Circuit training has a bad reputation among strength athletes, but consider this – most likely circuit training has been presented to the industry in the worst possible way for the last few decades. I opened my gym in 1991 and had already seen a few fads. Even then, circuit training had come and gone a few times, and was almost never presented in a way it should be.
As a ex-team handball player, I did a lot of circuit training pre-season, and the best judokas in Hungary follow a strong training plan all year with circuit training always being part of this even during the in-season. (In judo we have over thirty events to train for each year, so basically off- and in-season do not exist for us.)
How can a StrongFirst instructor benefit from this article and, even more, from circuit training? Let’s answer first the why—why this approach can be a valuable part of your training, especially if you are a beginner kettlebell athlete.
Circuit Training and the Novice Athlete
In the case of training a novice athlete, we can’t start immediately with the strength or the conversion phase of training. On one hand the athlete doesn’t have enough physical capacity to do this, and on the other hand, we also have to prepare the anatomy to adapt to the upcoming load. Given that our ability to increase oxygen supply to our musculature will grow faster than the strength of our tendons, it’s common that after an insufficient progression the novice athlete will suffer a serious joint or ligament injury. So, as trainers, our goal in the first twelve weeks with a novice athlete is to build up the cardipulmonary sytsem and create the need for adaptation to build capillarization and bone mineralization.
To prevent weak ligaments and joints, this initial phase is mainly based on circuit training and complexes. Technical development is also of great importance in this training block. Remember that we’re preparing the base for physical capacity by gradually building up the technical skills that will enable the athlete to move in the direction of specialty areas later on.
The Variables Involved in Well Designed Circuit Training
Complexes, circuit training, or other protocols – targeting short-, medium-, or long-term endurance – serve different purposes at different points in a training plan. In the phase we are discussing, the preparation phase, we are looking to expand the athlete’s capacity. Important factors to consider in program for this are the length of active and passive blocks and the determination of the heart rate target zone. To create the training plan, we have to know the athlete’s training level, resting heart rate, and heart rate reserve after load.
Circuit training simultaneously develops strength, aerobic-anaerobic endurance, flexibility, coordination, power, and balance. In the case of a novice athlete, the parallel skill development won’t cause any problems, as biomotor skills won’t develop at the expense of each other thanks to the huge adaptation reserve. In our program, circuit training consists of exercises with bodyweight, implements, the stationary bike, and the rowing machine and their combinations provide excellent development possibilities.
How to Create an Effective Circuit Training Program
The length of the program is a maximum of eight to twelve weeks for novices. This program can also be used with advanced athletes as a transition phase for restart after a competitive period. In that scenario, the length of the program should be only three to five weeks.
Knowing the principles of circuit training can be useful when we’re trying to develop medium- or short-term endurance, as circuit training designed for this goal is one of the best methods for achieving it. Here are the guidelines as detailed by Tudor Bompa in Periodization Training for Sports.
When planning the circuit training, we don’t think only in the volume/intensity/density triangle because the order of exercises is also important. Central and peripheral fatigue are not the same, so we’re not allowed to target the same muscle group with consecutive exercises as the execution will become insecure. For example, programming a squat, lunge, and box jump to follow each other would be a bad idea. That said, modified circuit training is suitable for use in later training blocks, after the athlete is done with the preparation phase, as metabolic training when we’re aiming for endurance, strength endurance, power-endurance, or repeated sprint ability.
The partial or full rest between exercises will be most beneficial if we’re targeting opposite areas of the body on the stations following each other and if we’re using an easier lower-body exercise (e.g. lunge backwards without weight) after a heavy upper-body exercise (e.g. military press). In the following chart, I’ve given a grade of difficulty to all the exercises, so you can easily pair them.
I was not planning to provide an exact training plan in this article, but rather to show the basic principle behind well designed circuit training, and answer why circuit training can be a valuable tool in the process of creating the athlete.