Zen and the Art of Circuit Training

The Art of Circuit Training
At first, it seems so easy.

You join a gym, full of fire and determination. This time is going to be different, you say. You will stay the course, spend hours in the gym every week, and by Summer you will have a physique that will make the Greek Gods weep with envy.

Two months later, you are looking at the clock, comparing it to your day’s schedule, and wincing. Maybe you don’t really have time to go to the gym today…

Thus begins the slow slide into skipped gym visits, dietary shortcuts, and growing malaise. By Memorial Day, you have gained ten pounds and refuse to take your shirt off poolside.

What went wrong? You over-committed and underdelivered. The oldest story in the history of mankind.

So, how about a different approach? It is only April, after all – there is still time to rescue yourself from Summer Body Failure.

Consider, instead, circuit training.

Defining the Circle

Long looked down on by weight-lifting purists, circuit training is slowly gaining a positive reputation. The idea that you can do something positive for yourself with only half an hour invested each day seems too good to be true, yes?

Let me clue you in on a little secret: spending half an hour at the gym (or in any kind of exercise) consistently beats multi-hour workouts that you fail to work into your schedule. Every single time. The #1 key to movement is to keep moving. It is as simple as that.

So, just ignore the powerlifters and the marathon runners for now. All we are trying to do here is build a foundation. Especially us bariatric patients: we have no real idea how to go from being glued to a couch 18 hours a day to spending 18 hours a week at a gym, right? Circuit training is a great step into regular exercise that can actually produce comprehensive results.

So, what the heck is circuit training, anyway?

Performing The Circuit

So, first: there are several kinds of circuit training, including ones that involve working out in your home or office using only your own body weight as resistance. We won’t be tackling those here, but are instead focusing on in-gym, machine-based circuit training. Why? Because bariatric patients (like myself) usually need some additional assistance getting started. This requires a gym membership. Ask your current gym (Or the gyms you are evaluating) about their circuit training availability.

At its most basic level, circuit training (at a gym) involves hitting a series of weight machines in a row, one after another. Between time spent on each machine is a brief rest period, followed by a short period of cardio exercise. The circuit will involve 10 machines, 10 cardio periods, and 20 30-second “rest” periods. When you’ve arrived back at the first machine, you have completed a single “circuit”, in 30 minutes or so.

And, let’s face facts: the person who states they cant carve 60 minutes out of their day (factoring in half an hour getting to and from the gym) to exercise is either lying or needs schedule prioritization help beyond the scope of this article. Cut one hour of television viewing out of your schedule a day and you instantly have enough time to get this done. Surely you can live without viewing the latest reboot of Lost In Space in the name of your health, yes?

So, denials aside, you jump into the “circuit” at an open machine, then follow the circle around for half an hour. Then you grab your gym bag and go home. Do this 2-3 times a week and you’ll see noticeable results within a month. Guaranteed.

So, what’s the catch? (Because there is always a catch.) There are a few ways to sabotage yourself, even with something as simple as following a pre-defined progression.  Let’s look a little deeper, then, into the mechanics of circuit training…

Introduction to Circuit Training

1. Whole Body Focus:

The secret to circuit training is that the “circuit” hits every single major muscle group in your body. The one I currently use (And yes, I do circuit training when pressed for time) goes through the following progression: Seated Leg Press, Leg Extension, Leg Curl, Seated Bench Press, Lat Pulldown, Seated Row, Shoulder Press, Bicep Curl, Tricep Extension, and *Crunch. (More on Crunches later.) This group of exercises touches every major muscle group in your body.

2. Cardio:

Between each machine is a set of steps, designed to keep the heart rate up. There are roughly Umpty-bajillion different ways you could use these steps to maintain a cardio workout. I tend to do a double set of five exercises:

1. Step up then back;

2.Step up, down the other side, then back to my starting position;

3. Step sideways up, down the other side and back to starting position;

4. Step up with one leg, bring opposite knee to chest, then reverse the process starting with the alternate leg;

5. and, finally, calf raises.

There are gyms that, for whatever reason, do not have a set of steps near their circuit training machines. You could substitute cardio exercises like running in place, jumping jacks, good mornings, etc. However, even the most basic of gyms tends to have free-standing cardio steps somewhere. I would recommend grabbing one and setting it up nearby for use while you travel from machine to machine.

3. Rest periods:

Between each machine and step, I get a 30-second rest period. I use this time to drink (Hydrate or die), wipe down the equipment I have been using, and get myself set up for the next exercise.

4. Development:

As with any new exercise, it is important to take your time and get it right. Get a staff member at your gym to walk you through the whole process, on every machine – and get them to help you set your “maximum” weight levels. You’ll be starting your circuit workouts at about 50% of your max, to ensure that you are getting the maximum bang for your buck in the weight vs. reps area.

5. Intensity:

It is important to not spend your time on circuit training simply going through the motions. Instead, be focused during your time on the machines and steps. You should not be struggling with the weights you have selected. You should move each weight outward with a fluid motion, taking about a second to reach nearly full extension. (Full extension can lead to over-stressing ligaments and joints.) At the “top” of your push, squeeze the muscles you are working. Then, slowly lower the weight to the starting position, taking twice as long to lower the weight as you did lifting it. Each rep should take about 3 seconds: a one-second push, a squeeze, then a 2-second return to start. If you find you are unable to finish your minute moving your current weight, drop down to the next weight on your machine. You are wanting to reach the end of your 20-ish reps feeling like resistance is gradually building against your muscles. If you finish your minute easily, make a note, and next time start at the next higher weight – and expect to have to make an adjustment down during your workout.

So, there’s always a downside, right? Here are a few things to watch out for on the negative side of time-saving workouts.

Welcome To The Downside

1. Stabilizers:

The one major negative to working with machines is the very thing that makes them safer to exercise with. An awful lot of the benefit of free weight exercise comes not from the muscle groups being targetted, but instead from the work on the secondary or “stabilizer” muscles that also get engaged just from trying to maintain balance and equilibrium while pushing free weights. The incorporation of these stabilizer muscles is missing from machine-assisted lifting.

2. Intensity:

The fact that circuit training takes place in a closed loop means that much of the thought and planning that would go into a free weight program is missing. This can make it very easy to place your workout on cruise control and simply mail it in. While any movement is still preferable to no movement, your development will be dramatically hindered by not pursuing challenge and development during circuit training.

3. Safety:

Free weight exercise requires constant attention and focus. Circuit training can be perceived as “Easy mode”. Accordingly, it can be very easy to inadvertently injure yourself by simply being inattentive. I have watched people at my local gym use bad form on machines, slip while performing cardio steps, even fall over because they were attempting to talk on the phone or watch streaming video while working out. Circuit training is not the place for these activities.

4. Twerps:

The closest I have come to getting into a fight in a gym since 7th grade P.E. is in and around circuit training equipment. Why? Because so many people insist on using circuit training machines as their own personal playground. Rather than participating in the “circuit” portion of circuit training, many times individuals will camp out on a circuit training machine for their own personal workout routines, rather than using freely available machines elsewhere in the gym. Asking them (politely) to move along so that you can take your turn rarely produces positive results. Instead, bypass their position for now, and come back to it at the end of your routine. Multiple and/or habitual offenders need to be reported to gym management. You are not being paid to enforce the rules of the road in circuit training. Don’t engage testosterone-flooded exercisers yourself. The results can be…less than ideal. Ahem.

5. Crunch Time:

Usually, the final machine in any circuit training circuit is some form of ab-training machine, usually a contraption with straps and weights that ball you up like a device created by the Marquis de Sade. Seriously – crunch machines are a back injury waiting to happen. Skip the ab machine in a circuit entirely, and spend your 60 seconds on a hanging leg lift or (even better) working on Planks. Think you can hold a full Plank for 60 seconds? It is not as easy as it looks. It is also one of the absolute best exercises you can do for your core and abs.

Joining The Circuit

There you have it – the secrets of the Circuit Training section of your local gym. Stop wasting your gym membership money by staying home and watching Roseanne instead of hitting the gym. Get in, push yourself through the circuit, and head back home 3 times a week. Make sure you are taking at least a day off between sessions, mind you.

Once you’ve mastered the Circuit, cough up the funds for an initial appointment with a certified Personal Trainer to keep on moving down the personal fitness road. Just remember: movement is key to success. Even 30 minutes on the Circuit at your nearby gym beats spending an hour on the couch eating Cheetos.

Chasing Myself In A Circle,

Jeremy