Chest Thumping

Circuit Training

With the holidays and travel and gyms being closed, I figured regular trainees might have limited time to work out. Thus, a post from the archives on circuit training hopefully will provide a few useful ideas for training with limited time. Enjoy! 

Picture this:

You got out of work later than ususal... perfect timing to hit rush hour at its height and extend your normal 20-minute commute to the gym into an all-out 45-minute crawl full of frustration.

By the time you get to the gym, you only have about 25 minutes before you need to leave.

What do you do? Do you literally throw in your towel and just go home? How can you possibly salvage a decent training session out of the train wreck that was the afternoon?

Circuit Training is waiting to save the day! Well, so are Time Turners, but us Muggles don't have access to one of those things...

What is Circuit Training?

The possibilities are limited only by your imagination (and your physical capacity. I know from personal experience that performing box jumps after a barbell sumo deadlift is a baaaaad idea).

Typically, circuits are comprised of 5-8 exercises and you want to work with weights about 75-80% of your max. Translation: pick weights that you could probably perform for 8-10 challenging repetitions. String them all together, and work through the circuit with minimal rest between exercises.

In terms of time, you can set up your circuit a couple of different ways:

1. Set a particular rep goal per exercise and then have at it for 15-25 minutes and see how many rounds of the circuit you can perform.

2. Pick a number of rounds to complete and try to finish as quickly as possible. Usually, if you have about 5-8 exercises, 5 rounds will be around 20-ish minutes.

Benefits of Circuits:

1. They're a great way to improve overall conditioning without watching  your hard earned muscle mass wither away. Two recent research reviews (abstracts here and here) have found that steady state cardiovascular training can a) decrease power output (yikes! Not good for athletes that need to produce power aka: everyone) and b) compromises muscle mass (and thus strength) gains. This effect is seen most prominent when aerobic training is 3x/week for greater than 20 minutes- so one jog here and there won't hurt you. The metabolic pathways that aerobic and anaerobic (that is, strength training and sprint/interval training) are conflicting. It's very hard to maintain a large amount of muscle mass and be a long-distance runner!

Circuit training is similar, metabolically, to sprint/interval/hill training in that it preserves lean muscle mass.

Steady state cardiovascular training, on the other hand, can lead to elevated levels of cortisol (stress hormone) which can decrease the effectiveness of muscle-building hormones such as testosterone and insulin-like growth. It also encourages muscle protein break down. Again, based on the research, this was steady-state cardio training 3x/week at 20 minutes or more.

While strength training too breaks down muscle tissue, the anabolic  (building) environment produced by strength training encourages repair more than the catabolic (break down) environment of aerobic training.   Strength coach Charles Poliquin says:

Whereas endurance exercises compromise anaerobic performance and body composition, anaerobic training modes such as sprint intervals and weight lifting will benefit endurance athletes if programed properly. To improve endurance performance, do a strength-type resistance training program with loads of 80 percent of the 1RM or heavier. This will train the type IIA muscle fibers so they increase the rate of force development and get faster.

Type IIA muscle fibers = strong, powerful muscles. We want those!

fiber types
fiber types

So if you're still with me, we'll move on to the second point.

2. It's time-efficient. After a quick dynamic warm-up and maybe a warm-up set or two of the planned exercises, the total time of a circuit should be no more than 25-minutes start to finish. 15-minutes would even be sufficient depending on the intensity of the exercise selection and weights used. Nice huh? It's just long enough to make you feel like you've worked out but not too long that you're home late for dinner.

3. (but really 2.5) Not only are they time-efficient but they're efficient in the sense that a circuit can hit a lot of muscle groups, through full ranges of motion, in one fell swoop. While a jog will really only get your legs (and, I would argue, not very well since the range of motion is small, the force production is low, and the intensity isn't that high either) and maybe some low level core activation, a circuit can be full body. Take a look at this sample:

Goblet or barbell squat x 6-8

Pushup x 8-10

Step back lunge x 6-8/side

3 Point Row x 8/side

Kettle bell swing x 10

Can you see the total body genius in that? We have lower body (both bilateral and unilateral movements), upper body (push and pull) and a delightful amount of full range of motion exercises. All of which, if one wanted, could be done with just one kettlebell.

Run through that baby 5 or 6 times and try to tell me that's not cardio. Oh wait, you can't. I can't hear you over your screaming lungs and gasping breaths.

4. Because circuits demand so much from your muscles and cardiovascular system, they're pretty calorically expensive, which means your body will be burning calories longer post-workout than they would after a lower intensity training session (aka: low-intensity, steady state cardio). On those above-linked research reviews, it was found that athletes reduced body fat when they performed high intensity exercise (sprints or circuits).

So, if you're looking for an efficient way to reduce body fat, preserve lean tissue, AND improve your cardiovascular fitness, circuit training is definitely a tool you want in your toolbox!

I feel obligated to note that strength training, solid strength training sessions, need to make up the bulk of your training week. Picking up heavy things repeatedly is the best way to build muscle and get stronger. Circuit training, while it won't make you weaker and can aid with strength gains, is inferior overall to 80-90% max lifting in terms of producing maximal strength gains. While I don't recommend basing your entire training plan around circuits, they are beneficial and even fun (yes, fun.) to throw in every once and a while.

Sweat and Sacrifice: It’s OK to be Uncomfortable

Kidding! It's not Kelsey. Goose is back in the blogging world and has a solid post, just in time for the holidays!

Every now and then random people approach me asking, "How do I get abs?" "How do I lose weight?"

My answer: “Well, what are you doing right now?”

It’s surprising to me how much people underestimate the amount of time and hard work it takes for change to happen. Whether you’re an athlete not breaking a sweat in the weight room or a Desk Jockey who thinks walking 25 mins on a treadmill is a hard workout, the outcome is the same. If you don’t put in the work you don’t get any results!

NO RESULTS FOR YOU!!

A simple, yet extremely effective, rule to live by is: If you aren’t sweating you aren’t trying! Not breaking a sweat can be attributed to 1 or more of the following:

- Improper warm-up etiquette

- Moving too slowly

- Using too light of a weight

Wrong! Errr-body got time for dat!

Are you warming up properly? If you aren’t breaking a light sweat, lubricating your joints, or elevating your heart rate, what exactly are you doing?? A great quote by Olympic Weightlifting Guru, Greg Everett, “If you’re not warming-up, you’re not tough or elite, you’re lazy.”

If you skip or half-do youe warm up, well done! You've set yourself up for an injury or, at best, an unproductive workout!

How fast are you moving through your workout? If your workout speed can be described as “Slower than molasses on a winter day” we’ve got a problem on our hands! Going too slowly or taking too long between sets of exercises is not only a reason for the lack of perspiration but is also detrimental to strength gains.

Don’t be that guy!

Are you going heavy enough?? Once passed the learning period, where technique needs to be mastered, there is no reason to do “easy” weights. If the weight/load of an exercise isn’t in the least bit challenging there is no point in simply going through the motions.

Motivation: Somewhere in China there is a child warming up with you max!

Getting sweaty and uncomfortable are side effects of truly pushing the limits of your body in you quest for greatness! A concept that one of my coaches constantly drilled into my head was “If you are comfortable, you are not giving your 100%." Whether you are conditioning or resistance training, I believe this concept to be true.

The human mind is a very powerful thing; it is also incredibly lazy if you let it be. When things start to get tough, when your legs burn and you are breathing heavily, your mind likes to tell you that’s enough. However, the reality is that your body is still good to keep going, you’ve just got to find the resolve to push through the fatigue and finish whatever your objective is. That is mental toughness, that is what separates 1st from 2nd place. No one ever said getting better was a walk in the park. Getting better sucks, it’s painful, and super frustrating. But in the end when all the work has been done in the weight room and on the field, when you’ve lost countless ounces of sweat and winced through sore muscles, that’s when results will show. And that’s when PRs will be broken and victory will be gained.

Rant over. Happy Holidays!

Bench Tips!

Far too often I hear people bash the bench press.

“It’s not functional.”

“It’s for egotistical gym-bros.”

“When do you have to lay supine on your back and press a load up in sports?”

“It’s bad for your shoulder.”

“It’s stupid.”

“Do you even squat.”

Blah blah blah… I’m not here to defend the bench press, because I don’t necessarily believe it needs defending. It’s awesome and if you disagree, good for you. This post is for those that ignore the hate (and are healthy enough) and want to improve their bench press. Maybe you compete in powerlifting, or you want a strong upper body, or you want to turn heads on Mondays at your commercial gym when you bang out some clean, full range reps with huge weights. Whatever your reason is, here are some tips to help you add weight to the bar.

Learn to Bench

Just lay down and press right? Wrong! There are so many technical aspects to the bench that are simply ignored, resulting in sub-par benching. The bench should be considered a full-body lift, by using your legs to drive yourself down into the bench, staying tight through your hips and abs, and squeezing your upper back hard to stay rock-solid during the lift. Your set-up on the bench will be very individual. Everything from grip width, back arch, foot placement, and even head movement will vary between lifters. The key is to find your perfect set-up and practice it over and over.

Use Your Lats! If You Don’t Have Any, Build 'em!

This is huge. The lats play a crucial role during the bench press, creating a strong foundation to push off of and controlling the bar bath. After you unrack the bar, you shouldn’t simply let gravity take over and let the bar fall to your chest. You should be actively pulling the bar down under control, concentrating on flexing your lats hard. A good cue here is to think about “breaking” the bar in half (external rotation torque!) as you lower it to your chest.

If you can’t feel your lats working during the movement, chances are you just need more lat work. Pullups, chinups, lat pulldowns, and rows all fit the bill. Keep pulling to improve your push!

Do Overhead Work

I believe that overhead work is extremely beneficial to improving your bench. The increased strength in your shoulders, triceps, upper back and scapular stabilizers you will build with vertical pressing will all go a long way in helping you push more in the horizontal plane. That being said, straight barbell overhead pressing is not for everyone. Some may lack the mobility to perform the movement or it just hurts to do. Never fear, there are always options. If you find that overhead pressing with a barbell bugs your shoulders or your back, try landmine pressing. You can still get in some quality overhead work with a more joint-friendly angle.

Straight Weight

Drop the bands and chains for a while and stick with straight weight. I think accommodating resistance is a great addition to your training, but if you’ve become accustomed to benching with chains and bands, it may be to your benefit to run a few cycles of training strictly using straight weight. By over-utilizing accommodating resistance you end up avoiding that bottom-range tension when the bar is on your chest. If your goal is to bench big numbers you can’t avoid that tension forever. Perform your heavy work, rep work, and even speed work with some straight weight for a while and rest assured that your strength and power won't wither away without the extra bells and whistles on the bar.

Pause!

I firmly believe that the strong drive out of the bottom position is KEY to improving your bench press. Even if your sticking point is fairly high up in the range of motion, doesn’t it make sense that if the explosion from the bottom was better you could ride that wave all the way up to lockout? I admit I have been one to analyze a bench press, take note of the sticking point and say “well, it looked like the sticking point was somewhere around a 2-board, so the best way to improve would be a ton of 2-board work.” Board work is great, but you can NEVER be too strong out of the bottom. One of the best ways to increase the strength out of the bottom is paused bench pressing, where you lower the bar to your chest, stay tight and hold it, then press it back up. By coming to a dead stop you kill some of the elastic energy you may have been relying on. Throw in some paused benching to your routine, and although you will undoubtedly have to cut down on the absolute load, you will not be disappointed!

Till next time, keep pressin' on!