What is Circuit Training?

What is circuit training designed for?  

Well, if you want to increase your fitness level while also developing a degree of strength and muscle tone, then circuit training might be something you need to consider. Circuit training methodology is said to have been developed by R.E. Morgan and G.T. Anderson in 1953 at the University of Leeds in England; the method now spans the whole spectrum of the fitness industry.  There are elite level athletes who primarily use circuit training to maintain the foundation of their very specialized sport specific training programs.  Keep fit enthusiasts who utilize this training method to become fitter or maintain their fitness level and still others who use this method to lose or maintain their body weight.  It is also the basis of the current exercise craze called “Maximum Intensive Interval Training” or MIIT for short.

So, what is circuit training?

Circuit training is a way of grouping together several different carefully selected exercises.  These exercises are executed consecutively one after the other in a way which simultaneously develops both strength and endurance.  Each exercise is called a “station” and in the original format, 9-12 stations constituted a circuit.  You would complete each exercise and move from one station to another with little or no rest between each.  Each exercise would be performed for a set number of repetitions or for a particular length of time.  The original format of circuit training used barbells as the resistance element of the exercise, where 40% – 60% of your one repetition maximum (1RM) was use as the load.  

Nowadays, other methods of expressing the resistance for a circuit are used.  For example, body weight is a favourite method used by many participants today, but you can also create a circuit training program utilizing exercise machines, dumbbells or small hand held weights and elastic resistance.

The Pros and Cons Circuit Training

From what has been said, you can see that the answer to the question “what is circuit training about” is a relatively easy one.   As a general fitness protocol the exercise method works well for many sports. However, the question of how effective the training method is can be open to debate.  Over the years a lot of research has been carried out regarding this method’s effectiveness in improving aerobic capacity and the development of muscular strength.

Most of the research into the effectiveness of circuit training was carried out using the design of the original methodology (30 seconds work/rest ratios, with a weights resistance of between 40%-60%).  The general findings were these:

  • Circuit training does improve your aerobic fitness, although not as much as undertaking a dedicated cardiovascular fitness program.  It would seem that circuit training is able to raise your heart rate to around 80% of its maximum.  Over an 8-12 week training period, however the maximum volume of oxygen uptake (V02max) was improved by only 5%. Over the same period of time traditional aerobic training methods such as running and bike riding would have expected to elicit around a 20% improvement in V02max.  Although circuit training might not be the best tool to improve your aerobics fitness, it has been shown to be an effective training method of maintaining your V02max.
  • Circuit training has shown that it raises blood lactate levels, suggesting that there is a high anaerobic element to this training method. This might be expected since strength training tends to be high intensity training.  It would seem, therefore, that circuit training might be a good exercise regime to develop anaerobic endurance (this is my prime reason for using circuits in my training programs).
  • From a strength improvement perspective, it would seem that the original circuit training method has more to offer.  Research suggests that the gains in strength are about the same as in the use of traditional strength training methods.  The general opinion among weight lifters is that the traditional way of developing strength is better especially if you are looking to develop maximum strength and power – only high intensity loads can achieve these aims - I tend to agree with them here!

It appears then that circuit training is an excellent method of improving strength in endurance athletes as it not only promotes an adequate amount of strength, but also has enough aerobic content to maintain V02max. 

To conclude, the question of what is circuit training is answered in the following way. It is a method of training which aims to promote an improvement in aerobic fitness and muscular strength.  It comprises carefully selected exercises grouped together and executed consecutively with little or no rest between each. After much research the general consensus is that circuit training does promote aerobic fitness and muscular strength.

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