of 12 repetitions; at end of set, rest 30 seconds, while moving to next exercise
    • Squat                            as above
    • Cable Row                    as above
    • Bench Press                 as above
    • Front Shoulder Raise as above - the only isolation exercise, rest are compound
    • Dead Lift                       as above

    Important and Useful Things To Know

    Monitor and learn from your heart rate.  We mentioned a comfortable pace. This means strongly engaged. but not near close to your limit.  Exercise intensity (effort and short rests) is important, and it's measurable by your heart rate.  Learn to assess this occasionally between sets. Your maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age.  (Another possibly more accurate basis of figuring your maximum heart rate (MHR) - takes height and age into account - is at the bottom of the page, the NTNU calculator

    Your exercising heart rate, for cardio gain, should be elevated – after a few minutes building – to between 65 and 85% of your maximum. A heart rate monitor is useful.  Buy them at sports shops, TradeMe.

    If you want to understand how you're tracking with improved cardiovascular function, you want to know what your recovery rate is.  This is reflected by how fast your pulse drops between the moment you stop exercise and 60 seconds later. The further it drops in 60 seconds (choose a similar time but stick with it!) the more cardio-fit we're getting.  If it dropped from 85% of max (MHR) to 65%, great.  The main thing is getting a relative improvement over time.

    After a week or two's training it should start to reduce noticeably. You can also check it after 3 minutes, say and get a view that way.  The longer-duration pattern's also good. If you get down to 45% of max in 3 minutes, you're extra good shape.  It takes longer to get down to long-term resting HR.

    Trainability of the rate is a major sign of heart health, shows improved cardio efficiency, and improves fat burn. A heart rate monitor should also show averages and highs and lows over a training session, and beep when you cross thresholds, for example 65% and 85%!

    Warm-Ups: Five minutes' fast, light-weight presses, squats, jumping jacks, treadmill, exercise bike or similar etc to get over 65% of Max (MHR)  Well-warmed is well-oiled and ready to go.

    Some trainers prefer a time- rather than rep- based circuit.  This is where, instead of a 12 reps set, you base it on 45 secs or a minute, say.

    If you make adjustments, keep the most demanding exercises - the compound exercises - at the front of the circuit, (you can mix them with body weight exercises, then do isolation exercises.  Any regular-style cardio - keep at the end, or separate.

    Have a break of at least 48 hours between sessions, if you haven't strength-trained before.  Give it a couple of months before you increase frequency.  

    General advice about strength training:

    Concentrate on form, or quality of the repetition or exercise, not the max you can lift.  (Many sites show what good form looks like - here's one:

    Increase weights or resistance in small increments.  It's likely to be the fastest way to growth if it helps avoid injury.  Try to use a weight which stresses your muscles by the last couple, but doesn't take you to the edge of control where your connective tissue, and not major muscle, is in charge. Injured connective tissue=pain, lost, and wasted time!

    * Heart Rate Monitor: this site has a calculator that gives a more accurate estimate because it takes height and gender into account: NTNU Calculator.  More accurate again is to have an exercise physiologist put you through an exercise test (cycle or treadmill)   But it's the percentage drop that counts in recovery time, not the absolute heart rates. You should check with your doctor about heart rates and BP before making a major exercise change.

    FandL Posted by FandL