Friday, August 23, 2013

Simple progression part 2: Circuits

Aris DeMarco

part 1
In an effort to continue with the 'training information for the everyman' nature of this blog, I've written up the second part of my 'simple progression' series. Basically, this is for guys with minimal equipment (i.e. pullup bar, maybe a few dumbbells, etc.) who want to improve strength and conditioning as efficiently as possible, while taking minimal time out of their busy days.

Part one was all about increasing your one-set max repetitions. However, an approach like that might leave your work capacity wanting when it comes to multiple sets. Plus, overall conditioning is generally improved by, well, being active longer--so you need a way to compress a lot of work (multiple sets) into a short amount of time. Enter circuits.

Basically, a circuit is a series of exercises done in succession, for multiple rounds. Thus:
exercise 1
exercise 2
exercise 3
exercise 1
exercise 2
...and so forth. Some people advocate resting after each 'round', or between exercises, others don't. One option is to do a set number of repetitions for each exercise, each round, and repeat for as many rounds as possible in a given time frame. Ross Enamait's 'work capacity 101' conditioning workout uses that format:

Not quite doing full deadhang pullups here, but we can forgive him that--he's Ross.

As you can see, you have a few different variables to play with: exercises/lifts used, repetitions done, number of rounds, or amount of time the workout takes. Doing the exercises one after the other keeps your heart rate up and improves your overall conditioning, and doing multiple sets of each exercise with relatively short rest periods (doing the other exercises in the circuit) improves your muscular endurance. Given the great amount of work done relative to time taken up, it's possible to get an excellent full body workout in 20 to 30 minutes. Progression is simple. Use more difficult exercises in the circuit, do more rounds total, do more rounds without stopping, or do more total repetitions for each exercise. 

As far as exercise choice goes, it's a good idea to pick 4-5 movements that 'cover' your entire body. 
Upper body pushing--pushups, dips, handstand pushups, one arm overhead presses or push presses
Upper body pulling--pullups, chinups, horizontal rows, one arm dumbbell rows
Lower body pushing--squats or squat jumps, lunges, pistol squats or progressions thereof
Lower body pulling/hip extension--hyperextensions, glute bridges, glute-ham raise progressions, db or kb swings
Midsection/core--lying or hanging leg raises, ab wheel rollouts, 'windshield wipers'...

...there are plenty of possibilities, those are just a few examples. Obviously, depending on exercise choice, your circuits can range from a strength to an endurance focus. Resting in between exercises or rounds can help you get more repetitions in, but of course, the workout will take more time. One thing you can do is add a sixth 'active recovery' movement, say, jump rope or light jogging in place, for 1-2 minutes at the end of every round. That way, all your muscles can get a bit of extra rest, but your heart and lungs are still working. 

Here are a few circuits I used several years back. At the time, I'd just quit running track for the first time due to foot/ankle issues but wanted to improve both my strength and endurance along with general cardio conditioning. All I had was a pullup bar and a pair of kettlebells. 

Workout 1: 
horizontal bodyweight rows
bodyweight 'free' squats
kettlebell swings-16kg
lying leg raises
--all done without rest between exercises or rounds, for 20-40 reps each exercise, for 5-10 rounds

Workout 2:
Handstand pushups (on the floor, against a wall)
Pullups to one side 
Pistol squats
kettlebell swings-24kg
situps on the floor, 10lb plate behind head, feet unsupported
--all done without rest between exercises or rounds, as many repetitions as possible without pausing or stopping, for 5 rounds. Keep track of total reps done in 5 rounds and try to improve on that number. 

The pistol squat--a very solid exercise overrated by some, underrated by many others

I alternated between the two workouts 3-5 days each week. This was a tremendous workload, at the time, far greater than any I had experienced before. After the first week or so, the initial soreness had decreased to the point that I could train more or less daily, alternating between my 'strength' and my 'endurance' circuit. After a couple of months, I managed to do more than 10 handstand pushups for the first time, 20+ full pistol squats with each leg, and was averaging 250-300 very strict pushups, each several times per week. I tested myself on a 1 mile run and broke the 6-minute mark for the first time while on this routine, without doing any running. 

Circuit training is fantastic for those with limited equipment and time. Bodyweight, kettlebells, sandbags; virtually any tool (or none at all) can be used. Routines are simple to design and easy to implement, and results tend to come quickly. Thus, circuits are an excellent format for busy individuals who want a bit of everything in their workouts but don't have a lot of time to work for it. 

...The next post in the 'simple progression' series will be the first of many articles I'm writing about density training--but first, I'll put up the next piece in the lifter profiles series. 

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