The Perfect Circuit Routine

As a personal trainer be aware that there are two main categories that resistance exercise routines fall into. Resistance routines can either be considered a circuit or a split, all routines being goal oriented. For the purpose of this article we will be focusing on client performance of circuit routines.
The term circuit implies that all major muscle groups are being worked in some preconceived pattern during a single exercise session, with this pattern repeating itself. Therefore, the exercises chosen to constitute this circuit are discretionary, so long as the circuit requirement of total musculature involvement is met. There are several conditions under which the participant’s fitness prescription should include a circuit routine.


Preparatory Circuit Training For Size & Strength
Recommend a circuit routine if resistance exercises have never before been performed and the participant is advanced in years, or in your opinion is in poor physical condition but has an expressed client goal of increasing in size & strength. In most cases when a client in good physical condition wishes to increase in size and strength a low intensity split routine is called for. In the above case, consider this as a preparatory phase. This client should move on to a split routine only after the trainer feels comfortable with increasing the intensity of the newly learned individual exercises that have been performed at extremely low levels of intensity for the purpose of developing form and control. As this is an unusual scenario, the application of the actual circuit routine differs from the NFPT’s normally recommended routine. This routine calls upon the performance of not only the 3 basic compound movements (bench presses, leg presses, and back rows), but all other NFPT recommended movements as well as they will be used in future split routine training. Since all movements will be practiced for learning purposes, the number of sets and reps are discretionary while considering the likelihood of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).

Specificity Circuit Training
This type of training is unique to the sport the participant is involved in. The trainer needs to carefully analyze the mechanics of the participant’s sport prior to selecting movements to be performed in this circuit routine. Performance in a sport that calls for muscle endurance will best be enhanced through correctly performed circuit training. Sports such as swimming, running, cycling, etc., require a great deal of muscle energy. The intense high rep training of that musculature involved in the sport results in adaptation through increased muscle energy storage. The beginning intensity of this type of circuit routine will be contingent upon the existing level of participant conditioning. Generally, the only true consideration in terms of initiating this routine with a healthy athletic client is affectively working through the beginning DOMS stage.

Resistance Phase Of The General Fitness Exercise Prescription
Incorporate a circuit routine if the goal of the participant is simply to maintain lean weight while losing fat (the equivalent of the term "toning" and/or general fitness). A circuit routine should be performed in a high repetition range (20-25 reps) using exercises involving as much muscle mass as possible. Perform this routine every other day 3-4 times per week as part of an overall exercise prescription (to include warm-ups, stretching, aerobics, cool-down, etc.). This will be the most commonly used application of the NFPT recommended circuit routine. It is NFPT’s position that the performance of the three basic compound movements in no less than (3) three complete cycles, constitutes the circuit training program of choice under normal circumstances. Training in this rep range, even at high intensity, will disallow tissue damage that would require a minimum of 72 hours of recovery. Moreover, it is the desirable energy exhaustion that occurs while using the NFPT recommended circuit routine that makes it the circuit routine of choice.

There are guidelines established by the National Federation of Professional Trainers that must be complied with concerning the safe and effective client performance of any and all circuit routines. First of all, participants must have a complete understanding of the contraindications to exercise as provided and defined by the National Federation of Professional Trainers. During exercise performance, trainers must by attentive to participants’ possible outward signs of contraindications as some clients may be embarrassed and reluctant to admit experiencing symptoms out of denial, or in an attempt to impress their trainer. During beginner sessions, trainers should repeatedly verbalize the contraindications both as a client reminder as well as to help the client to differentiate between discomfort that is acceptable and expected, and discomfort that is an indicator of an underlying problem. Monitoring participant heart rate also provides some degree of objectivity in measuring physical stress imposed by exercise.

A Recovery Heart Rate represents the maximum heart rate at which a participant is allowed to continue on to the next exercise. The client should be taught to determine this heart rate in a seated position, while palpating the pulse at either the wrist or neck. Participant should count the beats in a 10 second period then multiply the number by six. If after the performance of an exercise the participant’s heart rate is below the established recovery heart rate he/she is immediately ready to move on to the following exercise (in the absence of contraindications). If after an exercise, the client’s heart rate is over the established recovery heart rate, instruct the client to remain seated (or continue performing between set stretching), until the heart rate falls, to or below the desired recovery heart rate prior to performing the next exercise.

Establishing an assigned recovery heart rate should be based on participant responses to the NFPT’s Preliminary Consultation Questionnaire and in accordance with NFPT’s standards (provided tables & charts). This will provide a measure of safety when administering exercise, especially to beginning sedentary participants. Keep in mind however, contraindications can still exist even when assigning extremely low recovery heart rates. Do not become complacent and/or expect your client to verbalize contranindications. Repeatedly question your new client for at least 2 weeks, and question all clients when significantly increasing the intensity of a current routine. In the interests of client safety as well as your liability, it is best to be conservative in assigning recovery heart rates to new clients, and then to progress more rapidly early on in the absence of contraindications.



These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or [email protected] with questions or for more information.