Maxwell Strength & Conditioning Blog
Enjoy a peek at the world through Steve's eyes as he delivers sermons on everything from training to peace of mind.
One of my ongoing themes, a constant in my workout life, is circuit training. Of the varied types of circuit training, all have one thing in common: the objective of increasing work capacity. Circuit training involves taking a group of exercises and performing them one after the other with limited-to-no rest.
This type of training is extremely demanding! Not only does it bring into play a fair amount of muscular strength and endurance but it creates tremendous systemic fatigue, which some people have termed metabolic conditioning or met-con, for short.
Because of the tremendous fatigue involved, lighter weights must be usually be employed--and it’s never a good idea to use highly technical movements, i.e. Olympic lifts.
Circuit training is fantastic for team building and camaraderie and is the most efficient way to train a large group at one time. Because of the lighter weights involved, people mistakenly assume circuit training doesn’t build strength per se, but even strength coaches have been surprised, on experimenting the first time with circuit training, that their athletes do, in fact get stronger.
Circuit training is not new, it was developed in the 1940’s by one Dr. Arthur Steinhaus, when he dubbed it Peripheral Heart Action(PHA). I first read about this as a kid, back in the 1960’s reading Bob Hoffman’s Strength & Health magazine, and Perry Rader’s IronMan. During this time there was a contemporary Mr. America, Bob Gajda, who built his world-class (obviously!) physique using the PHA system. Fascinating stuff! The guy not only looked unbelievable--he was also strong and fit. Bob Gajda ignored popular pump-oriented training focusing instead on training which shunted blood from one body area to another. This is done by partnering exercises working at one extremity with other exercises working the opposite end of the body, i.e. calf raises paired with bicep curls. Some refer to this type of workout as the anti-pump.
Another one of my favorite authors from the 1960’s, John McCallum, was also an advocate of the PHA system, writing about it in one of the all-time greatest fitness columns EVER, The Keys to Progress. McCallum especially advocated PHA training for us, err...ahem...older guys.
One reason for this preference is because with a lighter load, there’s less risk of injury. BUT...do not interpret that lighter loading means easier! While the joints and connective tissues are less stressed, the cardiovascular and systemic fatigue is pronounced. In other words, you get an incredible systemic ass-kicking. PHA is also ideal for guys who don’t care for standard cardio training for whatever time or boredom factors.
As Bob Gajda proved, one can develop enviable muscular hypertrophy from this type of program. Further (if coupled with a reasonable diet) one can maintain low levels of body fat. Coupled with a reducing diet, one can smoke the fat right off the ol’ corpus delicti.
So you see, circuit training offers many benefits:
- Muscular endurance
- Cardiovascular conditioning
- Respiratory conditioning (you’ll be huffing like a fire engine)
- Increased work capacity
- Increased pain tolerance
- Nullifies the need for an extra cardio program
I’ll share with you some my own history, starting back in the 1960s, with my wrestling coach, Bill Woods. Coach Woods was a hard-ass, showing little mercy to us punks. Looking back now, I see he was far ahead of his time and using vanguard techniques, putting us through every kind of circuit imaginable, some utilizing body weight alone. Later, I was involved in the Arthur Jones and Ellington Darden HIIT circuits. I was also strongly influenced by Kim Woods, former strength coach to the Cincinnati Bengals and father of John Wood. Then there was Dr. Ken Leistner, one of my favorite strength coach, authors and healers. All these guys used to advertise some brutal HIIT circuits.
I’ve trained on-and-off with circuits throughout my entire wrestling career, Hammer Strength and Brazilian jiu-jitsu days. I’ve performed circuits with body weight; Nautilus and Hammer Strength machines; barbells; dumbbells; kettlebells; sandbags; Bulgarian bags; my girlfriend’s body; my kids’ bodies; weighted vests; rocks; logs; chains; slosh pipes; sledge hammers; clubs and maces; gymnastic equipment--did I forget anything? Often, I’ll combine many items on the list.
On a side note, I find it interesting that much of the research on training on unstable surfaces never really panned out into real-world strength gains BUT that training with unstable, unwieldy objects on stable surfaces has proven time and again to improve real world strength in the arena of sports performance. How do I know this? As a 16 year old kid working for Zigler’s furniture moving company and Hall’s furniture store in downtown Carlisle PA! During my summer jobs I’d grab a Barcalounger and do overhead presses. I’d grab full sofas, put them on end and shoulder them and bearhug the console TV’s. For you young fellas, TVs at that time weren’t flat; they were bigger than chests of drawers and every bit as heavy, made out of heavy wood, old school oak--weighed a freakin ton, man--but I digress.
These days, I like lifting unwieldy objects in circuit fashion, with full-body exercises, challenging myself from head to toe.
Here are my current favorite ways to use circuits for health, fitness and hard fun.
Enjoy the videos! Circuits from 25 July 2010 Maxwell/Naturtraining Outdoor Weekend in beautiful upper Austria, much gratitude to Dominik Feischl
First off, the five-to-six station circuits, hitting the whole body, primarily with whole body moves. These are done sequentially, with little to no rest between stations, for one minute each. After a recovery of one half the circuit time, the circuit may be repeated 5-6 times, i.e., a 5-minute circuit = 2-1/2 min rest. This is an excellent way for BJJ players and wrestlers to train. The time/rest sequence is easily manipulated to mirror the stresses and energy systems required by the particular sport. For example, if I’m training a BJJ black belt, I’d make the circuit 10 minutes, and MMA fighter, the rest period would be 60-seconds. Intensity and exercise selection is easily regulated, altered or changed as well.
The second type of circuit I like are called metabolic pairings. With metabolic pairings, two exercises, either complementary or opposite--depending on the effect I’m trying for--are paired. For example, a rope climb can be paired with a dive bomber push-up. These are complementary in that they work opposing upper body muscle groups so while one group works, its opposite gets a respite. Another example is KB Swings coupled with goblet squats; in the hierarchy of movement classification, both are level changes, one involving posterior chain and the other, anterior chain, respectively. They make a fantastic metabolic pairing as both are metabolically taxing systemically, though opposite muscle groups are used.
Another form of metabolic pairings are pairing exercises of a similar nature, with one being more difficult, and one slightly easier. The first demands pure strength, the second, power and explosivity, e.g., a set of heavy front squats, immediately followed by explosive box, bench or vertical jumps. Or utilize a whole body move, like a double kettlebell snatch, followed by a sickening set of 6-count burpees.
A third type of circuit training I enjoy is the prolonged string circuit. These are especially fun because a wide variety of exercises can be strung together like a choo-choo train, with ever more wondrous possibilities as each exercise links to the next. Here, I’ll string together as many as twenty or more exercises, going through each a single time, one after the other. While the metabolic stress is high, the muscular stress is reduced, since you go through the stations only once, or perhaps twice. I recommend keeping these circuits to 40 minutes or less. Generally I organize these routines like this:
1. Upper body push
2. Upper body pull
3. Lower body
4. Core 5. Rotation
Always taking care to work the back as much as the abdomen.
A fourth type of circuit I enjoy is what I call a cardio super-circuit. In this circuit a strength exercise is inserted between bouts of cardio exercise. The choices of cardio can include anything that produces an elevated heart rate and breathless response, e.g., my personal favorite, rope skipping, which is closely followed by kettlebell swings and bouts of running.   That’s for the non-gym guys. Gym bunnies might also use the machines at their club, e.g., treadmill, stairclimber, rower, VersaClimber or the only machine I’ve ever endorsed: the Schwinn Airdyne (also beloved by Clarence Bass, another influence).
The way this works, you do anywhere from 30-seconds to 3 minutes of cardio, followed by 60-90 seconds of a strength exercise. I first encountered this training protocol from a former LA Rams football player. This guy had switched to Brazilian jiu-jitsu and was an endurance fiend. This guy would get on the mat and just. never. get. tired. but go and go and go, wearing out one opponent after another.
Another version of this type of circuit is what the old timers coined road work, wherein you go out for a run, alternating two minutes of running with one minute of strength exercise, continuing until the allotted goal time is up.
The fifth and final circuit style is a pure cardio circuit unto itself. This is good for those of you who have low attention spans and find prolonged bouts of running and biking insufferable. It’s been determined that as little as five minutes of cardiovascular exercise offers some benefits, BUT it must be of an intense nature in order to drive the heart rate. Moving at a slow pace does little to promote cardio fitness, though it can be a beneficial calorie burner.
Pick three to six of your favorite cardio activities and perform for five to ten minutes each in a single giant circuit. One of my favorite non-gym cardio circuits is:
10-minutes rope skip (40-sec on/20-sec off x 10)
KB Swing (40-sec on/20-sec off x 10)
10-minutes steady state run
10-minutes heavy bag work (2-min on/60-sec off x 5)
10-minutes KB Long Cycle/Clean & Jerk (changing hands as needed)
10-minutes steady state run
If you live near a large body of water, like a backyard pool, you can include a 10-minute swim. A rowing ergometer or Schwinn Airdyne are also excellent options. I have even walked up and down stairwells in high-rise hotels as part of this ever-adaptable circuit.
Most people have poorly developed endurance capacity in the upper body, so I always include this type of activity. Examples of upper body aerobic endurance exercises, besides rowing and swimming, are wood chopping, sledge hammer, Kettlebell snatch, long cycle, or jerks (I prefer single side as doubles are too systemically demanding in this case) and the little nown dumbbell vertical lift, championed by Dragan Radovik, which involves alternately curling and pressing a pair of dumbbells. This is a fantastic upper body endurance and cardio exercise. Radovik had an extremely muscled and chiseled physique and single-handedly out-lifted tag teams in challenges with 35 lb. dumbbells. This was his primary lift.
Like me, I think you’ll find circuit training extremely rewarding. Certainly it’s demanding. At my age, I no longer care to lift extremely heavy weights and I enjoy training with a wide variety of exercises and equipment. Further, I’m easily bored and circuit training is never staid. I enjoy excellent health and attribute much of this to my focus on circuit training, starting way back in those halcyon days at Carlisle High.
In other news, I’ve had a beef of cardio exercise in the past, even writing an anti-aerobics article, because of my disgust with what I saw around me at the time. Aerobic exercise performed without a commensurate amount of strength training is definitely a step in the wrong direction. Extremely prolonged endurance training certainly has a catabolic effect on the body. Frequently, endurance athletes overtrain and beat their bodies into a twisted mess. Observe any group of marathoners or triathletes, even elite ones, and you’ll see a horrific parade of postural abnormalities and imbalances, not to mention the tightest bodies imaginable. My advice to anyone attracted to endurance sports: weight train twice a week with heavy weights; do joint mobility on a daily basis and attend a proper yoga class three times a week. If you don’t like aerobic endurance sports, do as I do: circuit training!
In Strength & Health!
In other news: It’s time for the fall seminars and certifications!
28 August: Kettlebell and Joint Mobility Seminar, Portland OR
2/3 October: Kettlebell Level 1, Edmond OK
10 October: Body Weight and Joint Mobility Seminar, Seattle WA
16/17 October: Kettlebell Level 1, Philadelphia PA 16/17 October
Ring in the era of iSteve!
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