When I was actively playing sports in high school, weight training was as leaden and uninspiring as the 45 pound discs we all hoped to rack up on the barbell. One particular strength coach, his thick neck roped with arteries, suggested the following routine: one muscle group, worked to absolute failure, each day of the week. For instance, on the day we were to train our chests (everyone’s favorite as the desire for full pectorals is deeply coded into the brains of boys) this guy had us line up next to the bench. One by one we would each do a set of as many repetitions we could muster at whatever the heaviest weight manageable was. The goal was to fail around the tenth repetition. And that was it! Hit the showers, boys. Of course he had a huge neck, so we all assumed his was the path to similar, collar-busting glory. I’m not sure anybody even broke a sweat. I did develop a persistent pain in my lower back, though.
Thankfully, straining beneath huge weight once per day has fallen from favor. Instead circuit training has become massively popular under the guise of countless branded programs. I chuckle each time I see a new one advertised; circuit training is as old as Jack Lallane. No—older: Spartan boys training in the brutal Agoge camps performed the Pyrrhiche, a repetitive dance routine of explosive lunges, thrusts, pivots and jumps—all while wielding bronze shield and javelin. The idea hasn’t changed much: a circuit of similar, weighted exercises executed with vigor and according to a strict clock is an ideal, if grueling, way to boost performance.
All that is required is a set of modest weights, perhaps a cinderblock (or the slightly less rudimentary kettle bell) and a clear space. From lunges to cleans, squats to rows, the variety of exercises is vast: choose five, executing each without rest during the transitions and repeat three or four times. But circuit training scales down very well—right down to training for nothing more romantic than general physical fitness. And the only requirements for that noble goal are a few memorized floor exercises, a scant fifteen minutes and some degree of persistence.
A modest circuit might begin with fifty jumping jacks, followed by fifty lunges, twenty-five pushups and twenty-five sit-ups. This might sound too modest to some. I must pause here to relate a brief story about just that. A few years ago I was asked to help out with my old high school wrestling team. For one reason or another I was put in charge of conditioning. In advance of the first practice, I put together a relatively modest circuit, similar to the one above. The other coaches thought it far too lenient. I persisted, as I wanted to gain a sense of general fitness in the room. We were all dismayed, though, to learn that virtually no one could get through three circuits without real strain and, toward the end, sloppiness. And therein lies the secret of the circuit; most people can get through one, but will subsequent rounds be all flailing arms and jellied legs?
Happily, by the end of the season, I had the team conditioned to a more suitable standard. That modest circuit expanded from four simple exercises to seven challenging ones. Three circuits could be crisply executed. These particular exercises were tailored to the needs of those wrestlers, which is to say explosive strength in the legs, an iron trunk and arms that would not fail. I’ve reproduced the original circuit below, but unless you are training for a spot in the varsity lineup (or to be a Spartan warrior) a simpler series of four or five familiar or favorite floor exercises should suffice. Performed quickly and honestly, a more efficient workout just doesn’t exist, and at absolutely no risk of popping the buttons from your collars.