Applications of Circuit Training: Fatigue Management Strategies for Bodybuilders

When I teach acute training parameters in seminars across the USA, a very common question regards which exercise to do first, second, third, etc., in any given workout. Traditional wisdom says to do whatever exercise is most important first, since fatigue accumulates over the course of the workout. While I agree, there is a much more refined way to address the problem of accumulating fatigue, and it’s called circuit training.

Of course, whenever one uses the term “circuit training,” serious lifters often conjure up images of PACE classes which are used in Gold’s Gym’s across the World. PACE is in fact a form of circuit training, but it’s simply one variant out of hundreds, and it unfortunately leads serious trainees to assume that circuit training is more appropriate for the “chrome & fern crowd” than it is for dedicated, experienced weight trainers.

I’m here to tell you that circuit training is a tool that will improve your workouts regardless of your experience level, and I’ll show you exactly how. I don’t care if it’s your first day in the gym, or if you are a dedicated athlete finally closing in on a 500 pound squat, circuit training will get you toward your goals faster than any other alternative.

What Exactly is Circuit Training?
To most fitness enthusiasts, circuit training (I’ll abbreviate it to “CT” from here on out) is thought of as a method of integrating resistance and aerobic exercise by performing several (9 to 12) exercises in “vertical” progression (meaning you perform one set of each exercise on the workout “menu” until all have been completed, as opposed to finishing all sets of the first exercise before progressing to the second exercise, and so on) with little or no rest between exercises. The supposed benefit of this type of exercise is you’ll improve aerobic and anaerobic functioning at the same time.

Unfortunately, this narrow definition has done a disservice to CT and to those who have dismissed this method as an ineffective fringe variant used by only the profoundly unfit as a way of regaining some semblance of fitness. In truth, CT has much to offer, for weight trainers at all levels, if you’ll allow for a slightly broader definition of the term and a bit of creative application.

First, CT is NOT defined by the number of reps per set, the length of rests between sets, the number of exercises performed, or even the exercises chosen. It is defined by the fact that you progress from one exercise “station” to another in sequence, until the entire circuit of stations has been completed. You then continue until you have completed the prescribed number of circuits.

(Incidentally, “non-circuit training” is any exercise format where you complete all prescribed sets of a particular exercise before moving on to the next exercise.)

If you were to conduct a poll of weight trainers, you’d find that between 90 and 98 percent use “non-circuit” training. This is unfortunate, when you consider the enormous benefits of CT, which I’ll describe in detail.

Macro and Micro Circuits
Within the context of CT, there are actually two distinct ways that you can organize any training session: macro or micro circuits.

The macro circuit is what most people mean when they think of CT: you simply perform one set of each planned exercise in the circuit, and then repeat for the desired number of circuits.

The is another way to perform CT, however. It’s called micro circuits: here, you break up the circuit into several small circuits of 2-3 exercises each, and then repeat for the desired number of circuits. For example, if you have planned to perform 4 exercises, do the first 2 circuit style until all planned sets are completed, then finish off the second two in the same manner.

Benefits of CT
No exercise method is perfect of course (if there was such a thing, I would have discovered it by my 13th birthday!), but CT is about as close as you can get. Compared to the alternatives, CT is more efficient, more motivational, and far more versatile. Here’s a quick run-down of CT’s assets:

CT allows for more work to be done in the same time frame. For example, let’s imagine that you’re performing dumbbell incline presses and close grip lat pulldowns. Let’s further assume that each set takes 30 seconds to complete, and that you’re resting 2.5 minutes between sets.

If you perform this workout “non-circuit” style as most people do, you’re getting 2.5 minutes rest between sets of whichever exercise you’re doing.

But if you perform this session CT style, you’d perform one set of incline presses, rest, then do a set of pulldowns, rest, and so on. Here, you’re obtaining 5.5 minutes of rest between two sets of the same exercise! This is more than double the rest, yet your total exercise duration does not increase. Now it is true that you’re still doing a set every 2.5 minutes, but fatigue from different exercises, particularly if they are for different muscle groups, tends to be specific. This means that even though you may still be too fatigued to accomplish another set of the same exercise, you will still be able to complete a set for another exercise. For this reason, CT is clearly a better way of managing fatigue through the workout.

If you arrange your exercises stations in antagonistic fashion (i.e., a hamstring exercise is followed by a quadriceps exercise), you’ll further enhance the efficiency of CT through a principle known as reciprocal inhibition: since muscles work in antagonistic pairs, when you perform a set for the agonist (in this case, the hamstring), the antagonist (quadriceps) achieves a better contraction because the hamstrings are too fatigued to oppose it.

For many people, “sampling” from each item on the menu is more satisfying than simply finishing off your swordfish, then your rice pilaf, then your veggies, and so on. Similarly, in a work environment, it’s more productive to alternate between tasks than it is to spend a huge block of time on a single task.

Training is no different. Somehow, it’s intrinsically more satisfying to move from exercise to exercise as opposed to “slugging it out” on a single exercise until it’s finished.

CT can be integrated with your favorite training techniques, such as rest-pause training, drop sets, eccentric training, you name it. You can also use any exercise you wish, including free weights, machines, plyometrics, Olympic lifts, whatever is appropriate given your particular circumstances. CT accommodates all set/rep schemes as well.

CT also works well in non-gym environments, such as the high school track (where you can create circuits consisting of sprints, jumps, and throws) or a community park (where your circuit might contain pull-ups, sit-ups, push-ups, lunges, short sprints, and so forth).

For all the benefits of CT, there are a few drawbacks as well, but most can be solved with a bit of creativity and imagination.

For technical exercises such as the Olympic lifts, which demand a very refined sense of timing and coordination, CT should not be used, at least during competition preparation cycles. This is because the enormous effort and specific coordination involved in executing say, a snatch, would have a negative transfer to something like a clean & jerk when both lifts are performed in CT style. Nevertheless, CT remains an effective training option for Olympic lifters in the early preparatory phase of their training.

Another possible problem: in crowded gyms, you may find someone has “stolen” your next station while you performing the last exercise. Although this can usually be solved by simply waiting until the station is available, you can get around this by doing “micro circuits” where you’re only going back and forth between two machines. Or, simply make a quick substitution “on the fly,” such as substituting a machine bench press for a dumbbell bench press.

In Part 2 of “Creative Applications of Circuit Training: Fatigue Management Strategies for Bodybuilders” you will learn how to adapt circuit training methods for your specific goals. We’ll have detailed circuit training workouts to help you build strength, power, size and even performance.

Circuit Training (CT) for Various Objectives – I’ve put together several sample circuits for different objectives such as maximal strength development, lean mass gain, and explosive strength development. Please use these examples as templates from which you can create your own solutions, rather than viewing them as the “Holy Grail” of CT. In other words, when I point the way, you shouldn’t be looking at my finger!

CT for Strength Development
Although many bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts may be inclined to skip this section, let me remind you that strength and lean mass gain have a symbiotic relationship— they each depend on the other.

Think of strength training as developing the neural aspect of the neuromuscular system, and mass training as augmenting the muscular portion of that system— both aspects must be addressed if you want to make maximal progress.

When you’re training for maximal strength development, emphasize the following points:

1) Choose multi-joint exercises rather than single joint (or “isolation” exercises). This allows for recruitment of large amounts of muscles, and it will also help to encourage better “inter-muscular coordination,” or cooperation of various muscles toward the completion of a motor task.

Also, multi-joint exercises tend to have larger ranges of motion, and thus, are more suited to maximal strength training because they allow you to accelerate through the “sticking point” of the exercise (discussed below in point #3)

2) Select relatively high intensities— those which permit between 1-4 repetitions per set. TENSION, not fatigue, is the goal when training for strength. Never sacrifice the former for the latter.

3) Accelerate through the sticking point of the exercise. In any loaded movement, it is your strength through the sticking point— that narrow region where your leverages are worst— that really determines whether or not you succeed.

4) Do a relatively high number of sets. Strength training is a form of motor learning, and a key aspect of all forms of learning is practice through repetition. Since strength training requires a low number of reps per set, you’ll need to compensate by using more sets (usually between 3-8 sets per exercise).

5) Keep fatigue to a minimum, both during and between sets. Even though you might be performing 2 reps per set, you’re not reaching failure on the last rep. The idea is to “keep some speed on the bar.” Training to failure creates a quick build-up of lactic acid and other waste products which are thought to inhibit the nervous system from engaging high-threshold muscle fibers. With these facts in mind, I normally suggest between 3-5 minutes rest between sets of the same exercise when training for strength. This time frame ensures replenishment of energy stores and dissipation of lactic acid. With CT, you can reduce this suggested rest interval by 50 percent.

Smaller, weaker, less experienced lifters should opt toward the lesser end of that range, while bigger, stronger, more experienced athletes should opt for the greater end.

A Three Week CT Program for Maximal Strength Development
Here’s an example of how CT can be applied to strength training with fantastic results. I’ve used many variations of this scheme with athletes from many sports, and it never disappoints!

1: Flat Bench Press
2: Stiff-leg Deadlift
3: Seated Low Cable Hammer Curl

NOTES: Position a bench perpendicular to a low cable pulley. Attach a triceps rope to the low cable. Sit on the bench and brace your feet against the low support brackets of the cable machine. Grasp the rope with a thumbs up grip, lean back about 45 degrees, stabilize your elbows against your sides, and perform the hammer curl.

4: Machine Seated Row

1: Front Squat
2: Military Press
3: Swiss Ball Reverse Trunk Twist
4: Barbell Curl

1: Chins
2: Close-grip Bench Press
3: Dumbbell Shrugs
4: Back Extensions

Training parameters and progressions:
  • (Perform all sets in an acellerative style— explode through the sticking point).
  • Week one: Perform 4 circuits 4-6 reps per set. Rest 150 seconds between sets.
  • Week two: Perform 5 circuits 3-5 reps per set. Rest 120 seconds between sets.
  • Week three: Perform 6 circuits 2-4 reps per set. Rest 90 seconds between sets.

CT for Increased Lean Mass

When training for maximal muscle growth, the most important concept is to thoroughly exhaust the muscle being trained. The following guidelines will help ensure that you’re doing it right:

1. Choose a wide range of exercises in order to fatigue the largest possible muscular regions

2. Select a moderate number of repetitions and keep tension on the muscle at all times. This is in stark contrast to the exercise technique I suggested for strength training above, and it is certainly more familiar to experienced bodybuilders.

3. Perform a moderate number of sets— generally between 2-4 per exercise, and normally no more than 16 “work sets” per workout.

CT for the Chronologically-challenged
This is a personal favorite of mine when time is tight and I need an utterly efficient total body training cycle. There’s barely a gram of muscle that isn’t torched by this program — the next day, you won’t know what part of your body hurts the worst!

1) Pull-up
2) Bench Press
3) Back Squat

1) 45-degree Incline Dumbbell Curl
2) Barbell Shrug
3) Lying Dumbbell Tricep Extension

1) Back Extensions
2) Donkey Calf Raise
3) Ball Crunch


Week 1:

Perform 6-8 reps of each exercise, for a total of 4 circuits. Rest 2 minutes between exercises, and 3 minutes between circuits. Use a constant weight for each exercise for all 4 sets.

Week 2:

Perform 3-5 reps of each exercise, for a total of 5 circuits. Rest 3 minutes between exercises, and 5 minutes between circuits. Use a constant weight for each exercise for all 5 sets.

Week 3:

Perform 8-10 reps of each exercise, for a total of 4 circuits. Rest 1.5 minutes between exercises, and 3 minutes between circuits. Use a constant weight for each exercise for all 4 sets.

CT for Explosive Strength Development
Although speed strength training might seem a bit “paranormal” to bodybuilders, it’s a great way to “wake up” your nervous system, and the gains you’ll experience from this type of training will definitely transfer to your more important goals— namely, improving your body composition. Some of these drills are modifications of the classical Olympic lifts, which require some instruction at first. I strongly recommend Art Drechsler’s The Weightlifting Encyclopedia if you’re interested in learning these very productive exercises.

Monday (at the track)
1: Clapping Push-ups
2: 20 yard sprint
3: Seated Low Cable Hammer Curl

1: Snatch Pull
2: Push Press
3: Swiss Ball Reverse Trunk Twist

1: Power Clean
2: Close-grip Bench Press
3: Back squats

Training parameters and progressions:
  • (perform all sets in an acellerative style— explode through the sticking point)
  • Week one: Perform 5 circuits 3-5 reps per set. Rest 150 seconds between sets.
  • Week two: Perform 5 circuits 3-5 reps per set. Rest 120 seconds between sets.
  • Week three: Perform 5 circuits 3-5 reps per set. Rest 90 seconds between sets.

Final Comments
I hope I’ve made a strong case for the value of CT in your own training. I’m so convinced of it’s value that CT is a key feature of the strength training programs I write for my clients who pay me to get them in the best possible shape as fast and safely as possible. Why not put the information you’ve just gained into immediate use, and construct a six week CT plan for your next training cycle? I’ll bet my reputation as a strength specialist that it’ll be the most productive six weeks of training you’ve ever experienced!