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The Magic of “Circuit” Training

Assuming you have a regular gym routine, what do you do?

Do you head straight for the bench press? Do you do a few sets and then add in some all-important biceps curls?

People who train this way work what we call “mirror muscles.” This approach to training rarely yields the result that the person is actually looking for (most people aren’t training for muscle imbalances and an increased risk for injury).

Take a lesson from Laird

Maybe you’re a little bit more informed and you have learned to balance your chest and your back exercises (i.e. one set of bench, one set of rows). You are certainly more informed than the average Joe, but I guarantee there are things that you are missing in your workout that are keeping you from getting the results you want.

What do you think of when you hear the word “cardio?”

Most people imagine a bunch of moderately overweight, middle-aged women sweating and looking gross on a stair climber. While this is definitely “cardio,” there’s more to it than just that.

It’s no secret that a healthy heart is important. Each year, cardiovascular disease kills more Americans than cancer. Genetics can play a role, but there is never an excuse to not be proactive about protecting yourself. So how do you do it?

If you’re thinking you have to spend hours and hours per week on the stationary bike, treadmill, elliptical (hell no), or stairclimber, you’re wrong. You can get all of your cardio done just by setting up your usual workout in a more efficient manner.

One of my favorite guys on the planet is Laird Hamilton. He is an ocean man, cut as hell, has a smoking-hot wife, and actually seems like a really good dude raised on Hawaiian values. Laird’s gym routine has him get all of the benefits of traditional “cardio” without sacrificing upper body, lower body, or core strength. When the weather doesn’t permit him to surf, stand up paddleboard, or mountain bike, he gets all the cardio he needs by doing a circuit routine.

A “circuit” is a way of combining resistance exercises with cardio. There is little to no rest between exercises, and the exercises vary from body part to body part.

A great way to structure this is: start with a (1) core exercise, then do (2) chest, (3) back, (4) legs, another (5) core, (6) biceps, (7) triceps, (8) shoulders, another (9) core, another (10) chest, another (11) back exercise, and another (12) legs. This simple formula is 12 exercises that work your entire body. In a typical circuit, you would go through the 12 exercises 3-4 times for anywhere between 8 and 25 reps. After you have been doing this for a while, you can mix it up as you see fit. The typical circuit Laird does starts with 25 reps, then 15, then 8 on the last set, and he increases the weight with each set.

(A simple rule of thumb is that the more weight you lift and the less reps, the more strength benefits you will receive. If it’s muscular endurance you’re looking for, higher reps and lower weight is the way to go. I always build muscular endurance first, and I recommend you do as well. Building endurance first and then strength is generally safer because the lower weights and higher reps prepare your body for what’s ahead better than the other way around.)

However you set up your circuit (I recommend using the template above) you should set it up in a way to allow each body part to rest, while opposing muscle groups are at work. For example, while you’re working your back, your chest is resting, rather than doing two chest exercises in a row. The only muscle that never gets a chance to rest is your heart, which is of course the intention of a circuit.

In order to create your actual workouts, you’ll have to pick exercises for each category. Here are a few basic exercises that you can start to mix and match into your circuit routine:

Core

Plank; front, side

Crunch; floor, swiss ball

Standing Cable Rotation

Superman

Chest

Bench Press; dumbbell, barbell, incline, decline

Push Up; feet on swiss ball, hands on swiss ball

Seated Chest Press

Standing Cable Press

Back

Bent Row; barbell, dumbbell

Lat Pulldown

Standing Cable Row

Pull Ups

Legs

Leg Press

Squat; back, front, overhead, split, lateral

Lunge; barbell, dumbbell

Deadlift; barbell, dumbbell single-leg

Leg Extension

Leg Curl

Biceps

Curl; Barbell, EZ Grip, dumbbell, cable

Triceps

Dumbbell Triceps Pushback

Standing Triceps Extension; dumbbell, cable,

Lying Triceps Extension

Shoulders

Shoulder Press; dumbbell, barbell; seated, standing

Swiss Ball Military Press

Shoulder Dumbbell Scaption

Start by picking ones that you are familiar with and mix in some new ones every time. There is just as much art as there is science. In other words, there is no perfect or “right” way to do a circuit. Experiment with different ideas while keeping it within the structure provided. There are plenty of exercises here to choose from which should keep things fresh for at least a few months.

A final word on circuits–if you aren’t already doing so, try to find a friend or partner to work out with. When you are halfway through the first set and you already feel like giving up, your partner won’t let you (and you won’t want to look like a pussy). If you are by yourself, it’s a lot easier to give yourself some extra time between sets.

Finally, if you don’t work out at all, commit yourself to going to the gym. Most people stop because they either don’t see results or their workout isn’t fun. Here you have the tools to create your own workout and know that you will see more results in less time by doing a circuit.

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About Jason Crouse Jason is a part-time student pursuing an engineering degree. He loves being with people, celebrating life, and making a difference.

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