How to make better circuits

If you visit Notre Dame High School you will see we are big fans of circuits. Martin and I put together a video on leg circuits last year, and that is just one category of circuits we use. In this article I am going to give you an idea on how I set up and structure circuits we use in training.

» Related content: Vern Gambetta shares his approach to circuit training and favorite circuits in our latest member video.

What is a circuit?

First off, we need to define the parameters. What exactly is a circuit in my system? I like to think of exercise combinations as follows:

  • 1 movement is an exercise;
  • 2 movements put together is a superset;
  • 3 movements put together are a module; and
  • 4 or more movements put together is what I define as a circuit.

And after you know what a circuit is, you have to understand what you’ll be using it for before you can put together a killer circuit. You have to be careful not to overlook this point. What I mean by this is that just because you get an athlete tired does not make them any better at their sport. In my system they serve several purposes:

  1. General fitness;
  2. Part of an active recovery day; or
  3. Strength/power endurance.

Using circuits for general fitness

When using circuits for general fitness I use a specific template. I rotate 3 different categories of movements. An upper body movement, a core movement, and a lower body movement. Therefore, I cover all the bases. The circuit will go through each category several times and we will also attack all three of the planes: sagittal, frontal, and transverse.

Occasionally, I will incorporate a cardio component either after every movement or after every 3 movements. This can be biking, rowing, jump rope, or running. When doing this I set each movement by time. For example, we may go 45 seconds on 15 seconds off. Or for the weightlifting movements we may go three movements in a row for 45 seconds on and 15 seconds off followed by 60 seconds of a cardio movement. That might look like this:

  • Round 1 (sagittal)
    • Upper body: Pull-up (45 seconds on, 15 seconds off)
    • Core sagittal: V-up (45 seconds on, 15 seconds off)
    • Lower body sagittal: Dumbbell front squat (45 seconds on, 15 seconds off)
    • Jump rope (60 seconds)
  • Round 2 (transverse)
    • Upper body: Push-up (45 seconds on, 15 seconds off)
    • Core movement transverse: Split Jack Figure 8s (45 seconds on, 15 seconds off)
    • Lower body transverse: rotational step-up (45 seconds on, 15 seconds off)
    • Jump rope (60 seconds)
  • Round 3 (frontal)

This approach can also be used for the general population. However, when developing a circuits for the general population I feel you have more options. Earlier I kind of downgraded working for the sake of getting tired. Doing burpees, mountain climbers, etc within your athletic team circuits aren’t the best option because I feel they don’t make you better at anything for your specific sport. However, when developing circuits for the general population I definitely think you can and should use these types of movements. They can add variety and uniqueness to your client’s training. When working with the general population I use a bunch of different things I may not use with athletes. Things like farmer’s walk and bottoms up waiter’s carry, extra heavy sled pushes or sled drags. Basically the sky’s the limit with how creative you can be when working with the general population.

Using circuits for an active recovery

Every week we normally have one day in which we call active rest or active recovery. This can be following a game or possibly two hard training days in a row. In this case I pick an explosive movement (normally with a medicine ball), a bilateral leg movement, a unilateral leg movement, upper body movement, 3 different core movements that take place on different planes, and a back stabilization movement. We set the reps between 8-10 reps each and do 3-5 sets. No rest between movements and 3 minutes between sets. All movements are done with no resistance or using a med ball (3-5K). A typical circuit for a day like this looks like:

Throughout the year the movements will progress in difficulty when appropriate.

Using circuits for strength/power endurance

Finally, circuits can be a great tool for strength and power endurance. Rather than focusing on the volume, more attention is paid to the quality of the movement.

To do this, exercise selection and manipulating the work:rest ratios are key. We will choose more dynamic exercises with higher power outputs. The work:rest ratios will also move from 3:1 down to 1:1.

Key examples here are our leg circuits and med ball circuits. With dynamic exercises they both encourage longer durations of high power output. But utilizing several exercises or variations in the circuit, you are able to maintain high power longer than you would by just repeating the same exercise for a minute. Longer rest periods also keeps the quality high. Take an example from the half leg circuit. By using the right exercises and focusing on tempo, everything is very dynamic. We will start out with three sets of the following routine, with each exercises done continuously:

The rest period after each set will equal the amount of work time. If it took 50 seconds to complete the exercises, the athlete will then get 50 seconds of rest.

Conclusion

Circuits can be used for many different purposes. However, I have broken mine up into three different types: general fitness, active recovery, and strength/power endurance. By understanding the categories better I hope I was able to give you a few different ideas on how to set up or create circuits for different circumstances.