Popular in many gyms today is the notion of ‘circuit’ training. Standing before you are several rows of dozens of weight machines. They are shiny and new and you know they can be used to hit every muscle of the body. The pins allow you to go heavy, and it may sound good in theory to train the full body completely in one sitting, and be able to return to the gym quickly afterwards, 48 hours later, and do it again. But is this the right way to go? Let’s dig in deeper to circuit training to decide if we should be using it or not.
There are some advantages of circuit training. This is undeniable. If you are on the road, in a rush, or just feel like a change of pace, you can’t really do that much harm to your body by training all of the muscle groups in one series of trips around the machines. You will stimulate fibers to grow, and you may maintain some of the muscle that you built with regular weights. For those who are new to exercise, fresh from a sedentary lifestyle, the thought of circuit training is a wonderful one. You can get your body active again without the need to balance heavy barbells and dumbbells! If you aren’t looking to build a lot of muscle onto your body, then circuit training might be useful.
Circuit training also has its drawbacks. If you wish to build a great deal of new muscle – or even maintain all of the muscle created with the use of heavy free weights – then moving through a series of moderately weighted machines for your full body just isn’t going to be adequate. Your muscles will not endure the insanely heavy weights, the blood flow, and the muscle fiber teardown that occurs with an all-out leg day, for example. Stabilizer muscles are those that support the main muscle groups of the body when training. They balance the bar when you are bench pressing, or keep you from tipping over when you are squatting. If you stick to machines and use moderate weights, these muscle groups will never fully develop. The requirement for balance and controlled leverage is gone – you are just blindly pushing up a weight.
Some variations of circuit training can be used with muscle-building success. Consider an empty gym to be your playground when it comes to chest day. Smith machine, incline dumbbell stations, cable crossover and parallel dip bar stations can be used in conjunction with one another to deliver an insanely heavy chest workout, employing pre-exhaust and training-to-failure techniques. However, they must follow the more traditional method of “all out training for one body part each day” instead of the full-body nature of circuit training, in order to deliver the muscle building volume that is required.
Noteworthy is the usefulness of circuit training when coming back from an extended break or injury. At times like this, your muscle groups may not be capable of moving the same kind of volume. Some people have found success with full body workouts – ranging from Tabata to Spartan workouts. Essentially, it all comes down to the intensity delivered, the volume of blood brought into the targeted muscle groups, and the amount of damage you can inflict in the gym. Free weights initiate the use of stabilizer muscles, which makes all the difference. No machine can emulate that, unfortunately.
The bottom line is that the effectiveness of circuit training is directly related to your goals. If you would like to “tone” up your body and perhaps harden up your physique a small amount, then perhaps circuit training will fit the bill for you. On the other hand, if you want to look like you work out even when you are wearing clothing, then circuit training might not be enough to cover your needs. The fact of the matter is that the kind of muscle we see on bodybuilders is built from using dozens of sets per body part each week, with each major body part enjoying its own training day, with a smaller body part tagging along. This is why chest & triceps or back & biceps days are so popular. The amount of intensity and pain inflicted with 20 sets of chest training will take the average lifter a full week to recover from. If you can bounce back from a back workout in two days, then you are obviously not training back hard enough to deliver any real sustained growth.
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