Using a Circuit Training Approach for Improving Strength, Speed, and Agility at the High School Level
By Dan Hutchison, MS, ATC, CSCS
The phrase ‘circuit training’ is not new to the exercise industry and has been mentioned more frequently with various routines, concepts and training applications at the fitness level. Circuit training by definition involves a program, or “circuit” of exercises, that an individual performs either in order or within a specific sequence. On many occasions, these “circuits” are performed either for time or repetitions, with specific recovery between exercises. A circuit approach allows individuals to work at higher intensities, more frequently, because of the structured recovery between sets. In traditional exercise science, using a circuit training approach has typically been associated with aerobic-type workouts used primarily with populations that are older (geriatric) or younger (preadolescents), and with minimal training experience. This approach is still very relevant for specific fitness populations and with some new research, has proven to be a good approach even during high intensity/high loading situations that occur with more experienced exercisers and athletic populations.
The high school weight room creates a unique situation where both inexperienced and athletic populations exist, and most likely train or workout at similar times or within similar classes. A detailed approach with resources that provide versatility and effective exercise experience, can be applied to these populations successfully, and set them up for a better exercise experience as they progress in age and ability level. Using a circuit training approach can offer numerous training options to develop fundamental movements in the areas of strength, speed, power, and agility. Regardless of the individual’s ability, these areas coexist in all human environments from sports to certain career paths, and need to be trained consistently in the developing adolescent. Coaches and physical education (PE) instructors are typically in a time-crunch during practices or classes, to which a circuit training environment is conducive to allowing multiple movements to be practiced and trained in a short, but effective, period of time.
Current literature has suggested that individuals can utilize a circuit, or interval approach and still accomplish strength, speed, and power goals. Standard weight room practice has involved a traditional set-up of squat racks with individuals performing one strength movement, followed by a rest interval solely determined on when their partners complete their set of the same exercise, followed by their ‘turn’ within the station. This creates a ton of wasted time and can promote boredom, a decreased training effect, and potentially an unsafe environment. A circuit training approach allows a specific amount of exercises/drills to be compounded with other similar or complementary exercises that enhance the primary movement. But, if our goal is to perform a higher intensity set of the bench press exercise with the objective of adding strength and muscle to the individual, complex and contrasting movements can be performed between sets without completely fatiguing the bench press prime movers. Studies have shown that performing a high intensity (+80%) movement for a compound strength exercise, i.e., squat, dead lift, bench press, followed by moderate intensity power, speed, or core applications, individuals still accomplished increases in their overall repetition maximum (RM) throughout a specific training period. Plus, anecdotal evidence has suggested that these complementary movements allow for a decrease in total weight lifted by the individual through the pairing of complementary power movements associated with the primary movement. This approach is especially important in developing individuals who might feel the need, or are pressured into adding unnecessary amounts of weight. In addition, metabolic demands are increased due to the circuit approach producing improvements in aerobic and anaerobic capacities, and decreases in recovery rates over time. To be clear, if the coach or PE instructor is strictly focused on one area of improvement (strength, speed, power, etc.), additional recovery between sets is essential, and direct specificity is required. But, with limited time not only for practice and classes, but also limitations between sport seasons and possibly limited resources within the strength training space, developing individuals can see gains in all of these areas, put themselves in a position for less injury occurrence, and establish essential movement competencies that will last a lifetime.
Coaching and setting up training circuits with multiple exercises does take some time, and some careful preparation. Initially, the coach or PE instructor will want to establish a movement/muscle group as the focus for that training session or class. If legs are the focus of that day, 2-3 primary movements for the legs should be formulated within the class/practice, along with other complementary movements within the station. As mentioned, similar movements/exercises can be performed in addition to the primary movement, or contrasting movements (i.e., upper body, core exercises, etc.) can be performed as well. Remember, adherence to the movement and the intensities associated to promote performance enhancement are still part of the routine, but with a versatile and holistic approach to stimulating other areas as well. Some experimentation, along with trial-and-error, will need to be used based on the age, ability level, and training maturity, as well as the time allowed for the session. Again, this allows the focus of the day for the class or team to still be strictly followed, along with keeping the training ‘fresh’ and exciting, and stimulating other areas of concern for developing individuals (i.e., cardiovascular endurance, core strength, plyometric applications, movement competencies, injury reduction practices, etc.).
Some key factors to remember when performing or establishing a circuit training approach in the high school weight room:
- Establish areas or space that allow for ‘movement-based’ activities for strength, speed, power, or agility. This could mean eliminating one-dimensional equipment like selectorized machines to create space, or re-positioning the space to ‘flow’ the circuits effectively.
- Based on your group size, circuits can be set up within a small station allowing for one primary compound exercise, complimented by power, speed, agility or core applications to complete the circuit.
- Time (stopwatch) or repetitions can be used to determine the length of each training circuit. Timed stations can be set up either in short intervals (15 seconds on / 30 seconds off), or in longer intervals (e.g., 5 minutes) which allows the team/class to complete a certain station in an allotted time.
- Primary compound exercises like the squat, bench press, and dead lift can be performed effectively in a circuit fashion, without losing the emphasis on strength gains in those areas.
- Developing individuals/athletes need a more versatile and holistic training approach to adequately stimulate areas encountered both on the field, and within a chosen career path.
- Coaching within a circuit training set-up requires some extra time and preparation to adequately progress the individuals and the exercises. A variety of resources and some creativity will help this planning process.
- A circuit training approach allows the coach or PE instructor to efficiently target all areas of human performance – cardiovascular, strength, plyometric, speed, agility – with the overall goals of enhancement, enjoyment and injury reduction.
Alcaraz, P. E., Sánchez-Lorente, J., & Blazevich, A. J. (2008). Physical performance and cardiovascular responses to an acute bout of heavy resistance circuit training versus traditional strength training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 22(3), 667-671.
Alcaraz, P. E., Perez-Gomez, J., Chavarrias, M., & Blazevich, A. J. (2011). Similarity in adaptations to high-resistance circuit vs. traditional strength training in resistance-trained men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(9), 2519-2527.
Powers, S.K. and Howley, E.T. Exercise Physiology: Theory ad Application to Fitness and Performance (7th Ed.). Boston, MA. 2009.