Circuit training is a classic metabolic strength training concept that involves multiple exercises, using various training equipment from free-weights to machines to body weight, performed back to back with little rest. Circuit training also forms the foundation of the workout programs featured in this book. This chapter discusses a style that we call big circuits.
Big Circuit Training
Big circuits are sequences that involve three, four, or five bigger compound exercises (i.e., exercises that use a large amount of muscle, as opposed to isolation exercises) with heavier loads. The circuits alternate upper-body exercises with lower-body exercises to ensure that each muscle group can maximally recover, which ensures your ability to maintain maximal workout intensity and optimal control on each exercise and each circuit round. This is crucial because the key to maximizing metabolic cost in these big circuits is working at a consistently high intensity. By the time you get back to training the same muscle group on the following circuit round, it’s been several minutes, leaving those muscles plenty of time to fully recover and get ready to exert maximal intensity with every set.
In addition to sequencing upper-body exercises with lower-body exercises in an alternating fashion, unilateral (single-sided) exercises are also used in this circuit training method in the following forms:
Left–right circuit: As the name indicates, this circuit splits the body from left to right. It incorporates unilateral exercises, and it involves performing all reps of a given exercise on the left side of your body before switching sides and performing all reps on right side.
Unilateral circuit: This circuit also incorporates unilateral exercises. However, unlike the left–right circuit, every exercise in the circuit is performed only on one side of the body. Then, all the reps are performed on the other side of the body. A rest break can be taken in the transition between sides.
There are two unique benefits of unilateral strength exercises beyond simply adding muscle and accelerating metabolism. First, you experience increased activation of the core muscles. Any time you hold a heavy load on one side of the body and not the other, it lights up the core muscles to offset the unbalanced load. This means unilateral circuits are both metabolic and core conditioning all rolled into one comprehensive protocol. Second, you can eliminate strength imbalances. Most people have one side that is stronger than the other. Unilateral exercises allow you to focus on one side at a time, which can help you bring up your weak side and build a more balanced body.
The big circuits are structured as follows.
Big Three Circuit
The Big Three circuit is a great place to start if you are a beginner because it involves the fewest exercises of the big circuits. This way you do not overwork yourself while also allowing yourself room to increase your
workload—first by adding weight to the exercises within the Big Three circuit and then by adding more exercises using circuits such as the Big Four or Big Five. The Big Three consists of these three stations:
- Upper-body pulling exercise
- Lower-body leg or hip exercise
- Upper-body pushing exercise
Big Four Circuit
The Big Four circuit is the same concept as the previous circuit but with an added lower-body exercise as the fourth station. The Big Four is a great place to start for anyone at an intermediate fitness level (i.e., you are already exercising, but this type of metabolic strength training is new to you) because it allows scalability. In other words, you not only have room to gradually increase the reps for loads used within the Big Four circuit, but you also have room to progress by adding another exercise by moving on to the Big Five circuit. The Big Four circuit consists of these four stations:
- Upper-body pulling exercise
- Lower-body leg exercise
- Upper-body pushing exercise
- Lower-body hip exercise
Big Five Circuit
The final progression to this circuit concept is the Big Five. In the Big Five, we have added a fifth station that integrates a core exercise. The Big Five circuit is the most demanding of the big circuits because it involves the most exercises, therefore requiring the most total work volume to complete each circuit round. If you are an advanced exerciser—someone who has been doing regular exercise in a similar fashion to this—you can go right to using Big Five circuits. Otherwise, as stated previously, the Big Five circuit is a sequence that you can gradually work up to after you have built your fitness level using the Big Four circuit. The Big Five consists of these five stations:
- Upper-body pulling exercise
- Lower-body leg exercise
- Upper-body pushing exercise
- Lower-body hip exercise
- Abdominal/core exercise
Even advanced exercisers and athletes can benefit from incorporating the Big Three or Big Four circuit into their workout plan (see chapter 9). If your workout involves performing metabolic combinations or complexes that require a high amount of work volume, it makes sense to reduce the volume
in your circuits by performing the Big Three circuit in order to minimize the risk of overtraining. And if you increase the work volume of your circuit training (i.e., progress from the Big Four to the Big Five), then you are advised to reduce your volume in another strength training complex or combination protocol.
Following are free-weight and machine exercises for upper-body pushing, upper-body pulling, lower-body legs and hips, and abdominal muscles that
can be incorporated into the circuit training styles discussed previously. Aside from some of the abdominal exercises, body-weight exercises are excluded here because they’re covered in the chapter on body-weight training (chapter
7). Additionally, a few isolation exercises are included in this chapter. Also note that many of these exercises are used in the programs in chapter 9, Fat- Loss Workouts.
You can perform the exercises within a given circuit workout either for a specific time frame or for repetitions, as follows:
25 to 40 seconds per exercise
6 to 12 reps per exercise
You will perform 3 to 5 total rounds per circuit. As stated before, the type of circuit that you use (Big Three, Big Four, or Big Five) is determined by two factors: your fitness level and the work demand of the other exercise
protocols of your workout. It’s recommended that beginners start with the Big Three and gradually progress to the Big Four and Big Five as their fitness improves. And, to prevent overtraining, if you add volume to your workout
via combinations or complexes, you should reduce your work volume in the circuit aspect of that workout.
Each exercise within a given circuit is performed with as little rest as needed between exercises. To ensure continued progression in each circuit workout, you can increase the weight used in the exercises, increase the work time at each station (i.e., exercise), or reduce the rest time between circuits.
Upper-Body Pushing Exercises
Following are a variety of upper-body pushing exercises. These involve taking something that is close to you and moving it farther away from you in a horizontal, diagonal, or vertical direction.
Dumbbell Bench Press
Lie on a weight bench with your feet flat on the floor, pressing them firmly into the ground to keep you stable. Hold a pair of dumbbells in each hand above your shoulders with your arms straight (see figure a). Slowly lower the dumbbells outside your body until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle (see figure b). Press the dumbbells back up toward the sky above your shoulders. You may also perform this exercise on an incline bench that is angled approximately 45 degrees.
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
Lie on a weight bench that’s angled approximately 45 degrees with
your feet flat on the floor, pressing them firmly into the ground to keep you stable. Hold a pair of dumbbells above your head outside your shoulders (see figure a). Slowly lower the dumbbells outside your body until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle (see figure b). Reverse the motion and press the dumbbells back upward.
Barbell Bench Press
Lie on a weight bench with your feet flat on the floor, pressing them
firmly into the ground to keep you stable. Unrack an Olympic-style barbell using a grip that places your hands outside your shoulders (see figure a). Slowly lower the bar to your chest, keeping your elbows at a 45-degree angle relative to your torso (see figure b). Press the bar up to the sky above your chest.
As with dumbbells, you can also perform an incline bench press from a weight-bench that’s angled at roughly 45-degrees.
One-Arm Overhead Dumbbell Press
Stand tall with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart while holding a dumbbell at shoulder level (see figure a). Press the dumbbell toward the sky, keeping your torso as stable as possible (see figure b). Slowly lower the dumbbell back to your shoulder.
One-Arm Overhead Dumbbell Push Press
Stand tall with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart while holding a dumbbell at shoulder level (see figure a). Slightly bend your knees (see figure b) and then quickly reverse the motion, exploding into the dumbbell and driving it overhead using both your arm and legs in a coordinated fashion, pressing the dumbbell toward the sky and keeping your torso as stable as possible (see figure c). Slowly lower the dumbbell back to your shoulder.
Stand tall with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart while holding a
dumbbell in front of each shoulder (see figure a). Press one dumbbell into the air as you rotate to the opposite side (see figure b). Reverse the motion and press while rotating to the other side. To better allow your hips to rotate in this exercise, raise your heel off the ground as you turn.
Cable Biceps Rope Curl
You’ll need an adjustable cable column to perform this exercise. Stand in front of the cable column with a rope attached below your knees. Hold each side of the rope in each hand with your arms by your sides in your elbows slightly bent (see figure a). With your knees slightly bent, bring your hands toward your shoulders (see figure b). Be sure not to allow your elbows to move forward as you curl the rope in on each repetition.
As the name implies, strength training combinations involve multiple strength training movements blended together in a seamless fashion to make one exercise. This chapter covers a multitude of strength training combinations involving barbells, dumbbells, cables, and the core bar.
The metabolic strength combinations featured in this chapter have been inspired by Olympic weightlifting concepts where several barbell movements are combined to perform one Olympic lift. Although the concept of combinations has its roots in Olympic lifting, you don’t have to be a trained Olympic weightlifter to perform any of the combinations in this chapter. Additionally, although some of the barbell exercises in the combinations feature Olympic-inspired exercises (such as cleans), in this book the intention of these exercises is not to lift maximum weights with maximum power but to simply add more versatility to various combinations in order to make them more interesting, dynamic, and metabolic. This book has simply taken the concept of combinations and run with it, taking the exercises far beyond the barbell by providing combinations using dumbbells and kettlebells in both bilateral and unilateral protocols.
Most people, even personal trainers, don’t understand that total-body workouts and total-body exercises aren’t necessarily the same thing. A total- body workout simply means you’ve hit all your major body parts within a given workout. On the other hand, a total-body exercise uses all of your major body parts within 1 repetition. Metabolic strength training combinations are total-body exercises in the purest sense because they force every joint in your body to work together to perform 1 repetition of the combination. Metabolic strength training circuits (covered in the previous chapter) and complexes (covered in the next chapter), on the other hand, involve performing clusters
of various exercises, each of which focuses on a different muscle group, one after the other. For this reason, the workout programs in this book combine combinations along with circuits and complexes to make each workout as comprehensive and effective as possible for creating a total-body training effect that gets you leaner, looking better, and moving better.
In addition, each combination involves using the same piece of equipment and the same weight load, which makes it a useful training option when you’re at a crowded gym. With metabolic strength training combinations, you grab one piece of equipment and use it to train your entire body.
Following you will find a variety of metabolic strength training combinations. Some combinations involve more movements to complete 1 repetition than others. The more movements within a given combination, the tougher it is.
Before we get into the combinations, let’s first take a look at how exactly you’ll use them. Strength training combinations are used in two ways in the training system put forth in this book.
Combination Method 1
The first method is a timed set, which involves performing as many repetitions as possible of a given combination exercise for one 6- to 10- minute time frame. If performing a unilateral (one side at a time) complex, split the time frame in half and work 3 to 5 minutes per side. After finishing the full time frame, rest 3 to 4 minutes before starting a new exercise protocol.
Combination Method 2
The other method of using combinations takes the more traditional approach,
which uses a preset number of sets and reps. This method consists of performing 3 to 5 sets (per combination) for 6 to 10 reps. Then you rest 60 to
90 seconds between sets of a given combination. If you’re doing a unilateral
(one side at a time) combination, perform 6 to 10 reps per side and then rest approximately 30 seconds before switching sides. Once you’ve done both sides, completing 1 round, rest approximately 90 seconds before starting the next round.
When using combinations, make sure the load is heavy enough to create an appropriate challenge for the number of reps you’re using but not so heavy that it prevents you from controlling the weight or from completing the desired reps. Ensure continued progression by increasing the load, increasing the reps, or reducing the rest time.
No matter how much scientific research is generated or how many modern training methods are developed, basic resistance training continues to reign supreme, with the barbell serving as one of the most effective pieces of exercise equipment available today. Following are various metabolic combinations using a barbell.
Bent-Over Row—Romanian Deadlift—Hang
Clean—Overhead Push Press
1 Bent-Over Row
Stand with your feet roughly hip-width apart. Hold the barbell using an underhand grip, keeping your hands just outside shoulder-width apart. Bend over at your hips, keeping your back straight so that your torso is parallel to the floor and your knees are bent 15 to 20 degrees (see figure a). Row the bar into the middle of your torso between your chest and your belly button (see figure b). Slowly lower the bar without allowing the barbell to touch the ground. You can also
perform bent-over rows by using an overhand grip, which many people find to be a less strong gripping option.
Note: After finishing your bent-over rows, place the barbell on the floor and switch to an overhand grip to perform the Romanian deadlift and the rest of the exercises in this combination.
2 Romanian Deadlift
Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, holding a barbell in front of
your thighs with your arms straight (see figure c). Keeping your back straight, hinge at your hips and bend forward toward the floor, keeping your knees bent at a 15- to 20-degree angle (see figure d). As you hinge forward, drive your hips backward and do not allow your back to round out. Once your torso is roughly parallel to the floor or the weight plates lightly tap the floor, drive your hips forward toward the barbell, reversing the motion to stand tall again.
3 Hang Clean
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a barbell with your hands just outside shoulder-width apart. Slightly hinge at your hips, keeping the bar against your thighs (see figure e), and explode your hips into the bar as you simultaneously pull the bar upward (see figure f). Once the bar reaches shoulder level , quickly flip your elbows underneath the bar to catch it at the top of your chest (see figure h).