There has been a great deal of talk on the Strengthcoach.com forums about the use of circuits and about circuit training. Both Jon Chaimberg and Jim Reeves have shown versions of circuits on StrengthCoach.com that they have used for their athletes. If you read the forum posts you would have the impression that I am "anti-circuit training". Well, I have a confession to make. With my Boston University Hockey team we have done various circuits nearly exclusively for the last two off seasons. The simple question is, if I am not a fan of circuit style training, than why do we do it?
Why I am not a Circuit Fan
Circuit training is not for beginners. At least not the type of circuit training we do. Many coaches tout the value of the work capacity developed but, I don't want work capacity at the expense of technique, particularly in a beginner. I think most athletes need a huge amount of supervision and, supervision is difficult in circuit training. In our case we have at least ten athletes, and often over 25 athletes, working in a circuit at one time. That means that it is very difficult to coach. In fact, it is next to impossible to get a reasonable amount of coaching done in a circuit. The coach or coaches must manage time, traffic flow, effort and often injury adjustments. This leaves very little time for technical coaching.
In addition circuits have a two major built in drawbacks:
Inability to do Power Exercises- Power exercises ( Olympic lifts) are difficult to include in circuits. The fatigue generated in circuits makes Olympic lifting a poor choice for inclusion in circuits. I know I do not want an athlete doing a set of power cleans as the tenth exercise in a circuit. As a result, we do not include Olympic lifts in our circuits.
Order of exercises- In a circuit, there really is no exercise order. There is a sequence but, no order. Some athletes will overhead press before bench pressing. One athlete will do front squats as the first exercise, another will do it as the last. If you believe strongly that order of exercise performance matters you have another strong reason to dislike circuit training.
Why We Do Circuits
The reason we do circuits is simple yet requires some explanation. If you've been reading my blog www.strengthcoachblog.com you may have already seen this rationale. I began doing circuit training with my athletes two years ago, primarily for teambuilding purposes. We were coming off a season that was not up to our expectations. I felt that our greatest shortcoming was not that we were not fast enough or strong enough but, that we were not a team. A team is defined as a group of individuals working toward a common goal. I felt in many ways we were a group of individuals but that we lacked a common goal. My thoughts began to shift toward teamwork and teambuilding ideas. As I thought, I continued to get stuck on the idea that we needed to work harder and that we needed to work together. An old thought came to mind based loosely on an idea originated by Mike Arthur at the University of Nebraska in the eighties. Nebraska experimented with circuit protocols that they dubbed the "Survivor Circuit". In the early nineties I had experimented with a basic adaptation of the Survivor Circuit that consisted of ten basic strength exercises arranged in a simple sequence of lower body-upper pull- upper push -core-lower body-sequence. The research at the time Arthur developed the concept showed that a circuit of major muscle group exercises performed for sets of ten repetitions produced a huge increase in growth hormone production. However, what I remembered most was that these circuits were hard and that some athletes vomited. What I wanted to see was my athletes working as a unit against a clock, pushing each other. I paired guys I felt worked hard with those I felt were underachieving and off we went.
The first circuit we used is illustrated below:
Modified Survivor Circuit ( we simply call it The 10 Rep Circuit. Weight were approximately sixty percent of 1 RM)
- Station 1- Trap Bar Deadlift 10 reps
- Station 2- TRX Inverted Row 10 reps
- Station 3- Alternate Dumbell Press 10 reps each arm
- Station 4- Ab Wheel Rollout -- 20 reps
- Station 5- Front Squat- 10 reps
- Station 6- Chinup -- 10 reps
- Station 7- Close Grip Bench Press- 10 reps
- Station 8- 1 Leg Straight Leg Deadlift 10 reps ea leg
- Station 9- Bench Press- 10 reps
- Station 10 Front Plank- 30 sec.
- The sequence was not perfect but we were able to cover all of the major areas of the body. As a coach we often can't see the forest because of the trees. I was obsessed with trying to design the perfect program with the perfect balance of sets, and reps. What I wasn't getting were the effects of peer pressure. Athletes pushing each through a circuit was causing an overall increase in effort.
I think it is easy to get caught up in concepts. How CNS intensive is the training, how much rest between sets? What is the sequence of exercises? What happens to the guy who squats first versus last? However, what we often miss is the human element. When I think of many of the coaches I know who are having great success with strength increases one thing they all have in common is the emphasis on effort and environment. If you read Jason Ferrugia's work or Joe DeFranco's work or any of the WestSide info words like effort, intensity and environment always seem to come up.
As we progressed through our first few weeks of circuits some very strange things happened. In spite of doing a workout that would not theoretically provide great strength increases we were getting exceptional strength increases. I was dumb founded. We were doing a program that should not produce strength gains but my athletes were gaining strength.
I called my friend Alwyn Cosgrove and told him of my dilemma or my "discovery". Alwyn summed it up simply as he always does by saying "Psychology trumps physiology every time". As usual, I grabbed my notebook and wrote Alwyn's thought down. I think it is far too easy to get caught up in the science and forget that young athletes will respond under pressure.
Another phenomenon occurred that to me was even stranger. My athletes loved the circuits. They felt like a team. They felt like everyone was equal and that no one could hide or skip a set. I had intended to do these circuits for a few weeks and then return to my traditional programming but our captains intervened and asked that everything be done as a group in circuit style. My first thought was "this is impossible". My second was "how are we going to do this?". I began to develop power circuits to get our med ball and plyo work done and muscle endurance circuits for our endurance days. The program morphed from a typical "Boyle" program into something much different.
This past summer I experimented with a combination of modified HIT training, circuits and more peer pressure. In order to get more strength emphasis in the front squat, bench press and hang clean, we did a "test" almost every day before our circuits. If we were Westside people, this was our max effort work. We did a max effort every day we trained for most of the summer. Tests might be 1 RM, 5 RM, or 10 RM on any lift but, what the tests all had in common was an attempt to get as many perfect reps as possible with all your teammates watching. It was both fun and productive.
My use of circuit training the past few summers has led me to try to explain the science behind the circuits and why they may work from a physiological perspective. The one concept that kept coming to mind was a concept called Peripheral Heart Action training. The idea of Peripheral Heart Action training was originally developed by Dr. Arthur Steinhaus in the nineteen forties. If you Google Steinhaus you will be shocked to see a man way ahead of his time. Steinhaus' info could have easily been written last week, not forty or fifty years ago. However the person who brought Steinhaus' work to the forefront was a former Mr. America named Bob Gadja. In the sixties Gadja developed a world class physique by ignoring the pump oriented training so popular at the time and instead using Peripheral Heart Action. The idea of Peripheral Heart Action was to design circuits that caused "continuous circulation of blood" from the upper body to the lower body. Gadja referred to this as the anti-pump. What Gadja was doing was working the body in circuits that were designed to move blood from body area to body area. Gadja avoided the "pump style" of training that focused on a particular muscle group and instead focused on a total body approach that deliberately tried to move the blood from the lower body to the upper body hence the name, peripheral heart action circuits.
Gadja was viewed as a "freak" or a non-conformist but his physique was not. Fred Hatfield discussed Peripheral Heart Action in Science of Powerlifting in the seventies and as mentioned previously Mike Arthur resurrected a form of Circuit Training in the eighties at the Univeristy of Nebraska as I mentioned previously. However overall circuit training has been viewed with skepticism by the strength community.
However, in the HIT world ( Nautilus, Hammer, 1 set to failure) athletes often obtained excellent results with one set programs that were "circuit like". The circuits moved from big multi-joint exercises to small body part exercises. What distinguished HIT training was a different definition of the word intensity. To a strength athlete intensity means "weight on the bar". What "intensity' was the set, means at what percentage of the 1 RM did you work. However, in the HIT world intensity was entirely different. Intensity meant working hard. A set of twenty reps might be considered low intensity in the conventional strength world and high intensity in the HIT world.
I can only tell you that we won a National Championship in very un-Boyle like fashion and that intensity played a major part. I am writing this article in the interest of honesty. I don't want to misrepresent what I am doing with my athletes but, I must be clear. I do this currently with my Boston University Hockey team and with no one else. I do not do this with my NFL clients, my NHL clients or my sports performance clients. If you do not have a group like mine I would strongly caution against this type of work and continue with programming as we have always advocated. If you have a group of athletes with solid technique and want to change the intensity, give it a try.
This topic and our stretching and mobility circuits are the focus of Functional Strength Coach Volume 3, due out in October of 2009.