My Beef with Circuit Training

Like Hammer Pants and the Crew Cut, I hope to see circuit training, the way it is currently done, become a part of 90’s popular culture, that we all laugh and snicker at.

Remember when?…

…Sadly, I still see the wide spread use of circuit training rampant at most every commercial gym I step foot in, particularly so-called ‘fitness classes,‘ which is just a bit of an oxymoron.

Even more sad, is that the way most people circuit train might be one of the least effective ways to lose weight and enhance your quality of life.

A History

Circuit training was devised by British innovators, Morgan and Adamson, circa 1953!

The goal was to create a single system to produce ‘all-round fitness,‘ but specifically a balance of endurance and strength.

Research since that time, however, has shown that circuit training produces inferior results to the cumulative effects of separate training sessions (or at least in combination with a conjugate style of programming/training), each devoted to producing a different type of fitness.

Furthermore, there is a long list of research showing that aerobic training tends to interfere with neuromuscular development.

Actually while we’re on the subject, aerobic training done immediately before — think about how you typically warm up, right now… — neuromuscular training seriously inhibits the ability of the body to produce gains in that realm.

To see my most simplistic model read this article on Neuromuscular System Development and Energy System Development, and you’ll see that you can easily train up to 6 different qualities on six different days in a given week.

Two Major Types

Alright so actually there are two completely different types of circuit training, and I really only have a beef with one of them because it’s inferior but makes people ‘feel‘ like they are working hard, even if they aren’t making any true progress.

That’s what the art of weight loss really is about, helping people make progress.

Anyways, this is probably why I still see so many trainers still using it, most people assume, if it feels hard, it must be good!

I’ve spent years trying to change the minds of die-hard circuit trainers, who love to feel their muscles and lungs burn, but wonder why they aren’t getting the results they want after years of circuit training, three times a week.

This comes right back to the ‘doing more is better‘ mentality, that is blocking people from reaching their objectives.

More is not better, better is better. Tweet This…

There are also a lot of trainers out there who just want to give people what they want, so that makes it hard for me to blame them.

However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t taking the easier — giving clients what they want, instead of a combination of what they want and what they need — but less productive path on a road to change.

Actually the second one feels easier — work-wise, due to the much needed rest — and produces more results, so how can you lose?

1. Continuous Circuit Training (CCT)

This is the one I have beef with, think Curves.

Not only is it a monotonous, fairly boring way to train, there is no process you can really focus on, and process is a key factor for change.

Ever walk into a commercial gym and see the circuit area with the little red light?

Every minute or 45 seconds, the light flashes, a buzzer goes and you’re expected to move on to the next station.

Go to a typical ‘aerobics’ group fitness class and you’re also bound to find CCT in practice as an instructor takes you from jumps to pushups, to step-ups, to side planks, to tricep kickbacks, running on the spot and a slew of other exercises that make you feel tired, but can’t really be gauged for improvements.

Tired doesn’t mean good, actually, it leads to the opposite, most likely:

  • Injury
  • Motor Dysfunction
  • Muscle Imbalance
  • Pain
  • Stagnant Progress

These circuits tend to increase muscular endurance but make little other neuromuscular change and also less cardiovascular fitness than you might think.

Creating people with a very one dimensional level of fitness at the same time.

Because the intensity is high and the aim to red-line your engine for an hour or 45 minutes straight is in place, the quality of your work drops consistently in that time, no matter how ‘fit‘ you are.

It’s not uncommon to see people gasping for air, milking water breaks, and getting yelled at by instructors to ‘work harder,’ or ‘keep going!’

The stimulus is often too vague, with too much variety, too sporadically, in combination with too little rest.

Also, how do you gauge improvement?

Feeling less tired at the end of one of these?

If there is anything I can tell you in 6 years of personal training, it’s that it’s really hard to think and keep track of anything when you’re tired.

Which is why it’s very difficult to coach people on technique or even nutrition during a workout, but even harder to do during a workout like this.

You may as well beat your head against the wall and hope for the best.

2. Interval Circuit Training (ICT)

This is the kind of circuit training everybody should be doing, it’s the kind of circuit training a lot of little niche clubs tuned into years ago, because plainly put, it yields better results, and optimizes training.

Work + Rest = Success Tweet This…

A motto for fitness.You’ll notice that even the strength training programs follow this model when I notate it.

For example:

A1) Back Squat

A2) Chin-Up

A3) Swiss Ball Plank

What you may not see is that rest is deliberately built into training like this and it should be.

Rest allows you to operate at a higher level of intensity, which as interval training research has proven in the last 20 years is more effective as a training model, especially if you consider time invested.

Because you get to rest, it also means that you can maintain a higher level of quality in your movement which leads to less injury, less pain, more progress and a decrease in motor dysfunction or muscle imbalance.

At the end of those 3 exercises above, there may be 30 seconds of recovery, or more often than not 15 seconds of recovery between each exercise (or 45 seconds of rest total), which you don’t always see when I write it down quickly like that, but is featured in my training programs.

Similarly even the energy system work I typically recommend falls into work and rest.

Rest is a variable that we can use to manipulate the outcomes of training programs for a wide variety of outcomes.

Rest is so important, all the physical adaptations that your body will make after exercise, are all done while you rest.

In Closing

Circuit training as a whole isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Actually the first one isn’t always a bad thing, it can be cycled in from time to time to mix things up, or if you want to train muscular endurance.

My beef isn’t with one training mentality or another actually, it’s the latching on to one method and sticking to one method when a multi-centric method is most effective.

You’ll get better training results with ICT, and it’s a lot easier to measure.

CCT  just shouldn’t become a staple in your program, or the only thing you do, like I see so many people at the gym still doing.

Focus your attention to ICT more often than not, whether your doing resistance training or whether your doing energy system work, it’s the more effective route in almost all cases.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, anything is better than nothing, but if you want to transition into better methods, I highly recommend this one.d

You Stay Classy San Diego.

4 thoughts on “My Beef with Circuit Training”

  1. Im in football, we do crossfit. Ten different stations at high intensity 6-10 reps per station. Then, we run into the gym run up stairs jog about 50 metters run down stairs, and bear crawl 25 meters to where we started. We do this 4 times!!! Trust me it helps!!! In games the other team is gasping for breaths while we are not tired at all!!

  2. Jake, you may feel a difference over no energy system training at all, but I can tell you from being the head strength and conditioning coach at the University of British Columbia’s football program for a couple of years that this is not optimizing your performance in a way that is conducive to football in the long term. Right now you’re killing Peter to pay Paul for immediate results, rather than long-term practical results. We had one of the best conditioned teams in the league while I was at UBC. Most plays in football last less than 10 seconds and then you’ll get a minimum 30 seconds rest or more. You could get a better training effect for football doing straight up strength training (i.e. get as strong as possible) because strength is far more important a skill to have in an explosive power sport like Football as opposed to cardiovascular conditioning and is a lot harder to develop too. Then when you get closer to the season (6-6 weeks out – because conditioning the heart is way faster and way easier than building strength and maintaining it through the season) then you can focus on deliberate conditioning with ICT) in something like 10 seconds on, 30 seconds off, with something much more specific to football (cutting, pushing sleds, pulling sleds, agility training, etc…) and it would take a lot less time, you still wouldn’t get gassed, you’d get a better training effect (you’ll become a better athlete) and the injury rate on the team would drop. Every major Football program in the U.S. and Canada uses a system like this, or pretty darn close to this. Most crossfit training is totally inappropriate for football.

  3. Pingback: Death to Bootcamps

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