Timed Circuits: Pace Yourself for Maximum Fat Loss
by Chris Bathke
We’ve all heard the saying by Benjamin Franklin: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.”
While we can’t speak for the long-dead Mr. Franklin, we’re pretty darn sure that if he were alive today he would expand his list of life certainties to three: death, taxes, and packed gyms in January.
Most hardcore trainers will agree that the January gym crowd is about as annoying as a Hanna Montana marathon. They all seem to show up at the same time on the first Monday evening after New Years, full of piss and vinegar from yet another drunken New Year’s resolution to finally lose that “last 10 pounds.” Fortunately for us, after two or three weeks of wandering from cardio machine to cardio machine, these misguided souls generally slink away when they realize that this whole fat-loss thing actually takes a little work.
If you see the need to drop a belt loop or two this month but don’t want to get lumped in with the “read the paper on the stationary bike crowd,” coach Chris Bathke has an out-of-the-box program that thumbs its nose at traditional cardio training. But as you can well imagine, it takes work. But you’re no New Years Noob; you can handle it.
It’s that time of year again! You know, the one when we have to confront the cruel reality of what happens to our physique as a result of saying yes to that third serving of pumpkin pie too many times.
But instead of just telling you to get in touch with your inner hamster and hop on the treadmill or puke your way through torturous rounds of Tabata intervals, here are some ideas for dropping fat and making progress in other areas at the same time.
Many of you might be familiar with density circuits of the type that strength coaches Robert Dos Remedios and Charles Staley advocate, in which one seeks to increase the number of rounds done in a given time period or a set number of rounds as quick as possible.
I’m a huge fan, and these work great for improving conditioning, power, endurance, and hypertrophy. However, with a slight twist regarding pace, we can add the incentive of rest, and thus create motivation to work faster and create a significant metabolic effect.
Just be warned, as the consensus of everyone that has performed these circuits is that they well, suck. But if you’re the type of person that revels in suffering, this will be right up your alley.
For those that still want to get in some strength work, I’ve found that a couple of movements done for 3×5, 5/3/1, or whatever you favor, done before these circuits, works well for most people to maintain or even improve strength. Needless to say, if your primary goal is strength or hypertrophy, then use an appropriate program.
This is how it works.
Start out with one or two 12 minute circuits per training session. Eventually, you’ll progress to 15 minute circuits, but wait a couple of weeks before increasing time. We’re going to focus on increasing the amount of work in the 12-minute period before moving to longer circuits. When you try it, you’ll know why.
Exercises: For the first circuit we’ll use three compound movements. You’ll want to typically choose one lower body movement, one upper, and a third that compliments the other two. In other words, a pulling movement works well with a push and a squat variation. For example:
1B) Clean and push press (or jerk)
1C) Front squat
Note that all three can be done with minimal equipment and space, which has obvious benefits if you train in a big box gym, and also maximizes rest time. For cleans and front squats, I prefer using kettlebells due to being able to rack the bells on your chest, but you can also use a barbell or dumbbells.
Rest between sets: You’ll do one movement per minute, and then switch to the next movement at the top of the minute.
So for the above example, finish all the prescribed chin-ups (more on that below) in one minute, and then you’ll get whatever time is remaining in the minute to rest until the start of the second minute, when you switch exercises. After you finish the front squats in the third minute you’ll return to chins again in the fourth. So for a 12-minute set you’ll be doing 4 rounds of each movement, and for a 15-minute set you’ll be doing 5 rounds.
Reps: If you can do a maximum of 10 consecutive chin-ups, then do only five per set. If you can do a max of 15, then do eight per set; and if you can do 15+, then go for ten reps. You get the idea. If you can’t do 10 chin-ups then substitute band-assisted chins or inverted rows. The idea is to work at a set pace, or number of reps per minute, and try to maintain that volume the entire circuit.
Load: On the cleans and push presses and front squats, choose a load you can do for 15 good reps. The clean and push press is obviously comprised of two movements, so just do 5 per set. Do 10 front squats per set. If using KBs, try using the same size bells for both the cleans and squats.
Once you complete the last rep of each movement, rest until the end of that minute. I suggest using a Gym Boss, or similar timer that can be programmed to beep at the top of each minute. It may seem easy at first, but just wait until you hit the halfway point and you’ll think differently.
One reason to start with a conservative number is to ensure each rep is done with perfect form and a full range of motion. Keep the quality of movement good and no slop!
You should be able to finish all three exercises for the required reps for the first few rounds of the circuit within 20 to 30 seconds, and then use the remainder of the minute to rest until the start of the next minute. But as you begin to fatigue it’ll get harder, which forces you to work harder in order to finish and allow yourself some rest, thus providing a greater metabolic effect.
If you can’t keep doing the prescribed reps, then drop a rep or two. The idea is to keep working with perfect form and gradually increase the amount of work. Provided your nutrition is on point, any strength coach will tell you that improving work capacity and conditioning has a significant benefit on body composition.
Progression: Make sure to keep track of how many total reps are done each circuit. The next time you do the same circuit, try to add a rep each minute. Once you can add two reps to each exercise and maintain that pace for the 12 minutes, then either nudge the weight up slightly or move to a 15-minute circuit. The choice is yours.
For second circuits, I tend to favor exercises that aren’t loaded as heavy, or even bodyweight movements. Examples of this could be:
2B) Lateral lunge
2C) Inverted row on rings/TRX or barbell
Use the same rules regarding loading and volume as with the first circuit, and of course maintain strict form. If you’re doing a unilateral exercise then halve the volume, so for the above example do five lunges on each side.
I find that most people are good with using the same size dumbbells or KBs with the renegade rows and lunges, so again we can be efficient with equipment and space.
Other combinations that work well are:
• Single leg Romanian deadlifts/DB bench press/DB row
• Glute ham raise/Lat pulldown (can be done on same station)/Bulgarian split squats
• Judo pushups/KB swings/woodchops
• Single leg squats/ab wheel rollout/cable row
• Farmer’s carry/dips/burpees
If you have the equipment available, then sleds, sandbags, and battling ropes are also great tools for this type of circuit as they allow you to keep a hard pace, yet are relatively easy on the joints. I have a number of clients that have had hip, knee, or back surgeries that do well on such circuits with this equipment.
Feel free to get creative and come up with your own combinations, but make sure to include a mix of pulling and pushing, core, and hip and knee dominant movements over the entire session.
Six total movements should do for one day, along with mobility and pre-hab work of course, so stick with two circuits per session, or one if you do some preceding strength work. Two or three days per week of paced density circuits plus another day of intervals or other work is ideal for most people.
If you choose to do two days per week, then pick four circuits total and arrange them into an A and B day. If you want to do three days per week than pick six different circuits and arrange them into and A, B, and C day and get after it.
Stick with the same circuits for three to four weeks so that you can try to improve on the previous week’s result before switching it up.
Another way to up the intensity and improve results is to work with a training partner or two. Having each person start on a different exercise and rotating through is a great way to push each other and inject that elusive element of fun into your training.
Dropping those holiday pounds and getting in shape doesn’t have to be boring or monotonous. Though the diet end of things might seem a little bland after a month of pumpkin pie and eggnog, at least you can still make your training as challenging and enjoyable as possible.
Give it a try and let me know what you think.
Kettlebell clean and press.
Barbell front squats.
Single Leg Romanian Deadlift