For many a first-time gym-goer, the journey to a stronger, fitter body began at some rudimentary circuit — some neatly sequestered, dated set of machines that provided a safe, controlled introduction to the wide world of resistance training. And after training a few movement patterns, it was time to take that newfound strength to the free-weight area. From this point, most people never look back — circuit training is forever associated with newbie status and is therefore mothballed.
But circuits still hold as much utility as they ever did. You just have to be willing to think beyond the innocuous confines of that initial bank of machines. With a little creativity, you can rekindle your relationship with circuits, adding heaps of new muscle and stripping your body of unwanted fat in less time.
Your initial foray into circuit training wasn’t just some willy-nilly, haphazard way to get you training, even if it was recommended to you by some pushy salesman in a red polo. There’s a method to the madness. Although circuit newbs are welcome to take the exercises at their own pace, the near-universal recommendation is to complete a certain amount of reps — generally 10 — then move as quickly as possible to the next station. This process is repeated until the entire circuit is completed. A circuit usually comprises eight to 10 exercises, one for each muscle group.
By keeping your resistance and rep counts in known hypertrophy ranges and pairing that with relatively short rest periods (about 30 seconds), you could see improvements in strength, muscle size and stamina. The best of most worlds.
It is worth noting that although dedicated circuit trainers will never win a deadlift competition or the CrossFit Games, they will experience appreciable improvements across multiple domains of fitness. One of the greatest benefits? A welcome departure from the usual lift-things-up-and-put-them-down approach that can be so painfully repetitive.
While circuits are great, machine training has plenty of limitations, chief among them being that machines work in a preset range of motion — one that neglects your body’s natural movement. With free weights, movement usually occurs in subtle arcs; very few movements occur in straight lines. This means that with machines you’re missing out biomechanically, leaving you vulnerable to strength gaps and imbalances, and impeding your ability to move athletically in multiple dimensions.
Another big drawback? Doing the same 10 exercises three times a week is the lifter’s equivalent to filling out those TPS reports for Bill Lumbergh — just agonizingly boring. In order to progress, you have to incrementally introduce new challenges to your body. That means new movements, shorter rest periods, advanced techniques, new exercise pairings, different equipment and other variables that can rejuvenate an ailing gym life and stoke new and exciting changes in the mirror. Revisiting circuit training can help you do that.
But as a more experienced lifter, you are likely proficient with multiple forms of exercise and equipment and your own bodyweight. This opens up a whole new world in the training variety department. However, when trying to circuit train away from your gym’s “machine row” — especially during the facility’s rush hour — you have to be wary of equipment usage (yours and others’). You don’t want to hog the 30-pound dumbbells for a half-hour while you’re whizzing through your eighth or ninth round. That’s why it pays to break up your circuit work into several smaller-but-strategic circuits that take equipment use into account, keeping you in the good graces of those you share the floor with.
Rewiring Your Circuitry
These four short circuits can be done individually as add-ons at the end of a workout or they can be strung together — as many or as few as you’d like — to create a supercircuit of epic, sweat-soaked magnitude.
Perform each circuit three or four times through. Rest no longer than 30 seconds between circuits.
The venerable kettlebell is one of the most valuable (and fun) workout tools to come into wide use in recent memory. In this circuit, you’ll start out with a simple two-hand kettlebell swing. The explosive nature of this hip hinge calls for a high degree of energy, which is why it comes first. This exercise targets your glute-ham tie-in while strengthening the whole of your posterior chain musculature. The upright positioning of the body during the goblet squat emphasizes your quads while also taxing the deep stabilizing muscles of your core, which is what makes it a good second move. The half Turkish get-up we’re recommending isn’t textbook — this variation is essentially a single-sided, weighted crunch, calling for you to flex your midsection to lift your shoulder blades off the ground as high as possible. This imbalance places a high (and unfamiliar) demand on your obliques.
In the interest of furthering the global arms race, we’re offering up this circuit-based arm routine for an out-of-this-world shock to lagging biceps. The supine dumbbell curl places you in a position similar to the preacher curl but without the stabilizing comfort of the bench. With your elbows hanging freely below the level of the bench, you are forced to stabilize your arms in place, thereby necessitating more deliberate, controlled reps. This move, which is akin to a Scott curl, places greater emphasis on the inner head of the biceps. The familiar seated dumbbell curl, which is the strongest move for many avid curlers, is a bit more of a challenge as the second move in this circuit. Finally, the two-arm row — which is obviously targeting your back — requires additional elbow flexion, only now in concert with other pulling muscles. It’s the perfect finish for a small-but-mighty biceps circuit.
Supine Dumbbell Curl 10
Seated Dumbbell Curl 10
Two-Arm Dumbbell Row 10
The barbell is the undisputed king of strength and size development when it comes to gym equipment. Here, we’ll call for the judicious use of three key exercises that hit your body from head to toe. Leading off, of course, is the barbell squat. This staple mass builder requires a great deal of energy because of how much musculature is involved. With an emphasis on the large muscles of the hips, quads and low back, the squat should be done with a weight that you can handle for 15 to 20 total reps. This should put you within range of a good overhead pressing weight — if it doesn’t, make a quick adjustment down or have another fixed barbell at the ready. Standing overhead presses aren’t just about bigger delts — the standing position requires laser-like focus and a rock-solid core in order to complete your reps cleanly and without catastrophic injury, even at moderate weight loads. The good morning finishes off your now-tender lower back and reinforces the hinging movement that you’ve been practicing with kettlebell swings.
Bodyweight is your best friend. After rolling through your weight work, you can confidently abandon all equipment (not including a pull-up bar) for this circuit. The pull-up, which should be worked on year-round regardless of goals, comes first. Perform 10 clean pull-ups using any grip that you’d like, then move immediately into 10 plyo push-ups. On each push-up, it is vital to transfer as much force as possible through the floor in order to maximize height and fast-twitch muscle recruitment. You’ll finish with 10 big jump squats before resting 30 seconds and repeating the circuit.
The venerable kettlebell is one of the most valuable (and fun) workout tools to come into wide use in recent memory. In this circuit, you’ll start with a simple two-hand kettlebell swing. The explosive nature of this hip hinge calls for a high degree of energy, which is why it comes first. This exercise targets your glute-ham tie-in while strengthening the whole of your posterior chain musculature. The upright positioning of the body during the goblet squat emphasizes your quads while also taxing the deep stabilizing muscles of your core, which is what makes it a good second move. The half Turkish get-up we’re recommending isn’t textbook — this variation is essentially a single-sided, weighted crunch, calling for you to flex your midsection to lift your shoulder blades off the ground as high as possible. This imbalance places a high (and unfamiliar) demand on your obliques.
Kettlebell Swing 10
Goblet Squat 10
Half Turkish Get-Up 10 (each side)