How to design your first circuit workout

There are many ways to do a circuit to accomplish a myriad of different training effects. The type of desired training effect would determine the type of circuits. Grip strength, endurance strength, strength endurance (yes there is a difference between the 2), conditioning, cardio, fat-loss and hypertrophy (to a certain extent) can be achieved by circuits. However, this article is written based on the assumption that most people do circuits for the reasons of either 1) fat loss and 2) conditioning (note: I am using the word “conditioning” very loosely here, by “conditioning”, I really mean the ability to still carry on with the physical task at hand even in a state of fatigue.) Btw, a circuit is basically a series of exercises perform back to back with minimal rest in between the exercises. Usually, 3 to 5 rounds of these exercises are performed in one circuit workout.

With that in mind your very own first circuit should be structured as such.

1) Use exercises that utilized as much muscle groups as possible

Why? Because the more muscle group you use and the bigger the movement and range of motion, the more the energy is expanded. When doing circuits for conditioning or fat loss, we are trying to get the heart rate up for a sustained period of time (managing fatigue while still carrying out the required task, aka conditioning), even after the whole workout is completed. This is also beneficial to fat loss (I’ll save the explanation for next time). I’ll give you an example, compare a chin up (where you are moving almost ur whole body towards the bar) to a bicep curl (where you are moving a much smaller load with only ur elbow joint), for the same repetitions, which one require more effort and more energy expenditure?

2) Include all major muscle group or movement in the circuit

Now, there is nothing wrong with training specifically a few muscle group, but as we are trying to achieve fat loss and better conditioning here, it is better that all major muscle group movements are included for reasons stated in 1). And also, it’s a good way to allow other muscle groups to “recover” while other body parts are worked. This allows your muscle groups to be fresher for subsequent sets of circuit so that overall power output (read “calories”) is greater.

3) The aim to improve conditioning and burn fat, not tiring yourself out

No doubt, fatigue will set in as you go further and further into the circuit, but that’s not the main aim of the circuits. It is a misconception to associate getting tired and drenched with sweat, lying on the floor with fat loss and improved conditioning. You do not do circuits to be fatigued, you do circuits for a desired training effect and here we are trying to achieve fat loss and improved conditioning.

With that in mind, never rushed into each exercise or repetition if you know your form is going to suffer. The main aim is to get the heart rate up and sustain it for the period of the circuit round. No one said anything about endurance training. Anytime you find yourself unable to complete the exercise or required number of repetition, stop, rest for a few seconds and carry on, just don’t go overboard on this one. As a rule of thumb, if you yourself breathing heavily but somewhat able to control your breathing again, its time to go again. Trust me, your ability to regulate ur breathing and manage fatigue will improved overtime to allow you to complete the circuit as intended.

4) The whole circuit workout should not last more than 20min.

Again, this ties in with 3) here. We are not running a marathon; we’re just trying to improve conditioning and fat loss. For most people, performance would drop after physical exertion for a certain period of time. Anything done after that would just give diminishing return. Not to mention the need to even longer rest day, which prevent you from training more frequently (read: the chance to burn more calories).

5) The order of exercise is important too

The rule of the thumb here is to 1) work out the bigger muscle group followed by the smaller muscle group, 2) the more explosive exercise follow by the less explosive one and 3) the more difficult one followed by the easier ones. This is to make sure ALL the exercises with 1 circuit round can be performed with good form and maximum possible effort (Read: more calories burned).

Without further ado, lets get on to how we can design your first circuit workout.

I usually include max 5 to 6 exercises in 1 round of circuit. Typically, 1 round would last around 2 to 3 min. (sample workout and video can be found at the end of this paragraph). I start the circuit with an explosive “hinging” movement that work the whole body, usually dumbbell snatch, clean and jerk or swings. Then I get on to a lower body exercise, nothing new here, usually some squat variation. Next would be an upper body push exercise like push ups or any type of presses. Next would be some kind of pulling exercises like chin up, face pull or band pull apart. Below is a sample circuit:

1) Dumbbell snatch, 3 reps per side

10 sec rest

2) Goblet squat, 10 -15 reps

10 sec rest

3) Dumbbell shoulder press, 5 reps per side

10 sec rest

4) Band pull apart, 15 reps

10 sec rest

5) Push up, 15 reps

This is 1 round, do this for 3 to 5 rounds and take a maximum of 3 min rest between each round. If you find yourself unable to finish even 3 rounds in 20min, the weight is simply too heavy, decrease the load. If you can complete more than 5 rounds, up the load the next workout. Here’s a video link of me doing the circuit.

Sample circuit

Notice I prefer the dumbbells over barbells when doing circuit. The reasons are two-fold:

1) While you cannot use as much weight as compared to the barbell for similar exercises, it is generally easier and you can do more reps with the dumbbell. Trust me, when you are panting and trying to stay focus, you dont want to worry about whether your technique is “loose” or not.

2) It is more convenient as you can use them easily in your home. I do not welcome the idea of going to the gym for 20 over minutes just to do a circuit and go home.

Now, what if you dont even have a dumbell, “I’m all for calisthenics baby, your body is your best equipment!” Right, thats fine too, below is one such sample workout:

1) Jump squat, 5 reps (squat down to a half squat position and explode up in the air as forcefully as possible)

rest 10 secs

2) Lunges, 10 reps per leg

rest 10 sec

3) chin up or incline pull up, 8 to 10 reps

rest 10 sec

4) pushups, 15 reps

rest 10 sec

5) Band pull apart, 15 reps (really, invest in a resistance band, a decent one cost less than 20 bucks and you can use them for a long time)

Again, 3 to 5 rounds, not more than 20min. Because, this circuits involve only bodyweight exercises, the load is not as high, you can definitely do them more frequently. In fact, I do them on days after my all my main workouts.

To summarizes:

1) Incorporate movements that utilizes as many muscle groups as possible in the circuit

2) The aim of the circuits is to improve conditioning and burn fats, dont kill yourself doing the circuits!

3) The whole workout shouldnt last more than 20min.

4) Always place the more demanding and explosive movement first in the circuit

The scapula (shoulder blade) and your posture

ImageYour scapula (shoulder blade) play a very important role in maintaining proper upper body posture. Look at the picture above. In the first picture, I deliberately round my upper back (turtle back) and move my shoulders forward (what some ppl may call slouching). In the second pic, my scapula is in its proper alignment, as evident as the crown of my head is in line with the center line of the body, you will also notice that the rounding of the upper back disappear and my lower abdomen is “pull back” into place. I did not suck in any air or “brace” myself for the second pic, it all happen naturally when the scapula is simply in its proper alignment. Notice that I automatically become leaner, taller and more energetic at once.

        Now, what you may ask, cause this kind of posture deficiency in the first pic on the left? Long hours on the desk, improper table height during typing, poor form used during exercises or simply poor postural habits reinforced over a long time. Overtime, this causes the scapula to become less and less mobile until the kind of “rounded shoulders” as described.  I seem to find these more prevalent in women though (just my views), especially among the more sedentary group. that is not to say this problems can not be found among guys. Usually, these group of people would have underdeveloped musculature of the rear delts and the upper back or over developed musculature in the front (guys who only work on the “mirror” muscles like abs and chests in the gym).

        Now the first thing to do is not to start blasting away at all the back excerises you can think of. Afterall, doing back excerises (pulling excerises) with scapula that has restricted mobility will just reinforce poor excerise habits and may even accentuate the problem. What we have to do first, is to improve the scapula mobility and at the same time, teach the scapula to contract properly while handling a load. To put it in simpler term, we need the get the scapula mobile and we need to get’em strong.

Thoracic “Circle Drawing” excerise

ImageI usually use this excerise for warming up the upper body especially for the bench press. It help in improving the thoracic (the part of the spinal column that lines up the upper back) mobility and also at the same time warming up the whole shoulder. Take note that the whole half of the body is moving and not just the shoulder joint alone. Think of it as using the half side of ur body to draw a circle. always look at the palm when “drawing the circle”. 1 set of 6 to 10 repetition a side everyday would suffice.

Scapular protraction excerise

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This excerise teaches the scapula to protract against a resistance (your body in this case) scapula protraction which in simple term means moving the shoulder forward, as in this case, we are trying to spread the shoulder blade away from one another under resistance and resisting retraction. Start from a neutral scapula position. Start by squeezeing your shoulders blade togather as you move your body down, do not merely just lower your body, this is in actuality an excerise for the scapula. At the bottom, begin to spread apart your boulder blade as you push yourself up. Your shoulder blade should be fully spread apart at the top of the movement. It is important to always lead with the shoulder blade. 1 set of 10 reps everyday would suffice.

Band pull apart

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Now this excerise is the opposite of scapula protraction. It teaches the shoulder blade to retract while resisting protraction. In simple terms, it means “pulling back the shoulder blade” while under a resistance. for this excerise, you will need an excerise band, any cheap band will do (I got mine for free!), or you could get those LP bands from sports shop (I think it cost less than $20). 

Again, always lead with the shoulder blade, pull the band apart as you squeeze your shoulder blade. It helps by imagining someone put a hand between your scapula and you are trying to squeeze it. Hold the position for a second (important! Thats the primary role of the scapula imo, to “hold” and to “support”). You can do this everyday too. A couple sets of 10 should do the job.

There you have it, 3 excerise for scapula mobility. Do them for 2 weeks (everyday) and see if there is an improvement in your posture!