Inactivity is taking its toll on human beings. As fitness professionals, we are keenly aware that society is fascinated with the human body—with losing fat, specifically—and yet, getting people to exercise is still a major obstacle. Obesity, a significant and growing health problem, has been associated with heart disease, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, hypertension and hyperinsulinemia, among other conditions. The numbers speak louder than words. Overweight is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9, obesity as having a BMI equal to or greater than 30. Fifty-five to 60 percent of adults over the age of 18 have a BMI of at least 25; approximately 22 percent have a BMI of 30 or higher (Jakicic et al. 2001).

How can we help people maintain long-term programs that will reverse inactivity and obesity? There are no easy answers. However, research shows that exercise adherence increases when people work out in groups and that the social aspects of group exercise are meaningful reasons people continue with it (Annesi 1996). Circuit training, a group exercise program that can also be adapted for individuals, may provide some promising
exercise adherence clues. Taking the concept one step further, creative and thematic circuit training combines the group characteristic with unique programming—providing a one-two punch that combats boredom and hopefully increases compliance.

Before you begin this circuit, teach abdominal “hollowing.” Kneel with your hands on your hips. Exhale and pull your abdominals and stomach in as far as they will go. Now do this while lying on your back. Repeat these moves before each exercise.

Enhancing Exercise Adherence

Various factors influence exercise adherence. Many people start out as willing participants after looking at the ratio of cost (energy and time to do the exercise) to benefit (health, weight management, longevity, looks) and determining the exercise’s worth. However, many also ponder whether they can successfully perform the exercise. They may choose not to start—or continue—a fitness program simply because they perceive they can’t do it well (Annesi 1996).

Self-concept also factors heavily into the equation. Clients will regularly evaluate how their programs are helping them look and feel. Support from friends and significant others is also critical. “Creating exercise groups based on clients’ individual needs and similarities sets them up for success,” says James Annesi, PhD, in Enhancing Exercise Motivation: A Guide to Increasing Fitness Center Member Retention (Leisure Publications 1996). Although a discussion of all the psychological aspects of exercise retention is beyond the scope of this article, Annesi stresses that as many as 90 percent of exercisers prefer not to be alone while exercising. Group circuit training directly addresses this preference.

Traditional Circuit Training

Circuit training was developed by R.E. Morgan and G.T. Anderson in 1953 at the University of Leeds in England (Sorani 1966). The term circuit refers to a number of deliberately chosen exercises arranged in a specific order. In the original format, nine to 12 stations make up the circuit. Participants move from one station to the next with little (15 to 30 seconds) or no rest, performing a 15-to-45-second workout of eight to 20 repetitions at each station (with resistance in the range of 40 to 60 percent of one-repetition maximum). The program may involve exercise machines, handheld weights, elastic resistance, calisthenics or a combination of these. In many cases, the circuit’s design is predicated on the number of participants and the equipment available.

With a 30-second to 3-minute (or longer) aerobics component between each station, the goal expands to include improving cardiorespiratory endurance. The “Balanced Strength and Cardio” circuit is an example of a circuit that incorporates traditional aerobic training into a resistance training setting:

Balanced Strength and Cardio

Station 1 chest press

Station 2 3 minutes of cardio on cycle

Station 3 leg press

Station 4 3 minutes of cardio on step

Station 5 lat pull-down

Station 6 3 minutes of cardio on rower

Station 7 leg curl

Station 8 3 minutes of cardio on cycle

Station 9 shoulder press

Station 10 3 minutes of cardio on step

Station 11 heel raise

Station 12 3 minutes of cardio on rower

Another variation (below)—with three consecutive resistance stations followed by a cardio station—provides more muscle training. Note that with this design, the first and third exercise of every muscular training trio emphasizes a similar group of muscles. This creative approach is useful for emphasizing a client’s specific goals or special needs.

Tri-Set Circuit

Station 1 chest press

Station 2 leg press

Station 3 incline press

Station 4 3 minutes of cardio on step

Station 5 step forward lunge

Station 6 dumbbell flye

Station 7 hamstring curl

Station 8 3 minutes of cardio on cycle

Station 9 shoulder press

Station 10 lat pull-down

Station 11 lateral raise

Station 12 3 minutes of cardio on rower

Station 13 dumbbell biceps curl

Station 14 triceps extension

Station 15 reverse arm curl

Station 16 3 minutes of cardio on step

Successful circuit training is limited only by creativity, space and equipment. Inventive circuits can offer new and different ways not just to improve aerobic and anaerobic conditioning but also to address site-specific fitness concerns (e.g., back and abdominals). The physiological benefits depend on the exercise type, intensity and duration. The examples in this article introduce innovative ideas that fitness instructors can use to motivate clients and help them reach their fitness goals.

Circuit Administration

Before designing a circuit, consider these administrative concerns:

Music, Station Changes and Timing. Choose music that motivates. In most cases the music is background and you don’t have to worry about beats per minute. Over the years I have experimented with various audio techniques for directing participants to change stations. These techniques range from recording tapes with “fade-ins” and “fade-outs” at the designated times to making tapes with voice-overs. However, I have found that using a unique sound, like a bicycle horn or musical party instrument, works most conveniently. If you have a microphone, simply telling participants to change works effortlessly. A stopwatch or large clock helps maintain the appropriate timing at each station.

Room Size, Traffic Flow and Station Signs. The room should be large enough to set up the different stations and still allow enough room for participants to move freely between the stations. Traffic flow is a concern and takes some planning. Although a number of possibilities exist, most people are familiar with clockwise direction. Using this pathway, you’ll have fewer traffic jams and spend less time instructing participants where to go next. If you have the resources, create signs that detail in pictures and words how to do the exercises at each station.

Equipment. Equipment availability will determine the type of exercises you include in your circuit. Use your equipment in all possible ways. (In the “Define Your Midline” circuit, for example, we used a step in several positions.)

Class Size. Planning for a circuit training class may be difficult if you have an unpredictable number of participants from class to class. Most instructors know approximately how many people will attend class; plan for the higher range to be on the safe side.

Mainstreaming New Participants. Circuit workouts are suitable for new participants. If you sense a newcomer needs a confidence boost, ask her to buddy up with a regular participant who will help her learn the exercises at each station, as you may not be able to give her personalized attention.

Sequencing. There are a number of ways to sequence circuit stations. In traditional circuit training it was popular to alternate from upper to lower body or sequence by opposing muscle groups. While nothing is wrong with these methods, you can incorporate other training techniques (as shown in the “Tri-Set Circuit”). Depending on fitness levels, class goals and time constraints, you may have participants repeat the circuit more than once.

Safety. Don’t compromise safety standards. Explain all stations thoroughly. Here are some key safety points:

  • Don’t rush. Participants need time to complete each station using proper technique.
  • Improvise. Use cones with stations that call for leaping over an object. Tripping over a step is easy to do, but hitting a cone results in nothing more than a piece of plastic tipping over on the floor and no loss of balance.
  • Avoid repetitive movement. Consecutive jumping stations, for example, can lead to overuse injuries.

Exercise Machines. If you design a circuit on exercise machines, instruct participants to choose loads that will allow them to complete anywhere from eight to 20 repetitions (determined by the group’s fitness level). Higher-intensity loads are fine for more athletic classes but may be too fatiguing for general fitness classes.

Motivational Circuits

While traditional circuits are effective, adding a modern twist increases the likelihood that your circuit will attract new participants and keep the ones you have. University of New Mexico students have developed several unique and creative circuit classes that exemplify a diverse range of ideas:

  • Define Your Midline Circuit (featured in this article)
  • Military Training Circuit (exercises you would see in a “boot camp” class)
  • Team Sports Conditioning Circuit (exercises from football, basketball, volleyball and baseball)
  • Around the World Circuit (exercises from different parts of the world)
  • Olympic Games Circuit (featured in this article)
  • Soccer and Rugby Circuit (all soccer and rugby drills)
  • Ultimate Combat Circuit (boxing and cardio kickboxing exercises)
  • Ski Training Circuit (numerous ski conditioning exercises)
  • Buddy Workout Circuit (partner exercises)
  • TV Break Circuit (creative exercises that the students determined could be done at home during TV commercials)
  • Balance and Stability Circuit (all balance and stability exercises)

When it comes to inspiring people to exercise, fitness professionals need to use unique, imaginative methods whenever possible. Time spent planning and creating circuits is professionally rewarding and produces motivational strategies that can increase exercise compliance and help your students succeed.