Holiday Circuit Training: Stay Lean and Save Time

It’s that time of the year again. That time when fitness fanatics such as you and I are declared war upon by delicious and unforgiving foods, parties at the exact same time we usually workout, and so on so forth. While the food and activities surrounding the holidays are great, you need to increase your awareness to avoid losing your hard earned gains.

In other words, you need a strategy.

So let’s put this in a situation. You get out of work at 5pm, and there’s a holiday party you have to be at by 6:30pm. Thus, you can’t spend your usual one to two hours at the gym.

By the time you get to the gym and change, it’s already 5:15pm. You have to be out of there with something accomplished by 6 to then get home, clean up, get your swag on, and get to the gathering.

This should be a no brainer, but 45 minutes is more than enough time to get an awesome workout in. You just have to turn your beast mode on and be ready to get nasty.

And no, the way to do this is not slugging on a treadmill for 30 minutes, but rather via a training methodology known as high intensity circuit training.

Circuit training is moving from one exercise to another without resting, but don't confuse this with interval training:  high intensity bouts followed by a controlled rest period repeated for x number of reps (the Tabata 20 on/10 off has become a well known example).

Although interval training is effective, today I’m talking all about circuit training, the benefits of it for fat loss and athletic performance, the physiological effect it has on your body, how to properly design a circuit training program, how to fuel up for this type of training, and the philosophy of quality over quantity.

Let me start by giving you a few reasons why you should have circuit training in your current program if you don't already.

It is time efficient:  you can get a full warm up, main workout, and cool down in in less than 45 minutes.

You operate in an anaerobic state (no oxygen available to the body) while circuit training, which can actually increase your aerobic capacity (VO2 Max), which means you can work longer and recover quicker.

*note from James:  Don't get confused here.  We've talked before on the site about how adaptations from anaerobic glycolysis directly butts heads with aerobic development, and that's still true.  What Nick is talking about, more specifically, is the contractile ability or strength of your heart.  By working near a maximal heart rate for 30-90 seconds, you can increase the force with which your heart contracts, therefore pumping out more blood with each contraction.  This is a more advanced technique, and works on a different aspect of aerobic development, but can still be utilized to squeeze out as much aerobic capacity as possible.  Ultimately, your heart rate dictates the adaptation, so it's a good idea to track it throughout your workout.

Depending on intensity and duration, you continue to burn calories for 16-48 hours after a circuit training session. This is credit to EPOC or excess post exercise oxygen consumption. More on that below!

You will see massive improvements in anaerobic conditioning, speed, power, agility, muscle hypertrophy, and most of all mental toughness.

It is a great tool to structure around your heavy lifting days to trim body fat.

It is fun, challenging, outside of the box, and you feel like you’re the hulk while you’re doing it.

EXCESS POST EXERCISE OXYGEN CONSUMPTION

The best way to explain EPOC, and how it keeps your body burning calories after your workout, is the credit card metaphor used by Anja Garcia. Since you're operating in an anaerobic state (without oxygen) while circuit training, your body is building up lactic acid and goes into an oxygen debt (just like spending money that you don’t have yet). Now, after the workout, your body has to work to replenish the oxygen debt and flush out that lactic acid.  This process takes energy, and thus burns more calories. How long it takes your body to recover is dependent on the intensity and duration of the workout.

DESIGNING THE PROGRAM

The first thing that you should ask when designing a circuit training program is, “what am I preparing for and how do I make this program relevant to my goals?” If you are working out simply because you love to work out and stay fit, then circuit training can be a great vehicle for staying lean and you can take whatever avenue you want. But if you’re approaching it from an athletic performance stand point, you need to make your circuits relevant to the demands of your game.

I will give an example. I am a hockey player; the average hockey shift is probably about 30 seconds to a maximum of 1.5 minutes. So when I design my circuits, I want to make them similar in length and physiological demand of a hockey shift. To give you an idea, here is what a sample round might look like for me:

Treadmill sprint, 20 seconds, 12 mph.

Dumbbell bent over row, 8ea arm

20 pushups

All three moves are done straight through without resting then you repeat. If you rest between sets (every time you do all three through) is dependent on what you’re preparing for, what adaptation you're looking to get, and what level of conditioning you’re at. For a Crossfit athlete or martial artist, I would say absolutely no rest between sets because of the high volume/endurance nature of what they do.  Again, all of this will be dictated by where the athlete currently is, and where he or she wants to go.

For example, if you're an MMA or Crossift athlete with a resting heart rate in the 70's, then a circuit training session would look drastically different for you than someone who has a heart rate in the 50's.  You first need to acquire some aerobic capacity before you tackle anything else.  Thus, your circuits would be at a lower intensity, with a heart rate between 120-150 BPM.

Another example is hockey, aka my game, where we rest between shifts.  Thus, I might take a short rest between sets.   A great way to gauge if you’re ready to get into your next set is to monitor your heart rate.  In particular, you're looking for your heart rate to drop back down to 120 BPM because it signifies full recovery.

Again, once you've identified where you are, and what adaptations need to take place to get you where you want to be, your circuit training sessions will be driven by your heart rate.

Let me translate that sample round I gave you, and make it into a template for you to use when you’re designing your program:

1A. Metabolic move

Sprint, agility ladder, fast pace ropes, prowler pushes, mountain climbers, jumping jacks, medicine ball slams, something that gets you moving and shoots up your heart rate. Usually like to do this move for time. 15-30 seconds.

1B. Opposing muscle group to 1A

If you did a sprint in 1A, move to an upperbody/core move such as a push-up, shoulder press, russian twist, or front bridge plank. The reps or time frame you do here is dependent on the move. For a general prescription, it should take about 25-30seconds. Also, keep in mind that your heart rate is going to be high from 1A, so keep the loads lower here.

1C. Opposing muscle group to 1B

A simple example would be if you did a bicep curl in 1B, you do a tricep pushdown in 1C. The reps or time frame you do here is dependent on the move. For a general prescription, it should take about 25-30seconds.

The combination of all three moves equals a round. Do each round 2-3 times straight through. Have at least 3 rounds for every time you do a circuit training session.

Disclaimer: The example moves and exercise prescriptions I have given here are for a general consensus not speaking to any one individual. Adjust according to your own fitness levels and abilities.

FUEL UP

If you stay within the template I just gave you, your circuit rounds can last anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes. Given the intensity of these circuits and the fact you'll be working hard for 30-90 seconds, your body will be physiologically operating in what is called Anaerobic Glycolysis.

*note from James:  this depends on the structure of the circuit, but for the type of circuit Nick is prescribing you will spend the majority of your time in a "Lactic state."  But note that it's important to acquire a near maximal heart rate in order to improve the contractile strength of the heart.  You don't just want to slosh around above your anaerobic threshold, unless the demands of your sport etc. require it.

Glycolysis is the breakdown of stored glycogen/glucose (carbohydrates) in the muscle to produce ATP (our body’s primary energy source) when no oxygen is available.

To put that in more simple terms, carbs are crucial for this type of work. So do your best to get in quality, denser carbohydrates throughout the day and/or around your workout.  This will help not only ensure that you have enough energy for your workout, but it will also aid in recovery.

One more nutritional thought I want to share with you comes from my own trial and error, and it's on the subject of meal timing. I have found that these workouts are best when you feel light. Keep your big meals at least 4 hours from these workouts. You can have a small snack like a piece of fruit or a Cliff bar one hour out.

QUALITY OVER QUANTITY

When discussing circuit training, the idea of quality over quantity has to be covered. Circuit training is not throwing a random osh kosh of exercises together, doing them sloppy, and lying on the ground from exhaustion by the end of the workout. When you are looking at that template I gave and trying to pick your exercises, always ask yourself:

“Why? How does this fit in conjunction with the other exercises and is this going to make me better?”

Yes, you want to feel like you got in an awesome workout, but more importantly it needs to fit in with your overall goals.  But the idea of throwing moves together just to be exhausted needs to abolished. Do not work to be tired; work to perform!

About the Author

Nick Mancini is a young up and comer in the fitness industry. Since age 18, Nick has been a certified trainer under the National Strength and Conditioning Association. His mission as a coach is too not only help his clients loose fat and gain muscle, but to inspire and empower his people to pursue higher ground in life.  He is currently working on a project to offer his services online called Faith Fire Fight.  Nick studies at The College of New Jersey majoring in exercise sciences and plays for their hockey team.