Training Circuit Training for Strength

Circuit Training for Strength


Ed McNeely – Peak Centre for Human Performance

Time is a precious commodity. Most of us don’t have nearly as much as we would like. It is difficult to balance a career or school with training and family commitments. So how is it possible to juggle everything and still have an effective workout? The answer is circuit training.

Circuit training has been around for many years. Traditionally circuits have consisted of either bodyweight and medicine ball exercises or low weight high rep weight training exercises designed to increase muscle tone or strength endurance. While this has been the norm, circuit training can be so much more. When designed properly circuit training can be an effective way of increasing strength and power.

 Designing a Power Circuit

The concept behind circuit training stays the same whether you are training for strength or strength endurance. A series of exercises are performed one after the other with little or no break between the exercises. The difference between power circuits and endurance circuits is found in the intensity and volume.


In order to increase strength you need to work with at least 60% 1RM. Usually strength circuits will be performed between 60% and 85% of 1RM. Higher intensity places a greater demand on the nervous system, requiring more rest between sets, making it difficult to perform circuit style. Endurance circuits would be done with less than 50% 1RM.


Volume is the total amount of work. It is usually calculated by adding up the total number of repetitions for each exercise. For instance 6 sets of 5 reps would be a volume of 30. For strength increases the volume of training for each exercise is normally 15-40 repetitions. This doesn’t mean 15-40 reps per set but rather the total volume is 15-40. If you did 3 x 10 on the bench press you would have done a volume of 30 if you did 6 x 5 you would also have a volume of 30. More volume in a session does not mean more strength gain. The stimulus to increase strength is like the button on an elevator. Push it and it will come, pushing the button more doesn’t make the elevator come any faster. More volume in a training session will only increase the time it takes to recover. As a general rule when you increase the volume of an exercise you will decrease the intensity.


Movement speed is critical to power development, particularly during the concentric or positive part of the movement. While slow movements have their place in a training program, the attempt to be as explosive as possible during the concentric part of the movement is the key to power development. This does not necessarily mean the weight, particularly a heavy weight, will be moving fast; but you should be trying to move it as fast as possible. The eccentric or negative needs to be controlled.

 Think Time not Reps

In order for a strength circuit to be effective you need to control fatigue. Fatigue during power training circuits will be caused by either a depletion of ATP-CP, the immediate source of energy in the muscles, or an accumulation of metabolites. If the fatigue is caused by depleting ATP-CP that’s fine because this energy system can recovery very quickly, 2-4 minutes for complete recovery, and allows you continue to work at the right intensity and speed.

The recovery time form high levels of metabolites can be as much as two hours. High levels of metabolites will make it difficult to work at the appropriate intensity, decreasing the effectiveness of the workout. To decrease the contribution of metabolites to fatigue the duration of each station in the circuit should be kept to 15 seconds or less. Notice that we aren’t recommending a specific number of reps because this can vary from exercise to exercise, depending on the range of motion and the weight used. A lot more reps can be done on an arm curl in 15 seconds than on a squat. The goal is to do as many reps as possible in the 15 second time frame, using good technique and a controlled eccentric. When the whole circuit is completed a 2-4 minute rest is taken before the next round to allow full recovery of your ATP-CP stores.

 Selecting the Exercises

The order of exercises in the circuit will also affect fatigue levels. Upperbody and lower body exercises need to be alternated to spread the fatigue as much as possible. You should alternate push and pull as well. For instance if your circuit starts with a pulling exercise like pulldowns you would then move to a lower body exercise like leg press, your next upperbody exercise would then need to be a pushing exercise like bench press and the lower body exercise would need to be a leg curl for the hamstrings.

 Sample Circuit


Exercise Circuit I Time/reps Circuit II Time/reps Circuit III Time/reps Circuit IV Time/reps Circuit VTime/reps Totals
Bench Pull 15s/ 8 15s/ 8 15s/ 8 15s/ 8 15s/0 32 reps
Leg Press 15s/ 6 15s/ 6 15s/ 6 15s/ 6 15s/ 6 30 reps
Bench Press 15s/ 6 15s/ 6 15s/ 6 15s/ 6 15s/6 30 reps
Leg Curl 15s/ 6 15s/ 6 15s/ 6 15s/ 6 15s/6 30 reps
Arm Curl 15 s/10 15 s/10 15 s/10 15s/0 15s/0 30 reps
Calf Raise 15s/15 15s/15 15s/0 15s/0 15s/0 30 reps
Overhead Press 15s/ 6 15s/ 6 15s/ 6 15s/ 6 15s/6 30 reps
Back Extension 15s/ 6 15s/ 6 15s/ 6 15s/ 6 15s/ 6 30 reps
Tricep Press 15s/ 10 15s/ 10 15s/ 10 15s/0 15s/0 30 reps
Rest        2 min Rest        2 min Rest        2 min Rest2 min


This is a circuit designed to give a total volume of about 30 reps for each body part with an intensity of about 70% 1RM. You won’t be near a failure point on any of the exercises. This is fine since failure is not necessary to increase power.

The number of repetitions you do in each 15 second set will depend on the exercise. Arm curls and calf raises have a much shorter range of motion than back extensions or leg press so you can do more reps in 15 seconds.

When you achieve the desired volume, 30 reps in this example, for an exercise the exercise is eliminated from the circuit and you take a 15 second rest when you get to that station. If you look at the calf raises you will see that after two circuits you have done the required 30 reps. For the remaining circuits you now take a 15 second rest when you get to the calf raise station. Do not continue to do calf raises because this will increase the volume too much and potentially overtrain your calves. Make sure to take the rest period. Do not move onto the next exercise and skip the rest period because you will ruin the upperbody-lowerbody pattern that you need to follow.

Under ideal conditions you can complete this circuit in under 25 minutes. If you need to wait for equipment or take a long time between stations your time will obviously increase. This type of full body circuit can be done twice a week with two days rest between sessions making it a very time efficient way to fit power training into a busy athlete’s program.


PEAK Centre staff have the highest certifications available in Canada for Sport Science. With their combined experience and education, PEAK Centre is at the forefront of practical Sport Science application.