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Using a Circuit Training Approach for Improving Strength, Speed, and Agility at the Middle School Level

By Dan Hutchison, MS, ATC, CSCS

The middle school offers a unique environment where adolescents, specifically early adolescents (i.e., ages 10-14 years) are engaged in a pivotal point of physical maturation where fundamental skills can either be accurately developed, or bad habits can be established. The beneficial aspect of using a circuit training approach with this population is that it enables physical education (PE) instructors and sport coaches to offer a ‘well-rounded’ and versatile approach to physical development in areas like strength, speed, power, agility and aerobic capacity.  Fundamental movement competencies in the areas of pushing, pulling, rotating, squatting, lunging, and jumping and landing, provide a foundation for holistic human development.  Depending on the time frame (i.e., class time, practice schedule, summer conditioning, etc.), all areas should be emphasized in some capacity on a daily basis.  This keeps the training fresh and fun, as well as comprehensive to learning these important motions.

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 exercises.  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 for optimizing middle school physical education and sport preparation.

Similar to a previous article on using a circuit training approach at the high school level, coaching and structuring the training circuits with multiple exercises does take time, and some careful preparation.  Initially, the coach or PE instructor will want to establish a movement as the focus for that training session or class.  If “pushing” is the focus of that day, 2-3 primary movements for the chest and arms should be formulated within the session, along with other complementary movements within the station.  By establishing a focus of the day, kids can ‘dial-in’ a specific movement and really learn the patterns associated.  Similar movements/exercises can be performed in addition to the primary movement, along with contrasting movements to continue the learning and practice of drills/exercises performed during previous classes or practices.  Some experimentation, along with trial-and-error, will need to be used based on the age, ability level, and attention span of the individuals, as well as the time allowed for the session.  A circuit training approach allows the focus of the day for the class/team to still  be followed, along with keeping the training ‘fresh’ and exciting, and stimulating other areas of concern for developing individuals.

Some key factors to remember when performing or establishing a circuit training approach in the middle school training/PE classroom space:

  • Establish space or areas 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 repositioning the space to ‘flow’ the circuits effectively.
  • Based on your group size, circuits can be set up within a small station allowing for a focused movement for that day, complimented by other complex or contrasting exercises 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 (30 seconds on / 45 seconds off), or in longer intervals (5 minutes) which allows the class/team to complete a certain station in an allotted time.
  • Primary movements like pushing, pulling, rotating, squatting, lunging, and jumping and landing (plyometrics) can be performed effectively in a circuit fashion.
  • Early adolescent males and females need a more versatile and holistic training approach to adequately develop good movement mechanics.
  • 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 – strength, speed, power, agility, aerobic capacity – with the overall goals of movement competency, versatility, and fun!

 

References:

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.

 

Mayorga-Vega, D., Viciana, J., & Cocca, A. (2013). Effects of a circuit training program on muscular and cardiovascular endurance and their maintenance in schoolchildren. Journal of human kinetics, 37(1), 153-160.

 

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