Are Gym Circuits Right For You?

Most large gym franchises (24 Hour Fitness, Golds, LA Fitness) as well as many small independent gyms offer what’s referred to as a “circuit” for your workouts. A circuit consists of a series of machines (usually 8-12) placed in an oval or circuitous line, designed to hit every body part. You start on any machine of your choosing (although some gyms actually have them numbered consecutively), then follow the machines around until you have used each one. Simple, right?

Yet I find that 99% of gym members misuse or simply do not understand how to effectively use the circuit. Members either follow the circuit in a robotic fashion still performing the exercises exactly the way they were shown in their sign up demonstration (which unfortunately is usually wrong), or they avoid the circuit completely. To many gym-addicts, the circuit carries a stigma of “for beginners only” and egos shy away.

But the circuit provides several great options to beginners and advanced lifters alike. There’s the obvious benefit that you can get a total work out completed in a relatively short period of time. But other perks include that you’re less likely to need a workout partner (a spotter if you’re lifting heavy), and less likely to get injured if you don’t have perfect form.

So how do you decide if the gym circuit is right for you, and more importantly, how do you effectively use a circuit to increase muscle tone and lower body fat? Well, here’s the skinny (excuse the bad pun):

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The circuit is right for you if you are a beginner; if you are looking to do something very different than you’ve done the last several months; or if you want a total body workout in 30 minutes or less. A circuit of machines usually consists of the following:

  • Chest press
  • Pec Fly
  • Lat Pull Down
  • Back Row
  • Shoulder Press
  • Biceps
  • Triceps
  • Leg Press
  • Hamstring Curl
  • Calf Raises
  • Ab Crunches

Performing 3-4 sets on each machine, one machine at a time, will allow you to hit every major (and some minor) muscle groups.  If time is crucial to you, you can use the upper body machines one day, and hit the lower body on your next gym visit.

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Being that the circuit is comprised of machines (vs. free weights) and that they have a limit to how much weight is available, your best approach is to start with lighter weights lifting for more repetitions. A great, and underutilized tool of machines is the easy ability to do “drop sets.” When incorporating a drop set into your routine, you start with the heaviest weight you can handle, then every 5-10 reps, you drop the weight by 5-10 lbs until you are down to a very low weight.

Example: Chest press 50 lbs x 12 reps
40 lbs x 10 reps
30 lbs x 8 reps
20 lbs x 5 reps

That’s one set. Do it again starting from the top 3-4 more times. By the end you’ll be pushing hard to do those last 5, but it’s a great way for beginners or people wishing to avoid bulking up to tone muscles fast. (You can also do reverse drop sets, starting with lighter weight and moving heavier.)

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Form is of great importance with all resistance training, and this is where the most confusion and misuse of the circuit machines occur. Almost all of them have seats and/or backs that need adjusting to your height. How do you know where is the right placement for you? Usually the machines offer a diagram or a “spot point” where your knees or elbows should line up to. Use that as a guideline. Otherwise, make sure that your back is supported, and that when you perform the motion, your elbow, knees or shoulder joints are not feeling strained. You want to try and isolate the designated muscle (biceps, triceps, hamstrings, etc.) It may take you a few tries and adjustments but soon you’ll know exactly where to set the seats.

As for range of motion, the slower and fuller you can perform each exercise, the better. Take a biceps curl – if you don’t straighten your arms fully (i.e., you keep a bend to your elbow at all times) you will be cheating yourself out of toning the lower portion of the biceps. If you see a large muscle-bound man speedily performing a chest press where he only pushes the weights about 2 inches off his chest, he’s not only lifting too heavy, he’s not accessing all his pectorals have to offer.

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As for what weight to pick, if you can perform 20 reps and it never gets hard, it’s too light. If you can’t even get through 8, it’s too heavy. Also keep in mind that you will gain strength over time, so you’ll need to adjust the weights (heavier by 5 lbs, etc.) about half way through a 4-week period.

Hopefully this will help you see the circuit in a better or less intimidating fashion. As always, you should never stick to the same routine for more than about 6 weeks, but give the circuit a try and I suspect you’ll become a fan. If you would like a personalized circuit routine created for you, please visit my website http://www.workouts247.com.

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