Even if you are new to weight training, you have probably heard of the debate between circuit training versus traditional weight training. You may be confused as to what protocol to follow. Do you lift light weights or heavy weights? How long do you rest in between sets? Which exercises should go together? How long should a workout last? Is this bodybuilding?
In traditional training, one set of an exercise is performed for a repetition range of 6 to 12 reps. There are 2 to three minutes of rest and then another set is done. And then perhaps another set is done. If you do less than 6 reps with a heavier weight, you get more of a neurological effect, that is, you will get stronger in that exercise but your muscles will not necessarily get pumped. If you do more than 12 reps, you will not get much stronger but will develop more endurance strength for that exercise.
Most beginners start off doing what are called the big 5: Squat, Bench Press, Bent Rows, Press (overhead) and Deadlift. The protocol looks something like this:
Squat: 3-5 sets with 8 to 12 reps per set.
Bench Press: 3-5 sets with 6 to 10 reps per set.
Bent rows: 3-5 sets with 6-10 reps per set.
Press: 3-5 sets with 8-12 reps per set.
Deadlift: 1-2 sets with 4-6 reps per set.
You were told to train this way 3 times a week and maybe doing deadlifts only once or twice weekly and to eat a lot of meat sandwiches and drink a lot of milk every day. Maybe after six months you split train between upper and lower body.
One word for the traditional way: Boring. Beginners are usually taught this way of training in order to acclimate their muscles and nervous system to the activity of lifting weights which, let’s face it, is not the most natural activity in the world. You can’t really compare traditional weight training to any other kind of activity such as a warehouse or construction job. In a warehouse job, you need to use your muscles constantly lifting and loading for hours and hours on end (with short 15 minute breaks every 4 hours. In the gym you’re lifting, pushing and pulling 80% of your one rep max. The goal is to best yourself since the last time with another repetition or more weight on the barbell—not seeing how fast you can load a truck. In less than an hour in the gym, your traditional workout is done. In the warehouse, you have seven more hours to go.
One positive thing to say about the traditional way is that if you are completely new to weight training, that is, if your nervous system with all the motor units connected to your spine are completely untouched by any weight training system, the traditional way works and it works quite well. In fact, if you end up continuing your training, you will look back years later to realize that your greatest muscular gains and size occurred at the beginning of your weight training experience when you were doing very simple basic traditional training. Ah, the good old days; ah, purity.
As time goes on you hear about split training, supersets, speed training, maximal training, drop sets, negative training, rest pauses, and there is this interesting kind of workout you hear about once in awhile and they call it circuit training.
“That’s a chick thing isn’t it? I mean, what self respecting iron masher would lower the poundages on all the exercises for a 30 minute excursion into some weird form of cardio?”
Circuit training is a form of aerobic conditioning utilizing exercise stations. Typically, you engage in 10 to 12 exercises (or even less) one after the other. You perform each exercise with perhaps 50-60% of your one rep max, resting only 30 seconds in between each different exercise. When you have gone through one round of all the exercises, you have completed one circuit. Then you do another circuit and perhaps one more. It is usually not good to do more than 3 circuits because after 3, your form suffers due to extreme fatigue.
Circuit training will kick your butt. It increases blood lactate levels and puts a significantly higher workload on the heart than traditional training. Although the blood pressure remains about the same, the heart rate goes up greatly as well as what is called the recovery rate pressure product (RPP). The RPP is gotten by taking the resting heart rate and multiplying by systolic blood pressure. What this means is that circuit training places greater oxygen demands on the heart. It is not uncommon to see people gasping for breath at the end off their workout.
Circuit training is safe. It develops both strength and aerobic capacity  and is a safe form of training for even cardiac patients. And do you think it is for only light weights?
Consider the study  done in which 10 subjects were tested for doing both heavy resistant circuit training (HRC) and passive rest strength training sets (TS). For both protocols they trained with the same few exercises performing a 6 rep maximum for each set. The difference, however, was that for (HRC) there were only 35 seconds of rest between sets whereas for (TS) there was a 3 minute rest in between sets (passive recovery). Interestingly enough, the bar velocity, power and number of reps were the same for each protocol. The only difference was that the cardiovascular load was significantly greater for the circuit training protocol.
In the last study, the subjects were not exactly beginners. They supposedly already had “strength training experience” but they were probably beginners in circuit training.
So you see, you can have strength training and cardio at the same time. If you’re interested in keeping your workouts short, getting stronger, maximizing hypertrophy, changing body composition and burning fat all at the same time, circuit training may be the way to go. It doesn’t have to all weights; you can put some chins, dips and crunches for abdominals in there as well. You can also mix it up a bit to make it high intensity interval training (HIIT) by inserting jumping rope and step ups in between exercises here and there.