Let’s design a sample circuit training session for an athlete, and look at how to decide which exercises to include and why. First of all, we start by screening the athlete.
Screening the athlete
Before jumping into action, it’s always a good idea to do a few tests on our athletes, trying to see if they have any movement dysfunction, limitations or, in the worst case, pain.
For “Giancarlo” (our example), knowing the athlete, I already knew a few limitations he may have, so I started with a postural assessment test. From it, and in particular, from the lateral view, it’s easy to see that Giancarlo has signs of an upper crossed syndrome such as rounded shoulders and excessive forward head (Muscolino, 2015).
An aligned posture is essential, and it tells me that the athlete has a balanced relationship between agonist and antagonist muscles and a standard range of motion and efficiency at the joints.
Having a few of these signs for an upper crossed syndrome, I further tested the overhead squat and found out that the athletes indeed does have tightness in the upper back muscles and chest muscles.
In fact, during the overhead squat test, his arms fall forward, showing excessive tightness in these muscles and inhibited or weak lower traps, serratus anterior and cervical flexors.
From there, I proceeded with a pec rom test to see if my hypothesis was correct: Giancarlo did show clear signs of tightness of the pec muscles.
The shoulder mobility test was my next choice, for two main reason: the first, it’s a wise test for anyone, since it’s a primitive movement pattern, and the second one, to investigate further if the upper crossed syndrome might have resulted in a lack of motor control and excessive tightness of the shoulder muscles or not.
The athlete actually showed decent mobility (FMS score of 2 on both shoulders) and tested negative on the shoulder clearing test. By knowing the athlete well, I preferred these tests over other valid options such as the inline lunge test or the ASLR test.
Also, I’ve seen the athlete performing push-ups many times with a correct form and perfect firing pattern, showing good trunk stability and motor control.
During the warm-up, we are trying to accomplish a few different things. We need to increase body temperature since it will make the body more efficient at movement and less prone to injury, but it’s also a great time to do a few corrective exercises to improve the athlete’s posture and movement. A correct warm-up will also reduce delayed onset muscle soreness in the following 24 hours (Olsen et al., 2012).
We start by mobilizing the tight muscles, shown by the initial assessments, with a self-myofascial release on pectorals muscles, and then we stretch them. We proceed with exercises such as Open the Book and T-Spine roll to further improve motor control and movement quality of the inhibited upper body muscles we’ve found.
After mobilizing, we can start activating: we will not only focus on the inhibited muscles but also the core and lower body muscles as well, with particular emphasis on the glutes, which are often inhibited and will be needed during our circuit training.
Band retractions for activating and strengthening the lower traps seems like a great choice here, done after a few rounds of ITYW. We can now proceed with glute bridges and lateral band walks to activated the gluteus max and med, while raising body temperature, since these involve more and bigger muscles.
Finally, before doing a few minutes of uphill walking to further raise body temperature, we can do a single set of goblet squat with a light kettlebell since this pattern will be highly used during the actual training. Lastly, a few box jumps will potentiate the athlete, priming him for the circuit training.
This is a great choice since jumps will need the recruitment of the biggest motor units, inter and intra-muscular coordination and high focus and motivation, done explosively and with maximal intent.
The Cool Down
After training, we want to make sure the athletes bring down his arousal levels. We do this by utilizing light static stretching exercises. We can stretch some of the biggest muscle groups with no particular order, such as the hamstrings, quads, pectorals, calves and lat-dorsi.
We can then do a short and very low intensity uphill walk on a treadmill, making sure the athlete doesn’t get his heart rate up but down. No further coaching is needed for this very simple but effective routine: we want the athlete to relax and get some after workout nutrition which may be a good choice for recovery.
For example, having a protein shake with some carbs is a wise choice. Heat therapy may be used, while I would avoid cold water therapy for this athlete since it might compromise some strength, mass and power adaptations.
Circuit Training Main Session
The athlete will do a simple circuit training consisting of 8 exercises, done with a medium to short pause between them, for a total of three rounds. For the main session, I’ve included an exercise for the major muscles of the body, opting mainly for compound exercises, but I’ve also put a couple of corrective exercises and one power exercise.
This circuit aims to improve different fitness qualities (Klika, Jordan, 2013): aerobic endurance, hypertrophy, muscular endurance and strength and also power.
It’s a non-sport-specific circuit since the athlete doesn’t play any particular sport but is looking for general improvements in fitness and health components.
The first exercise targets the biggest muscles in the body such as the quadriceps and glutes, but will also work the adductors, the core and the stabilizers.
Eventually, we will progress to a weighted variation to produce an overload and induce further adaptations. Right after, the athlete will perform push-ups for 8 reps, which in this case will leave him with at least two to three reps in reserve.
This is a great option for a circuit, being a simple but effective horizontal push exercise that targets the pecs, triceps, anterior deltoid. Hopefully, the serratus anterior will be sufficiently focuses to induce some adaptations that may help with the upper crossed syndrome, since the serratus anterior is often inhibited.
We proceed with face-pull to work on the weak lower traps, rhomboids and rotator cuff muscles. It’s often a wise idea to use a few corrective exercises inside a circuit, especially if the athlete isn’t looking for any particular fitness adaptations.
The lat machine comes next, so we can now work on the vertical pulling muscles such as the lat-dorsi without causing too much fatigue and effort like pull-ups or chin-ups, since the athlete is at a beginner level or intermediate at best.
After, the kettlebell swing will test the motor control of the hinge pattern and will work the main muscles of the posterior chain in one simple but efficient exercises that targets the glutes, the hamstrings and the lower back muscles, while also testing grip strength, improving mobility and causing a raise in heart-beat of the athlete.
This, for these reasons, is one of the most important exercise in the circuit along with the bodyweight squat. To make sure the athlete will have no issues in finishing the first round, we then proceed with a lateral raise, which is a lot less demanding, but still useful.
It’s a mistake to consider this exercise useless, since the shoulders are one of the biggest muscles in the body. Unfortunately, the upper crossed syndrome doesn’t allow me to have the athlete perform a correct overhead press without overcompensating, which is why I opted for isolating the deltoids and target them with different exercises.
If you recall, we already used the push-ups (which targets the anterior deltoid among other muscles) and the face-pull (which also targets the posterior deltoids) and not only: up next is the inverted row, which is a great exercise that targets the horizontal pull muscles.
As you can see, we’ve now targeted both horizontal pull and push, and vertical push (the vertical pull is excluded for the reasons above). With the inverted rows, the athletes will feel a great pump on rhomboids, lower traps and scapular retractors. Finally, the final exercise of the circuit is a box jump.
This is a great, simple but effective exercise that trains power, acceleration, while also improving rate of force development, tendon stiffness and tissue tolerance, all while taxing the aerobic system and the PCr system.
The exercise is performed with maximal intent, which further improves the recruitment of the biggest motor units, intra and inter-muscular coordination and rate coding.
Using power exercises such as the box jumps is one of the most undervalued tools for the general population, especially for those athletes who are getting older.
It’s true: pure muscular strength it’s lost fairly quickly, but muscular power is lost at three times the rate, making this fitness component truly essential in training the general population with no specific aim.
The circuit training is then repeated for a total of three rounds: the athlete can rest between a minute and ninety seconds between rounds: we want fatigue to dissipate, but to keep the heart rate at a good level. From the table above, you can see that we have a certain amount of reps per exercise: this was decided by me, the coach, knowing the athlete enough to choose the right amount of reps.
The aim is to do enough reps to stimulate the muscles, but also to leave at least 2-4 reps in reserve to make sure not to stress the body too much in a single exercise.
As a strength & conditioning coach, I’m much more interested in the quality of the reps and in targeting the specific fitness components that I want to improve, rather than have the athlete go all out as you would often see in isolation movements in the bodybuilding culture.
As far as rests, I chose different rest times based on the difficulty of each exercise. While kettlebell swings are very taxing, I don’t think the athlete needs much rest after a set of lateral raise, especially if he then switches to a different muscle group on the upcoming exercise. The athlete will use only a few tools: his bodyweight, a lat machine, a kettlebell, a box and some bands.
Progressing the Circuit Training
The training went well, but I had to increase the number of push-ups performed in the last round since the athlete looked like he had well more than 5-6 reps in reserve, which is a little too far from muscular failure in this case.
We have different options to make sure the athlete will be, over the long term, progressing with the stimulus and therefore cause adaptations. I will probably start adding weight to the squat pattern, using the goblet squat instead of the bodyweight squat and eventually proceed to a full barbell back squat.
Since we only used bilateral exercises, I will also add a lunge in the circuit or a lateral lunge, since we have zero frontal plane exercises in the circuit. Eventually, once the corrective exercise program will start fixing the UCS, I will substitute the overhead press for the lateral raise and the face-pull with a completely different exercise that targets bigger muscles, such as a barbell row.
I can also make the box higher, use more weight and/or reps on various exercise, and once I have some aerobic adaptations, shorten the pause between the circuits while also adding one round to further tax the aerobic system and save time (Waller et al., 2011).
The athlete enjoyed the circuit and loved the box jumps in particular, so I will probably add a second power development exercise in the circuit, such as a broad jump. Once the athlete has been on this routine for 4 to 6 weeks, I can evaluate how to proceed: for example, I could keep on working with circuits, but focus on one specific component of fitness such as general strength.
Circuit Training | References
- Klika, B. and Jordan, C., 2013. High-intensity circuit training using body weight: Maximum results with minimal investment. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, 17(3), pp.8-13.
- Muscolino, J., 2015. Upper crossed syndrome. Journal of the Australian Traditional-Medicine Society, 21(2), p.80.
- Olsen, O., Sjøhaug, M., Van Beekvelt, M. and Mork, P.J., 2012. The effect of warm-up and cool-down exercise on delayed onset muscle soreness in the quadriceps muscle: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of human kinetics, 35(1), pp.59-68.
- Waller, M., Miller, J. and Hannon, J., 2011. Resistance circuit training: Its application for the adult population. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 33(1), pp.16-22.