Rewiring the Circuit

Sticking to the fundamentals isn’t a bad thing. Get back to your circuit training roots to get growing again with these straightforward routines.

A few truisms with regard to circuit training. First of all, circuits aren’t just for beginners. Although this is where the relationship with lifting starts for many lifters, it doesn’t have to end there. Secondly, you can continue to effect positive changes in body composition with basic circuit training principles. Lastly, circuit training isn’t confined to machine row. It’s just as easy to take your rest-minimal, consecutive moves approach to the free-weight section of the gym. In fact, doing so can actually be the boredom break that your body has been craving.

Training consecutive exercises without rest is the ultimate in performance training but with amazing body-shaping benefits. Not only does the lack of rest help you chew up more oxygen and burn more calories but the use of mainly multi-joint exercises helps to improve your metabolism and your anabolic profile. So what’s not to like? Try this simple but effective retro-take on circuit training and put it to work for you.

Muscle Machinery
Circuit training with machines holds value for lifters of all skill levels. When you’re just starting out, these machines help to build the mind-muscle connection necessary to prosper with free weight exercises. And since most of your early gains are neurological – not physiological – it’s good to make progress rapidly in the safety of circuit row, adding weight and reducing weight much faster than you might several years down the road.

But for more seasoned lifters, you can always take what you’ve learned and bring it back to this part of the gym…forever. You’re never too good for the machines, bro. Remember, machines allow you to go as heavy as you want, sans training partner, and by simply adjusting the weight loads you can still train for multiple goals – strength, size or fat loss – getting in and out of the gym in less time. Oh, and it’s a particularly nice break for those whose routines have grown stale or familiar.

For beginners and those looking to start training again after a break, circuit training is especially effective. The use of machines allows you to work through a predetermined range of motion and the exercise order allows for optimum muscle recovery. The 15-rep range helps to build muscular endurance while allowing newer lifters to develop some muscle memory with these basic movement patterns. Aim for weight loads that bring about failure at 15 reps – where you struggle through the final rep or two. If you can do 16, you’ve gone too light.

Hack Squat Machine: 15 Reps
Machine Bench Press: 15 Reps
Machine Row: 15 Reps
Machine Overhead Press: 15 Reps
Machine Curl: 15 Reps
Machine Triceps Extension: 15 Reps
Machine Crunch: 15 Reps

Next Step: Repeat the entire circuit 2-3 times, resting no more than one minute between circuits. When you can complete three easily, go heavier to approach failure at the same rep range and/or add 1-2 bodyweight exercises to the tail end of this circuit. We’d recommend bodyweight squats and push-ups.

Machine training does not equal “light” training. In fact, machines allow you train heavy and safely without the use of a spotter, which leads to greater gains in strength and size. For example, one study from Drake University (Des Moines, Iowa) reported that trained lifters were about 4% stronger on the Smith machine squat as opposed to the free-weight version, even though the squat burns more calories due to the increase in stabilizer engagement.

But this protocol will also help you in the metabolism department. Research shows that shorter rest periods between heavy sets helped lifters burn 50 percent more calories during the workout than those who rested three minutes. So go big and go brisk for max results. All you have to do is adjust the resistance accordingly.

Leg Press: 5-7 Reps
Machine Bench Press: 5-7 Reps
Machine Row: 5-7 Reps
Machine Overhead Press: 5-7 Reps
Machine Preacher Curl: 5-7 Reps
Machine Triceps Extension: 5-7 Reps
Machine Crunch: 10 Reps

Next Step: Repeat the entire circuit three times total, aiming to keep rest periods to 60-90 seconds between exercises. Rest up to three minutes between circuits. Aim to keep your weight loads set so that you can complete at least seven reps the first time through. Fatigue will bring your rep counts down as your workout progresses. To increase difficulty, keep the rest periods shorter than 60 seconds between exercises and shorter than 90 seconds between circuits.

The lines between heavy and light training were blurred by a recent study that showed subjects doing high-rep sets (~30 reps) to failure enjoyed gains in muscle size similar to a heavy (6-8 reps) training group. The higher volume, of course, is an aerobic challenge that produces a higher calorie burn per workout, getting and keeping you lean in the process.

Leg Press: 30 Reps
Machine Bench Press: 30 Reps
Machine Row: 30 Reps
Machine Overhead Press: 30 Reps
Machine Preacher Curl: 30 Reps
Machine Triceps Extension: 30 Reps
Machine Crunch: 30 Reps

Next Step: Challenge yourself to go as heavy as you can for these higher-rep loads. If you fail before 30 reps, simply pause for as many seconds as reps remaining and continue. Repeat as many times as necessary to reach 30, and adjust weight loads down for the next round for a true 30. Rest 1-2 minutes between circuits and aim for 3-4 circuits total to maximize calorie burn.

Eric Velazquez, NSCA-CPT: Previously a Senior Editor with M&F’s print publication and Senior Online Editor for the M&F website, Eric has authored and co-authored hundreds of articles on training, nutrition and supplementation, carving a particular niche in the realm of participatory fitness journalism.

A former college athlete, Eric trained like a boxer for 12 weeks, spent six weeks embedded in the intense world of CrossFit, wrestled with UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir, practiced hand-to-hand combat with Army Rangers and trained side-by-side with then-Angels leadoff hitter Chone Figgins — all in the name of providing readers with a more visceral, entertaining brand of service.

He has also written features on boxing heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, baseball slugger Albert Pujols, wrestling star and actor John Cena, and female mixed martial artist Gina Carano. Eric has always had a particular interest in the training programs used by tactical athletes, which often border on the extreme.

His profile on the workouts employed by instructors at Army Combatives School was nominated for a Maggie Award by the Western Publishing Association in 2009. He did a three-day media embed aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, as it conducted operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in the Gulf of Oman in 2008.

Eric also wrote the cover story on former UFC standout and Silver Star recipient Brian Stann and a feature on the U.S. Army’s new training methodology in M&F’s 2013 military issue. A married father of two, Eric does all of his training at home, opting for more intense, equipment-minimal routines to save on time.

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.