Strength and Conditioning Circuits – The Smart Way


When it comes to training to build muscle, lose fat, gain strength, and improving your conditioning at the same time, I implement a lot of circuit training with my clients. Now, if you’re looking to promote any one quality of fitness (speed, overall strength, endurance, etc), it’s best to put a strong emphasis on that quality, obviously. For example, if you’re trying to develop maximal (limit) strength, then you’re best off training with very heavy loads in a relatively rested state. Performing a fast-paced, high repetition, light weight circuit is not going to be the fastest way to gain limit strength.

However, “assistance” movements, which are usually less systemically stressful and focused more on hypertrophy (muscle growth), can usually be accommodated into more of a circuit format. This allows us to speed up the overall workout and do some mild conditioning without getting in the way of strength gains.

What do I mean? Many people do their assistance something like this: They perform a set of ten pull-ups, waiting a minute, and repeating until they get four sets before moving on to do the same thing with dumbbell presses. Instead, they could do a set of pull-ups, rest thirty seconds, do a set of dumbbell presses, rest thirty seconds before going back to the pull-ups, and so on. This saves a ton of time and will create a conditioning effect (your body is doing more work in less time) without really compromising your strength on either the pull-ups or the presses. At first you might notice a little dip in strength (more from the discomfort of being a little out of breath), but after a week or two your conditioning will improve to where your strength is steady again.

All right, so teaming up your assistance stuff can be pretty cool, right?

Like everything, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do this. When I’m programming for my athletes and clients, I don’t just throw a bunch of exercises together and tell’em to do it fast. Here are just some of the considerations I take into effect when I program one of these circuits.

1. Stick with simple movements. Look, if you’re operating on less rest (to create the aforementioned conditioning effect) then you’re going to get tired, right? Simple enough. So keep the exercises simple. As you become more fatigued, the tendency for form to break down is more and more likely and should be avoided as much as possible. Complex exercises, requiring care and technique (Clean and Jerks, heavy Good Mornings, etc) can go from crisp to “nightmare” in a hurry. This a) creates or reinforces bad technique and habits, and b) can open you up to injuries.

The only people who like fast and sloppy lifting are orthopedic surgeons. While I’m sure most are lovely people, I encourage you to stay as far away from them as possible.

Simple exercises are the best for these high-fatigue situations because they’re harder to screw up under stress. Pull-ups, push-ups, squats, lunges, etc are the way to go in these situations. You can have some variety, but keep the movements natural and basic.

2. Move around the body. It doesn’t do much good to hammer one bodypart with set after set of fatiguing exercise if you’re trying to get quality work out of it. That makes for a pretty short circuit, and if all you’re trying to do is crush a particular muscle group (sometimes a desirable thing) then I usually advocate simplicity by using more reps/sets/load with one exercise than doing the same volume with two or three different exercises. I’d rather you become good at something and smash it than mess around with a bunch of different movements and half-ass most of them.

So in order to make overall conditioning most effective while still doing some strength work it behooves you to allow some muscles to recover a bit while you’re keeping systemic stress high.

3. Mix “Heart Rate” Exercises with Strength Exercises. Like moving around the body, it helps to mix different qualities of exercise. For example, if you wanted to do strength work, like a reasonably heavy five reps in the overhead press, then heavy weighted pull-ups, and heavy squats, that’s a lot of work, both on the mind and the body.

To improve the conditioning effect as well as give yourself a bit of a mental break you could insert an exercise that gets the heart rate up a little but isn’t that fatiguing between the primary exercises. For example, basic Jumping Jacks. They’re not complex or a ballbuster, but 20-30 reps will get you breathing a little hard while not being particularly detrimental to your ability of performing your next strength set.

4. Focus on quality of reps over speed. When it comes to getting stronger you don’t just need to complete reps, you need to complete quality reps with a relatively heavy weight. This doesn’t happen if you’re rushing through every set of a circuit just to get done in the shortest period of time. When you prioritize quantity or speed over quality, there’s sure to be a form breakdown. While I discourage form breakdowns in general, we really want to avoid them if you’re trying to get stronger.

That brings me to a final sub-point, but one that’s not to be missed. As a matter of fact, this might be the most important point in this entire post: Realize that you don’t always need to rush from exercise to exercise to achieve a valuable training effect. Not every circuit needs to be a “Circuit of Death”, which are so in vogue right now as everybody spends too much time watching Ultimate Fighter training clips.

gain muscle lose fat

Not always required for a good workout.

While I’m certainly not telling you that you should avoid working hard, I am telling you that not every workout needs to end with a “Sweat Angel” on the floor. If you’re training for strength, train to get stronger. If you can construct a workout to achieve a conditioning effect without sacrificing your strength gains, so much the better.

Want to see what a solid, hard conditioning circuit with some strength elements looks like? Check out the 11:30 crew tearing it up in the video below!

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