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Building Circuits

Circuits are very much the escape rooms of working out. Most people have done one, they're very trendy and if you don't approach it correctly you're going to wish you never started it about 5 minutes in. So how do we avoid the trainwreck/dumpster fires that some circuits can become? I've used circuits for everyone from weekend warriors to Green Berets, international rugby players and new moms. I'm hoping this article will be useful for fitness professionals as well as people making their own workouts!


If you've been following my articles for the last few weeks you've probably watched me grasping at straws to come up with new ways to say "do things with a purpose". Circuits are a tool to help develop characteristics that lead you closer to your goal. Doing circuits because they're hard is like doing 1000 burpees and hoping it'll make you stronger. Aimless work isn't helpful, it's just difficult with no reward.

Below are the 5 most common reasons I include circuits in my athlete's training regimes:

#1 - Work Capacity: This is the most obvious reason for including circuits in your training. They're hard! You're usually doing more work than rest and doing a variety of exercises including full body movements and/or isolation movements. Putting yourself in a state of constant work your body must adapt and become fitter. What's not to love!

#2 - Efficiency: You're busy, you need to get lots of work into a short amount of time. By grouping lots of exercises you're not only developing desired characteristics you're also saving time. You can get 30 minutes of work into 15 minutes if you plan it correctly.

#3 - Compounding Fatigue: Especially with my tactical athletes preparing for special operations selection, they need to be able to perform exercises under fatigue. For example: placing rowing after a farmers carry will force them to work hard while their grip is weakened. This isn't something I would do for my weekend warriors, but for my clients who are literal warriors who need to have weapons in their hands all day - it's a necessity.

#4 - Enjoyment: Circuits are fun! When you're constantly switching exercises and have targets you're shooting for it's easy to get lost in the music and the moment and just work! It makes the time pass quicker as opposed to doing prescribed sets/reps in a typical training format.

#5 - Specificity: This will apply more towards athletes who are looking to apply their fitness in a competitive setting. Usually this will mean your "why" is a very specific scenario and you're looking to practice that skill/metric under fatigue. A great example of this is including rugby handling skills inside of a conditioning circuit. You might have one running station, one wrestling station and one skill station. During the skill station the athlete is resting their body as their coordination is challenged. This will transfer to on field skill performance under fatigue.

Building Your Circuit

Step #1 - Identify Your Goal

I use the word "building" intentionally. It really is a layered process. Once you have your "why" you'll know what characteristics you're going to try and develop. For the sake of this exercise, let's say the goal for this circuit is developing aerobic capacity, upper body endurance and core endurance. I'll show 4 workouts that all take ~20min to achieve the same thing.

Step #2 - Pick Your Structure

When selecting a structure for a workout there are several you can pick to program within. Below are just a few that I like using:

AMRAP (As Many Rounds As Possible): AMRAPs are a simple and effective programming tool. As a coach you know the client is going to work for the set time and you don't have to time out exercises. For example, I know that usually farmer carries take about 1sec per meter of carrying. You don't need to worry about things like that when you're essentially saying "work hard for 20min and let me know how it goes". When programming AMRAPs I typically give athletes an intensity to work at. Usually 8-9/10 effort. If they go for a true 10/10 effort usually we're sacrificing form and they will gas out.

Interval Workouts: These have become very popular in recent years. Even simpler than AMRAPs, you just pick the exercises and the work intervals and let the athlete get to work! The great thing about these workouts is they are very simple, exercises can be swapped out easily and the athletes work at their own pace so you can use them in a group setting easily. They're also mindless for the athlete so they don't have to count reps. BUT, you have to know your athlete. In the first set of workouts I gave to Canada' senior women's program I prescribed 1min on:30sec off biking interval session. Some athletes went 100% effort and were destroyed, some got a good sweat on but didn't hit it too hard. This is the tough thing with timed sessions - you really have to know your audience when prescribing.

EMOM (Every Minute On The Minute): This is a structure I use when controlling rest is important or a client has time limitations. The structure of this workout is that every minute you start a new exercise. So for example in the circuit below, if your 10 push ups take 15sec then you have 45sec rest before you do your sit ups. You can also do E2MOM, or "Every 5min start a new round" it's all the same principle.

Example: 10min EMOM

min 1: 10 push ups

min 2: 10 Sit Ups

Rounds: This is definitely the most difficult to program as you have to be mindful of the timing of every exercise. This is also different for every athlete, and you have to consider fatigue from round to round. I suggest if you have off feet cyclical conditioning (rowing, assault bike, etc...) prescribing a pace that is slower than their "balls out" pace so they don't gas out too early but it is very tough in the final rounds. If you're looking for savage round based workouts check out Ashley Jones' article here.

4 Examples:

20min AMRAP @ 8/10 Intensity:

5 Clap Push Ups

10 Supine Rows

15 BB Bicep Curls - 45#

20m Bear Crawl (10m forward, 10m backwards)

25sec Hold at top of Plank

300m Row (1min target)

Rest 30-60sec

21min Intervals (7x through this 3min circuit)

30sec Push Up

15sec Rest

30sec Flutter Kicks

15sec Rest

30sec Jump Squats

15sec Rest

15sec Burpee Pull Ups

30sec Rest

20min EMOM:

min 1: 250m Row (50sec target)

min 2: 20 Push Ups

min 3: 20 Sit Ups

min 4: 60sec Plank in Push Up Position

min 5: Rest

4 Rounds @ 8/10 Intensity:

5 Pull Ups

10 Hanging Knee Raise

15 Push Ups

20 Double Crunches

15cal Assault Bike - 80sec Target

10 Inch Worms

5 Chin Ups

Rest 60sec

All these circuits target the same characteristics but approach it in a different way.

Step #3 - Pick Your Reps

One thing you'll notice about all of the circuits above is that the reps are all fairly easy to follow. I've programmed them in a way that they're either the same reps for all exercises, multiples of the same base (i.e. base 5 in the Rounds workout), in a pyramid structure or ascending/descending numbers. There are a few reasons for this:

A) When you feel like dying you don't want to be trying to remember if it was 16 or 18 push ups you were supposed to do after your 144.98m row. In this case it's best to pick numbers that hit your targeted characteristic, but being a few reps off of "optimal" for that exercise is fine. If you need to you can offer modifications if the number of reps is higher than normal such as: "20 push ups, drop to knees if needed for last 5 reps"

B) Flow! Circuits should have some portions that make you want to die and some that allow you to recover to be able to crush the death part again each round. Below are 3 circuits I've recently programmed for a firefighter client of mine who is just looking for a good gasser once a week.

Week 1: 30min AMRAP @ 8/10

500m Row

4 KB Cleans per side

3 KB Thrusters per side

20 Double Crunches

100 Flutter Kicks

Rest 60sec

Week 2: 2x through each one

Circuit A

Row 500m then...5min AMRAP:

20 Russian Twists

15 Double Crunch

10 Oblique Crunches per side

5 Pull Ups


Rest 2min


Circuit B

Row 500m then...5min AMRAP:

20 BB Curls - 45#

15 KB Deadlifts

10 Push Ups


Rest 2min


Circuit C

Row 2km

Rest 3min

Week 3: 40min AMRAP @ 8/10

500m Row

10 Normal Push Ups

10 Wide Grip Push Ups

10 KB Rows per side

10 KB Swings

10 Front Rack Reverse Lunges per side

Rest 1min

I hope this article has given you a few ideas of how to better program your circuits for either yourself or your clients! If you're stuck at home and looking for a good gut buster - try the one below today.

20min AMRAP @ 8/10

10 Bodyweight Squats

20 Reverse Lunges (10 per side)

30sec Front Plank

20 Jumping Jacks

10 No Push Up Burpees

Rest 30-60sec


Mylan Clairmont MSc, CSCS

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