Short Circuit

Bill Starr

Quick-Hit Circuit Training Can Spark New Results

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There are several good reasons for using the circuit system of training, at least for part of the year. Whenever I suggest that someone try using a circuit for a while, he generally assumes that I mean working out on a series of machines. Not exactly. While machines can be used quite effectively for circuit training, so can free weights, both barbells and dumbbells, as well as a combination of free weights and various machines.

Most athletes decide to employ the circuit system rather than another training method because they’re short on time. Instead of having to spend an hour and a half in the weight room, they can zip through a circuit in one-third the usual training time.

Another big plus of the circuit system is that when you do it properly, you work the muscles and corresponding attachments of the body proportionately. That makes circuit training ideal for beginners, older athletes, those who train to maintain a high level of fitness, women and youngsters.

The main reason it is particularly beneficial to anyone just starting a weight-training routine is that it doesn’t let one area move too far ahead of any other. Maintaining a balance between bodyparts is necessary at all levels, but especially in the beginning, when you establish the foundation for all future gains.

The circuit is equally useful to those getting back into heavy training after an extended layoff. People in that group are very anxious to return to lifting their former numbers on all the exercises, and they attack the weights too rapidly. They don’t allot sufficient time for muscle groups that respond at a slower rate than others. When a certain bodypart starts to lag way behind, sore spots, dings and troublesome injuries start occurring. Everyone fully understands that nothing hinders progress more than an injury.

An overlooked positive side effect of using the circuit system is that it can enhance cardiovascular and respiratory capacity while improving strength—if, that is, you move through the workout quickly. That’s the key. You must move from station to station with little or no rest in between.

The accepted guideline for an aerobic activity is that your pulse rate must be elevated to 60 to 90 percent of maximum, with age and level of fitness the determining factors, and held there for a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes, depending on which authority you agree with. I happen to like the longer period, and most workouts take at least a half hour. You can meet both of those conditions easily by doing a circuit on the machines or with free weights—or by mixing the two.

Machines let you change resistance much faster than you can with free weights—unless you’re using dumbbells and have a long row of them at your disposal. The downside is that machines are not as effective in building strength in the attachments, and in most fitness facilities the machines you want to use are generally the most popular. If you have to wait around for an extended period, you lose the aerobic edge.

If you train at home, setting up several stations and moving through them in a fast pace poses no problem. However, if you train in a commercial facility, you may often find it difficult to perform a circuit because you can’t control the environment. One way around that is to train when there’s slow traffic in the gym.

Whenever I wanted to get in a quick workout and planned on doing a circuit, I’d get to the weight room at 2:30 or three in the afternoon. The crowd didn’t show up till after four, which left me ample time to set up my stations and zip through my routine.

A circuit that emphasizes strength will improve all levels of fitness, including endurance, even if you choose not to hurry through the session. That’s another reason I like a circuit for youngsters. While they’re getting stronger, they’re also improving their aerobic capacities. I know that’s true because I’ve observed it countless times.

I was staying with Lani Bal in Carmel, California. I ran twice a week and lifted four days a week. Lani expressed a desire to start training with me. Back home on Maui, he frequently hiked through Haleakala crater and lava tubes down the mountain to Hana, a grueling trek of more than 20 miles through jungle and some treacherous terrain. He wanted to improve his overall strength as well as his cardiovascular base, since he often carried a heavy pack.