A Better Way to Perform Circuit Training

You’ve probably tried metabolic workouts before. But here’s why a different approach to circuits might lead to better results.

I have a few rules in life. They range from “never be greedy” to “always take a glance at a dessert menu to make sure you’re not passing on something amazing.”

For the most part, I don’t violate my rules, although sometimes I bend a little. I used to have a rule along the lines of, “don’t trust a trainer who has nicer gym clothes than you have suits.”

That was until I met the sultan of swagger, Rob Sulaver, founder and CEO of Bandana Training. Rob is the kind of guy who might train in a cardigan (rumors that I have yet to confirm), but he’s also built a reputation as one of the better young strength coaches.

It’s rare that you’ll find trainers spending as much time on investing in learning from other trainers as they do building their business. But that’s Rob.

I recently asked him to provide an overview of his approach to metabolic conditioning and strength training, which was a big part of his most recent program, The Super Villain Workout.

Here’s what you can learn about taking your intensity and metabolic workouts to the next level. -AB


By: Rob Sulaver of Bandana Training

Most of us have heard of circuit training, which in the simplest sense is a series of exercises done in sequence one-after-the-other with little to no break in between. It’s beautiful. It’s heart-pounding. It’s time-efficient. And it’s incredibly effective.

The biggest problem isn’t with the workouts. It’s trying to adapt them to your gym.

You know the feeling, you try to plan and prepare for your incredible workout, only to roll up to your gym at 6:00pm on a Tuesday and realize that the rest of the universe also decided to crash the party.

Training at 10:30 am? No problem. At high time, good luck trying to commandeer 5 pieces of equipment. Not to mention, most gyms aren’t always designed with circuit training in mind. If the leg press is 2 floors away from the seated row machine, a circuit with the two becomes a vision quest.

Enter complexes.

Complexes are a specific type of circuit training that utilizes one piece of equipment. So simple, right?

So, a dumbbell complex is a series of dumbbell exercises done in sequence, one-after-the-other with little to no break in between.

The best part: you only need one piece of equipment, so you eliminate most of the common hurdles of circuit training. Plus, they’re excellent for a home gym where space is often limited.

Complexes: Why They’re So Effective

The real genius of complexes is trapped in the science. This is an issue of  local vs. systemic fatigue. And understanding the difference could make the game-changer that allows you to start seeing more results from your weekly sweat-fest.

When you do bicep curls, you fatigue your biceps. Even if you push to the extreme, the limiting factor is your bicep.

There are many influences that play into your inability to do another bicep curl, but one of primary concerns is your body’s ability to create energy to keep your muscles working.

[For the science nerds: Lactic acid decreases the pH of our muscle, which inhibits our cells ability to produce energy. Hydrogen ions inhibit calcium binding to troponin (1) and interfere with cross-bridge formation (1).

What the hell does that mean? It means our muscles have less energy and can produce less force which means no more bicep curl. sad face]

Let’s take a breath, put down the physiology studies, and zoom out. To the bench press.

If you were to immediately move on to fatigue your chest, again the limiting factors is your chest.

But once that happens, then you could move on to your lats and glutes, then your quads, and finally your core.

See what’s happening? You end up accumulating all of this local fatigue, from each individual muscle group, which challenges your entire system. While each area becomes fatigued, linked them together builds a systemic process designed for progression and transformation. The workout has become greater than the sum of its parts.

But like anything else, there’s a smart way to program complexes and a dumb way to program them.

How to Design A Workout Complex

Let’s paint in broad strokes, so that you have as much flexibility as needed to build your workout.

  1. Generally speaking, you want the exercises to progress from most neurologically demanding to least. For instance, don’t do biceps curls before squats. As you progress through a complex, you accumulate fatigue. No sense doing the hardest exercise when you’re the most fatigued.
  2. Safety is worth considering. This is the “don’t-be-an-idiot” clause. You probably don’t want to do a heavy overhead squat as the last exercise in your complex.
  3. The workout should flow. What does this mean? Think about movement patterns. Progressing from a deadlift-to-high pull-to front squat-to overhead press not only works different muscles, but also links up the movements without having to drastically change body positions. This reduces your rest time and makes the complex as efficient as possible.
  4. Varying rep ranges is important in complexes. You can adjust to account for the discrepancy in strength for different exercises. For example, if you have a dumbbell reverse lunge, a dumbbell overhead press, a dumbbell bent-over row, a dumbbell chest press, and a dumbbell bicep curl, the bicep curl is probably going to be your most difficult lift if you use the same weight. (Think about it; you can squat much more than you can curl.) Now you can obviously switch out dumbbells if you’d like, but you can help keep the weights heavy by adjusting your reps. For example, you might do 10 reverse lunges per side, but only 5 bicep curls.
  5. Complexes are not an excuse for poor form. Actually, nothing is an excuse for poor form.

When designing complexes, the only other factor to consider is exercise selection. If you’re doing full-body workouts, even if you’re only pushing hard for 20 minutes, you’ll want to be mindful to not train too many days consecutively. The effectiveness of circuits and complexes are linked to the intensity. So if you can’t train at the highest intensity, then even the best workout design won’t be as effective.

Looking for more training strategies and detailed coaching videos like these? Be sure to check out Rob’s popular resource, The Super Villain Workout. 

[Eds note: Born Fitness makes no money and received no compensation for the mention of this product. We share it because it’s an incredible resource and #BornApproved.]

(1) Fuchs, F., Y. Reddy, and F.N. Briggs. The interaction of cations with calcium binding site of troponin. biotin. biopsy. act 221:407-409. 1970.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.