The JOMH Guide to Circuit Training

CrossFit. P90X. HIIT. Turbulence. Insanity. Tabata. Gibala. Multi-Modal. MMA-style training…

The list could go on. Point being, if you’re even remotely into physical training, odds are you’ve heard or read about one of these terms or “brands” in recent years. You may even be a regular member at a gym that focuses on one of these forms of high-intensity training methods. It’s no surprise this ass-kicking training style has become one of, if not the, most popular way to get a workout in these days. For the average time crunched individual, circuit training will get you fitter, stronger, and help you cut weight faster in less time per workout than you ever thought possible.

As popular, and effective, as these quick and (often) dirty approaches to training are there are good and bad ways to build a circuit program when you have a specific event or goal in mind. Mountain hunting would be one of these highly specific goals.

If you’ve been a regular reader of this column, you’ll know that we believe in a “strength first” approach to hunt preparation. Get strong, spend lots of time on your feet under load, ideally in field conditions, and then refine and tailor your program specifically to your needs and weaknesses from there. No ifs, ands or buts.

But you’ll also know that we believe that a well-rounded program that truly prepares you for the dynamic (aka unknown and unpredictable) demands of multi-day backcountry hunting must absolutely include periods of high-intensity focused training. See some of our previous articles like Horsepower and Chaos Theory for more on this.

Note the emphasis on periods in that last sentence. Too many people focus exclusively on high-intensity training and worse, don’t approach this critical component of their programming with the same rigor and “trim the fat” mindset that goes into the rest of their preparation. We’d argue that for every minute spent researching gear, optics, ballistics or archery equipment the mountain hunter should be spending at least two minutes researching and critically analyzing their physical training regimen. Simply throwing together a bunch of “functional” lifts with a healthy dose of conditioning focused movements mixed in does not create a field worthy circuit. In reality, there are simple but sophisticated ways to design a mountain ready circuit and, perhaps more importantly, better times of year to focus on this style of training.

For most of you, the next 3 – 4 months will (and should) represent your “off-season” and this is the perfect time of year to change things up. If you’ve been following a strength and endurance focused program over the past few months now is the time to implement some high-intensity circuits. If you’ve been up to your eyeballs in circuit training however, think about changing things up to work on low rep, strength based work…but we digress. You get the point.

With next season’s hunts month away and most people’s bodies still recovering from the past season and time away from home, family and friends we more than appreciate the fact that motivation might be a little hard to come by in the early part of the year. This is the best time to include some quick, effective workouts into your routine. Get in, work smart, work hard and get out. In that order. So what do we mean by work smart?

For one, it’s critical you pick the right movements and exercises. It doesn’t matter how taxing the circuit is if it doesn’t have you working on field applicable strength, endurance and energy systems. As we covered in Train Movements Not Muscles there are, in our humble opinion, seven fundamental movements that should form the foundation of all your strength training. That’s not seven exercises, seven movements. There are numerous lifts or exercises that fall under each category. As a refresher these fundamental, field worthy movements are as follows (in no particular order):

  1. Push
  2. Pull
  3. Hinge
  4. Squat
  5. Loaded Carry
  6. Rotation
  7. Counter-Rotation

As long as any workout or program you put together focuses on lifts or exercises that challenges these fundamental movements you’ll be way ahead of the pack in your hunt preparation.

The second most important consideration in designing a well-balanced circuit that goes beyond simply kicking your ass, is the order in which these exercises are programmed. No different than structuring your week, month and year to challenge the body in complementary ways, every circuit should be designed with the same rigorous thought process. The easiest way to do this is to use a very basic three step rating method for your lifts: difficult, moderate, easy.

As a very important point of clarification, these three basic ratings refer to the exertion required from the entire neuromuscular system not the individual muscle groups. A lift or exercise like the push-up can be challenging, especially when done for max reps, but the overall taxation on the whole nervous system is very minimal. The deadlift on the other hand requires everything from your toes to your nose to be firing. We’ve included a table below as an example of how we’d rate a variety of lifts/exercises.

Keep in mind that these difficulty ratings will be relative to you and your needs. Once you’ve taken the time to build one of these rating tables the majority of the work is done. You can use it as a reference to design innumerable circuits. In the table below, we used red for difficult, yellow for moderate and green for easy and lumped push/press lifts and rotation/counter-rotation exercises into one column each as the exercises that tax these movement planes often satisfy both needs.

Difficulty Rating Table Example:

Push/Press Pull Hinge Squat loaded carry Rotation
Single Arm (SA) KB Press Pull Up KB Swing Racked KB Squat Log Carry (over shoulder) Med Ball Throw (side)
Push Up Bent Over KB row SA KB Swing Goblet Squat Suitcase Carry (one arm only) Sledge Hammers
Stone Throw/Thruster Renagade Row Deadlift Bodyweight Lunge Zercher/Log Carry (under arm) TGU

Using this table, building a well rounded circuit is beyond simple. In serious strength training circles there’s a term that applies here: waving the load. This basic principle is the building block of many of the most successful gyms and strength training facilities around the world. It essentially means that to become the strongest, fittest, and most resilient athlete possible the body must be exposed to varied movements, loads and difficulty levels.

A good rule of thumb is to start with the most difficult lift first, descend in difficulty from there, then build back up. In the samples below you can see how we’d structure a single circuit using our table and the principle of waving the load. At the end of each circuit or set is a cardio component. To start, pick one lift from each of the fundamental movement columns and program them in descending then ascending order of difficulty as follows: red (hard), orange (moderate), green (easy), red (hard), orange (moderate), green (easy). For example:

SA KB Press, Bent Over Row, KB swing, Racked KB Squat, Zercher/Log Carry, Med Ball Throw, Rowing

For your next set work backwards in your table. If you went left to right, then go right to left in set two. For example:

TGU, Suitcase Carry, Goblet Squat, Deadlift, Renagade Row, Stone Throw/Thruster, Treadmill

For the third circuit, just fill in whatever you haven’t done. It’s that easy!

Pull Up, Push Up, SA KB swing, Bodyweight lunge, Log carry over shoulder, Sledge Hammers, 20” Step Ups or Box Jumps

You could also simply repeat each of these for 3 – 4 sets with 2 – 3 minutes rest between sets as standalone workouts. This is the beauty of circuit training. Once you’ve got the appropriate lifts/exercises sorted out and the concept of waving the load down pat, you can get creative and keep your training interesting and your motivation high during this slow time of the year.

As far as reps and rest periods are concerned you’ll know better than us what your body can handle but suffice to say this is not the kind of training where maximum loads are the focus. Generally speaking you should be working in the 8 – 12 rep range for lifts or exercises involving weights (KB or DB), max reps for bodyweight exercises, 30m – 50m distances for weighted carries , and max reps in a 30 sec – 1 min time frame with things like med ball tosses or sledgehammers. The cardio component should last 1 – 3 minutes and be near maximal effort for the time period selected. Rest periods between sets should fall within the 1 – 2 minute range.

So rather than sitting around, “resting” and packing on an extra 10 – 20 pounds of weight you’ll just have to work doubly hard to lose come spring, take the next few months to explore a well thought out high intensity training program. Designed and implemented properly, this is an invaluable component to your overall strength and durability come next fall. Work smart, work hard, stay alpha. Get MTNSTRONG.



Posted by JOMH Editor