Circuit Exercise Selection and Commercial Gym Creativity Part II

12 Jun

Yesterday we talked about the benefits of adding circuit work to your training program, and also the need for proper exercise selection, focusing on “weakness circuits.” Today lets look at picking the right exercises for what we’ll call a conditioning circuit. We’ll  keep this basic. A conditioning circuit for our sake will be a circuit that’s done between training sessions as a form of interval training, twice per week.

Keys To an Effective Circuit:

  • Elevate Heart Rate
  • Move In Every Plane of Motion
  • Hit Every Major Movement (Push and Pull (Lateral or Vertical), Hip Dominant, Quad Dominant)
  • Get In, Get Out – 30 min Max

Lets look a little deeper at these keys. First, you must elevate the heart rate and quickly. Circuits utilize the anaerobic energy systems (ATP-CP, Glycolisis). Your body is performing intensely for short periods and therefore does not utilize oxygen for energy. These bursts of 30 seconds to as much as 2 minutes utilize ATP and Glucose to provide energy rapidly. Conversely bouts of exercise exceeding this limit have you working aerobically, and therefore using oxygen. That’s a pretty quick, detail-lacking, definition of whats going on but what’s important is that working anaerobically causes a greater EPOC (Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption). Why is this good? When you increase your EPOC you burn calories at a higher rate after you have already left the gym. Studies show that the after burn effect of a raised EPOC is higher after anaerobic exercise than aerobic exercise. Putting it all together: An effective circuit is one that allows you to raise your heart rate quickly into the anaerobic zone and then lets it return to a moderate activity zone, before beginning your next climb into an elevated anaerobic heart rate zone. In result, keeping you working anaerobically throughout the circuit and boosting EPOC.

Secondly, an effective circuit has you moving in all the planes of motion. The best way to explain why this is important is as follows. Kudos to Alwyn Cosgrove (check out his info at, awesome stuff) for making this point. He offers up the idea of looking at what your doing for “cardio” in terms of reps. If you are a runner, or god forbid a cardio queen / king spinning away on your elliptical or bike for 45 minutes to an hour every session, think about how many reps you have performed in the same direction, using the same movement pattern…a butt load is the answer. To put it simply, the likelihood of sustaining an injury is directly related to the amount of what your doing over and over again. If you sit at a desk all day you are going to have tight hammies and probably some lower back pain. If all you do is run for distances your are going to have some pretty sweet tight hips and probably knee pain. Therefore a circuit is the solution. A circuit has you moving up, down, forwards, backwards and side to side, utilizing many different movements and many different muscles. This means your activating more muscles and staying injury free.

With the same token, the third key is to hit every major movement. The more muscles we can activate the more we are lighting that metabolic fire inside our bodies. Dually, we are keeping  a balance to our workout as to not cause imbalances. Lastly, and tying in directly with our discussion on anaerobic and aerobic exercise, a circuit is designed to get you in and get you out. In doing so, your levels of growth hormone and androgen remain high. These are two chemicals in your body you want to elevate for optimal fat loss and muscle building.  People seem to relate time spent in the gym with results; thinking that the longer they are there the better the results. It’s not true and a topic for another day. All this being said, your circuit is crap if it’s not challenging enough to get you working in that anaerobic heart rate zone. Key the music…dun dun duuuhh…exercise selection.

Too often I see people choose exercises they can “slack” on. I have found that certain exercises just don’t allow for half ass repetitions, they are tough to do no matter how badly you want to just go through the motions so you can check that days workout off in your training journal, you have a training journal…right!? I have a few favorites and I have put together a circuit that utilizes all of our keys, I call them…The Nasty Nine. (If your a trainer these are an enormously helpful group to use with your clients.)

  1. Battling Ropes w/ Reverse Lunge – Battling ropes are gaining recent popularity. I like them because they’re a big coordinated movement especially when you add a reverse lunge to them! There are a ton of different motions you can make with the ropes. Of course, they are also tough to half ass. Get behind the ropes, grip em and rip em!
  2. Jump Squats w/ Overhead Ball Slam – Jump Squats are great and tough. Ball slams, are also a favorite of mine. Put them together, lethal…and there is no way around them, sorry.
  3. Kettlebell Swings – Or Burpies – These are my choice exercises for posterior chain work in a circuit. Kettlebell swings are a great move, just make sure your using a heavy KB, too often I see 120 pound women using a 4kg KB to do KB swings…seriously. Focus on form, snapping the hips like your locking a deadlift out, if the form is there and the KB is heavy you can’t cheat this movement. As far as burpies, you might know them as squat thrusts, they’re old school and they hurt so good. (Just keep your stomach tight, no dipping in the middle!)
  4. Sled Pushes – My favorite exercise in any capacity. I prefer to have clients do them with their arms locked out in front, chest up and back flat. Aside from that, Just Push!
  5. Weighted Skate Jumps – I learned how to do kate jumps way back in 2002 as a highschool baseball player getting my ass whooped at Mike Boyle’s Strength and Conditioning. Eight years later and they are still with me. I like this lateral, uni-lateral movement. It’s explosive and helps your stability, especially knee stability. Add a Dumbbell gripped in front, or two lighter ones in each hand and they become a good tough exercise to add to your circuit.
  6. One Arm Overhead Walks (waiter walks), Suitcase Carries or Farmer’s Walks – Waiter walks are a farely new exercise I am using. I have been loading exercises from one side for awhile, and the benefits of doing so have been monsterous (in a good way). Therefore, when I was introducted to the waiter walk it became a favorite right away. I like to have people hold heavy KB’s because the weight is a little tougher to stabilize. If you aren’t down with the overhead exercises, Farmer’s walks (heavy) and suitcase carries (aka one arm farmer’s walk) (heavy) are awesome as well. Staying with our theme, these exercises are all also tough no matter how you spin them. You have to pick the weight up, you have to walk down to the other side of the gym, simple and brutally effective.
  7. Band Assisted Plyometric Push Ups – Explosive, Tough and Effective. Try to push yourself off the ground with every pushup and you won’t be shortchanged.
  8. Inverted Rows – Not the most creative but a nice pairing exercise for the push – ups. Whether we’re talking circuits or a lifting session, keep your horizontal rowing equal to your horizontal pushing (horizontal pushing is the bench press and it’s many variations you have found…bro)
  9. Jump Rope – Old school. Lots of variations. Gets the job done.

Class…what have we learned today? Teacher looks out at the class…blank stares, one child is smiling and nodding, that child is me. Anyway, what you learned today is how to do a circuit the right way – raise the heart rate, let it fall, repeat. Why your doing circuits instead of aerobic work or “cardio” – too boost EPOC and stay injury free. In addition, you learned that an effective circuit essentially sucks, it’s hard, but it’s quick. Lastly, you got  a look at the nasty nine, sure to leave you on your back staring at the ceiling well on your way to being lean and mean.

Got any exercises that didn’t make the Nasty Nine? Leave em in the comment sections!

Make sure to check in on Monday and I will throw these Nine into a circuit with rep and time prescriptions, show you some pictures of us going at them, and show you how to make a few exercises generally only possible in a performance gym possible in your gym!


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