By Carl Valle
The research on circuit training isn’t great, but it does show that circuits provide a wellness benefit for athletes, and I’ve become a big fan. I now appreciate the need for training that supports higher intensity work outside of light conditioning, running, and the similar. We need to do more investigation into circuit training’s lesser known benefits.
Despite the benefits, circuits are often used ineffectively, and some coaches expect way too much from them. This article outlines the practical construction and design elements necessary to make circuits run smoother and more effectively.
Circuit training is not new, but for a modality that is as old as sport, you’d think it would be more polished by now. If you are a coach that uses circuits in training for any reason, this article doesn’t shy away from calling a spade a spade with some of the bad programming I see.
Problems with Circuit Training
The biggest wild west of sports training, meaning lack of law and order, is the programming of circuits. I shared my previous concerns with circuits years ago in my conditioning article.
My intention with this article is to provide a comprehensive guide. Since circuit training is simply grouping exercises together, we tend to see very poor training design, and this leads to nagging injuries and poor results.
The number one fault in the reasoning behind circuits is the expectation that doing something for a period of time will create work capacity, which is just too vague a goal. Circuits often focus too much on rest periods and work performed quickly. A rushed process is never good for technique, and when we add more explosive movements, we usually create a recipe for disaster.
Next to compromised technique, most circuits clearly don’t target adaptation, falling into a strange limbo of high-rep strength training with exercises that don’t add much to the equation. In the world where polarized training is popular, the conditioning benefits of circuit training aren’t deep enough to allow real adaptation and don’t promote strength changes that show up in power and speed testing.
Simply stated, the efficacy of most conventional training circuits is very weak, and athletes get very little from it besides some extra work addressing body composition.
Finally, in the current performance world, individualization is king. And yet circuits still reign supreme as a primary option for teams and group training. How does a team capitalize on all of the options on the table during the season and use circuits?
Circuits used to be a cornerstone of the general preparation phase (GPP). As off-seasons have grown shorter because competitive seasons have been extended, circuits may not fit in anymore. During the competitive season, we also tend to see circuits misused as recovery training when conventional low-volume strength training is more pressing. Instead of addressing the slow decay of power over the season, circuits often only add junk volume.
Scientific Benefits of Circuit Training
If you were to ask the average coach what circuit training accomplishes, the first answer would be work capacity or sometimes energy system development. Some coaches argue that circuits help build endurance or strength. But the research doesn’t support the argument that maximal development comes from traditional circuits. Circuit training’s true contribution to on-the-field endurance improvements or its ability to replace traditional running has yet to be proven in the scientific literature.
So, you may ask, why do circuit training? Circuit training addresses the administration of groups of athletes. Instead of envisioning high-repetition training with machines or the similar, think about how circuit training organizes athletes and the variables of time, equipment, and goals. Most coaches use circuits in high-performance sport training to scale coaching by emphasizing simple training stations with familiar exercises and creating a workflow.Circuits promote wellness with #endorphins, positivity, variety, and cognitive & mood improvements, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The science does support the fact that circuit training provides a wellness benefit to athletes, which is not to be confused with performance. Circuit training is either an organizational approach or a type of interval work for a more “vegetative” response that athletes who are pushing their bodies need. The primary physiological benefits are the psychomotor changes and opiate-like response of general exercises. Circuits provide the following:
- An endorphin response that helps connect pleasure to training
- A social opportunity that fosters positive team atmosphere
- An option for dealing with training monotony using a unique stress load
- General cognitive benefits and mood improvements
These benefits are the reasons I now believe in using circuits. I used to think circuits were not intense enough to create a change that would show up on the field or track. But now I’m a big believer. I’ve found that many programs become stale from doing polarized training. Going hard and then going easy is the backbone of my program, but circuits seem to add “positive noise” to the primary signals.
In Derek Hansen’s presentation at the CVASPS conference, his description of the concept of signal and noise was my epiphany to understanding that a pure program isn’t an ideal program. Before this, I had foolishly rejected advice from my mentors to add what I thought was bland training. Now I appreciate the need for training that supports higher intensity work outside of light conditioning, running, and the similar.
Simple Guidelines for Better Circuit Training
To keep things pragmatic, use circuit training to organize groups efficiently, not to address specific and maximal needs. Since circuits are generally used with groups, the ability to modulate or individualize the work is very limited. For the sake of time, circuit training should focus on general applications that everyone in the group can benefit from, not highly personalized solutions for individual needs.
Technically, a group of four athletes can share a squat rack and train with the same work and rest intervals using different movements and loads. The common definition of circuits, however, is group exercises in series of different movement stations strung together.
Group Goals–Why train everyone together? There are many general worthwhile qualities that different sports teams can train in a group. Teams often have athletes who are similar enough to each other to do the same workout without compromising individual needs. And the training doesn’t risk injury or interfere with the next session’s rest needs.
Independence–During a group session, the most important lesson for athletes is to be self-reliant and think for themselves. Sometimes an exercise is not jiving with the body and provokes pain. Instead of worrying about it, athletes can choose a similar exercise and keep moving. Plenty of days will surface when something in the body is barking. After the session, the athlete should tell the coach about anything out of the ordinary before seeking attention if it’s needed. When everyone is training at once, coaching becomes crowd control and bottleneck management, making communication challenging.
Quality Technique–For some reason, exercise technique seems to go by the wayside when circuits begin. Athletes speed up the reps in some race to get the work done, and things get sloppy as fatigue exacerbates the problem.
Outcome Versus Time–My displeasure with circuits based on finishing time is that they lead to gaming the process instead of working on improving the outcome. Getting higher density changes is nice, but many athletes shorten their range of motion and rush movements to get a better score instead of a better training effect. Circuit training for sport is not the same as circuit training in a fitness setting, where adherence is about convenience and experience value.
After meeting these four requirements, you can get creative with circuits but don’t get too cute or focused on “entertaining” teams. Our priority is to get a job done, not to get lost in playtime. Just having a group work together will likely slide the training into an organized fiesta. And that’s fine as long as the work planned is done right and the social side is positive and not a distraction. The rest periods and intensities should not be about reaching severe fatigue; for that, specific conditioning would be a wiser move.
How I Developed This List of Top Circuits
Instead of reflecting on my favorite circuits, I looked at the most useful ones for getting results and improving the athlete/user experience. What I found was very surprising. I actually included more circuits than I expected, and some older options that were instrumental ten years ago were phased out.
The trend I discovered was a bit alarming. The programs that had more circuits earlier in the season were more successful–likely because athletes came in prepared and not from incomplete rehab or moronic coaches who privately trained them.Programs with more #circuits earlier in the season were more successful, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Another surprising lesson during my internal audit was that athletes who did circuits in-season in conjunction with appropriate conditioning and power training generated a better mood and willingness to train score. A happy athlete means an improving athlete. We need to look at how we can provide both the proper loading and the right ingredients for a positive mood response.
Top 6 Circuit Training Templates
Here are my six primary templates. I’ve broken my rule for not cutting and pasting workouts without providing context, but the simple summaries should provide enough guidance of when and where to insert these circuits. By providing exact details of the workout, the changes needed can be quickly adjusted to generate more success. Lastly, much of what is listed is a permutation of other people’s work and a fusion of various mentors. I’m on the record for not inventing anything new.
Motor City Magnum
This German-inspired circuit is an endangered species as I usually do more rehab assignments from athletes coming to me hurt than classic GPP. Durability and resilience are buzzwords that even I use. But the truth is nothing feels better than having a workout that’s productive and has a volume that turns into an investment.
When creating GPP workouts, make sure athletes are ready to train. In the 1990s, I wrongly dismissed the “Anatomical Adaptation” phase by Tudor Bompa as two weeks of wasting time or stalling. But he was right that athletes need at least two solid weeks before ramping things up.
Currently, I use the platform of a wellness “phase” of about 12 workouts before doing anything that is elastic or explosive. By doing very remedial work for two weeks, athletes can throttle up just enough to make sure old injuries are under control and not do anything foolish to start in a hole. Ingrid Marcum, one athlete who has seen enough sports medicine professionals for a lifetime, came up with a great concept of waking up the body before training hard.
After the athlete is cleared, I spend 2-4 weeks of classic GPP training with them. This means no event work for track athletes and nothing specific for team sport athletes. Visually, it looks like a bunch of athletes training, not a specific sport practice.
This workout can be done in a typical gym or on a track/grass field. Each session begins with a 5-minute primer on exercise name and technique (even this is a refresher). Each station is 6-10 minutes long with rest ratios based on equipment and stage of fitness.
- Corner 1 (Run)–Back and forth rolling crouch 10m bursts at 90% speed
- Corner 2 (Throw)–Medicine ball throws front or behind the back
- Corner 3 (Jump) – Calisthenics jumps in place with low amplitudes
- Corner 4 (Mobilize) – Hurdle mobility with sand discs or weight vests
On paper, this training doesn’t look like much. That’s because athletes are coming in more and more fragile and “motor skill” incompetent. With all of the private facilities and coaches pontificating “teaching athletes to skip,” I still deal with very crude problems with simple exercises I thought were universal.
It takes me three seasons on average to get the lame or wounded to progress to bulletproof. It’s worth it because they usually don’t have the nagging little joint problems later in the season. My favorite part of athletes succeeding in the GPP is that, while their competitors are icing and taking pain pills, the GPP winners are walking home without needing the antiquated triage of RICE.
The Rebounder is either a total body circuit or an upper body circuit used at any time. I usually make more trips (rounds of the circuit) to avoid making it too big because many athletes aren’t able to hog the stations in a commercial setting. Usually a big hotel will offer just enough equipment to perform this. Also, most of the international hotels are cardio-driven, so availability is high.
The circuit creates enough of a pH change in the body to feel the burn but avoids getting androgens or other hormones into the body. High-repetition work is about opiate receptors, endorphins, and other goodies, so use this circuit to ward off poor willingness to train later in the week. Some in-season programs can’t do more than one or two high-intensity sessions a week. This circuit is better than skipping a workout because athletes are tired. Something is better than nothing, and often athletes are willing to go hard but not heavy.
- A1 Pull-ups with various grips
- A2 Dead bugs with wall
- A3 Push-up variation
- A4 Hanging knee-ups
- A5 Horizontal rows (seated cable)
- A6 Stir-the-Pot with Swiss ball
- A7 Cable bicep curl
- A8 Roll-out option
- A9 Seated shoulder press
- A10 Oblique fly pulls
- A11 Triceps extension choice
- A12 Side plank derivative
If an athlete needs a lower body option, I swap out the three arm exercises, which are mainly fillers, for three single-leg exercises. I also prescribe ten reps for each exercise. Don’t do pure isometric actions with planking because counting time means watching the clock, which I don’t like unless it’s necessary.
We always do 2-4 sets and three trips around as it takes 40 minutes to do. That’s perfect for a quick workout. For teams with at least 20 athletes, I have one half of the group do a conditioning routine and two rounds, so the entire process takes about 45 minutes. The pump is a great sensation and athletes are often adrenaline junkies, so take advantage of their unique brain chemistry and give them something that feels good.
Black Widow is the core circuit from hell that I rarely use in its entirety. I use it from time to time when competition is far away, and the athlete needs to see progress before they start intensification periods. I’ve written about core training in the past (Insert Link) and feel that we shouldn’t get too crazy with volumes and intensities. However, we can’t baby athletes worrying about injuries all the time.
The Black Widow is simply three combined circuits designed to deplete the torso and sometimes muscles near the pelvis. Here’s an example of what I usually do:
- Exhaust–A medicine ball circuit solo with the wall using a 3-5 kilogram ball.
- Bridge–Similar to the rebound circuit, but doesn’t include any primary upper body exercises.
- Coordinate–Finish with some of the core exercises found in McGill workshops.
I change the order based on the group and skill of the athletes, and the volume is dictated not by sets and reps but how many trips through the circuit. Sometimes I’ve broken up the workouts within the session or even the week to prepare the athlete for a continuous mega circuit. I don’t arbitrarily decide to blast athletes. Follow the principles of overload by gradually building up capacity.
For the most part, coaches will have plenty of bridge exercises and breathing routines (coordinate) for the last two series, but the medicine ball circuit can range in exercise and repetition totals. I used to time the sets to keep people honest with their effort and pace, but athletes started shortening their range of motion to improve time instead of function.
Typically I do 10-20 throws per exercise and adjust the order of exercises based on technique levels. Exercises like the diagonal back tosses involve small rotation and extension, but the ranges of motion are very small if the throws are careful. We use a cinderblock wall that’s at least ten feet tall.
- B1 Overhead lunge throws
- B2 Shotput throw right
- B3 Shotput throw left
- B4 Underhand scoop throws
- B5 Side throw left
- B6 Side throw right
- B7 Squat to throw chest pass
- B8 Diagonal back tosses
I’ve used as many as 12 exercises in a row but going that high usually just drains the mind and promotes a tired athlete with impaired technique. All of the exercises are from LSU and USATF routines from the 80s and 90s, with a lot of influence from Budapest and Prague.
Finally, the breathing activities are just conventional motor control exercises from Stu McGill and other breathing pattern experts. I’m not a fan of isolating breathing too often, but some crawling and other routines with controlled breathing are vital. We can use it with hurdle mobility routines and even explosive throws in the German circuit (Motor City Magnum).
I am not a fan of circuit training for conditioning. Sometimes, though, bad things happen with facilities, travel, and weather and the athletes need to do something in a gym or other space. High school coaching taught me one thing: learn to be one part coach and one part Jason Bourne and improvise.
I like this circuit because it shows that giving up and only training when the facility is perfect is not acceptable. It also reminds everyone that a team must chip in and get equipment from various storage areas. I did this for two years for Spring Track at the high school level, and it was considered unconventional because a day off is always easy to prescribe, but getting better means doing the right work.
Mass Exercise and Games is a classic WW2 manual I have ripped off for years. How does one take a large team, ranging from 30 to 100 athletes, and get something done that’s productive? Follow the military as they are great organizers.
By using a standard gym or an empty field, a few cones, and raiding the PE closet (hence the name), one can do a gauntlet obstacle course, a station-based circuit, or something else creative. Always have a good inventory of equipment and a blueprint of where equipment needs to be set up. Also keep speed bumps, exercises that slow athletes down, to make sure safety is ingrained. Keep the exercises easy to do and not too explosive, as power with unknown execution is an ACL tear waiting to happen. Don’t force equipment to be used in strange ways, just set things up so it’s mature and focused.
Ponce de Leon
When athletes ask for pool workouts, we have two options: home and away. I don’t like to use a lot of aquatic exercise tools because what you teach at your home facility is what the athletes will know. And it’s what they will do on their own when traveling or when they head back home if they’re college athletes.
I follow the Special Forces’ approach to athlete equipment; we travel very light, so it’s easy to manage. Many of my athletes usually have only a backpack and bring an empty suitcase and do their shopping while traveling. When it comes to pool workouts, whatever the hotel or fitness center provides is all you can use.
While I was a swimmer in high school, I stole most of my information from various rehab and aquatic exercise experts. Water is the most underrated medium for recovery, and I’m horrified that I mostly see excuses to avoid dealing with the administrative burden of pool training. Knowing athletes can swim and exercise safely in the pool is a life skill, not just a regeneration option.
The standard pool is 25 yards or meters long. At major colleges and fitness centers, it’s up to 50 meters. Most athletes need a hotel pool, something shallow enough to be low impact and not require deep water running harnesses and special equipment.
Equipment: Two full-sized beach towels, a kickboard, and a pull buoy.
A1 3-D motion–Using traditional agility and track drills in the water won’t improve change of direction abilities or running speed, but they are excellent options to condition the body. Water resistance tends to wake up muscle groups differently than ground reaction forces, and shallow water drills are fun to do. (Estimated time 12 minutes)
B1 Combat–I like to use fast walking with alternative punches, and side and back kicks. These are great ways to train intrinsic muscle groups and perform unique mobility patterns. Athletes don’t need to be in deep water, and everyone can do them. Like cardio kickboxing, we need to choreograph routines in advance. Don’t be proud and think you look silly. All the moves are aggressive, so it’s not ballet–that comes at the end. (Estimated time 10 minutes)
C1 Conditioning–Kick-Pull-Jog routines are awesome since you don’t need to be a good swimmer to succeed. Flutter kick down, breaststroke arms with a buoy between your legs and head up, then jog back. This makes a great interval workout, and the equipment is very common at pools. And the less efficient or less skilled an athlete is, the more of a conditioning effect they receive. (Estimated time 15-20 minutes)
D1 Aquatic Tai Chi–Includes stretching and large range of motion exercises that are similar to PNF stretching but use the water’s resistance to relax antagonist muscles. This cooldown is awesome because 3-4 exercises are enough to finish with a sense of mental recreation. (Estimated time 6 minutes)
Due to the water’s hydrostatic benefits and the lack of eccentric load, water training is a true polarized medium for land loading and flywheel options. Have your athletes do this once a week year round, although many older athletes will need multiple sessions a week to help with the pounding of long competitive seasons.
The Fletcher Finisher
My final circuit is the smallest and least valuable for performance, but possibly the missing link to understanding and supporting athletes. Most coaches get lost in training the athlete and assume that coaching the person is enough. Be we must be more than a good reader of athletes, we must anticipate the pulse of an entire team.
It’s easy to consider arm training a waste of time or an activity that doesn’t transfer. But when trying to sell a training program, investing some time in arms at the end of a workout is a great spark for an athlete leaving the facility. It always allows them to leave on a high note. Finishers and burnout sets will be another article down the road. For now, this is a great circuit for anyone wanting to “win the arms race,” as they say in the bodybuilding arena.
- F1 The 21-gun salute (EZ curl bar) 7 up first half, 7 up last half, 7 full reps
- F2 Standing triceps extensions (rope) 12-15 reps
- F3 Dumbbell Shoulder Press (standing) 6-10 reps
Repeat 2-3 times after a one minute rest period.
I know I’m not the only one who’s read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Modern Building. To this day, most athletes still grow up on magazines, online or hard copy, that showcase hypertrophy-driven bro science. So instead of being a purist, go ahead and give a little dessert to the athletes who want it. Don’t make this mandatory, but allow those who want to do so and they won’t try to get it elsewhere. The last thing any of us wants is for an athlete to go freelance at a fitness gym and get pounced on by the hyenas.
Steal, Modify, and Design Your Own Circuit
It’s ok to use workouts from others as many fit nicely into a coach’s circumstances. Be sure to always look for what may not gel with your athletes, facilities, and program. Tweaking circuits doesn’t mean the entire workout dramatically changes its purpose. Sometimes a small change can be a tipping point toward something bad or toward something good that improves results. Be vigilant to the details.
When possible, design a circuit from scratch. It allows you to tailor every program component to your athletes’ needs for that particular session. Circuits may not be the priority in a program, but they are so commonly used that it’s worth doing them right. See if you can upgrade your program with any resource. Here is one study comparing two circuits.
Special Note: This article is dedicated to the patient athletes with whom I’ve worked who had an off-year or for whom I didn’t maximize their potential. Most of the training listed is refined from mistakes in the past and is an evolutionary step forward, not a finalized solution.