The Pros and Cons of Circuit Training After 50

Resistance training is recognized as a way to increase your lean muscle tissue and to enhance metabolism during rest. In fact, we know now that as we age maintaining lean muscle with resistance training is as if not more important than cardiovascular training. The intensity of resistance training is an important factor in whether benefits will be attained.

You could be exercising, yet not seeing results, because the method of exercise doesn’t match the outcome you want.

Let’s take a look at circuit training as a form of resistance training.

Low section of people lifting kettlebells at crossfit gym

What Is Circuit Training?

Circuit training has become very popular in the form of “boot camp” and interval training that includes weight training. The circuit training protocol varies but usually includes performing several resistance-training exercises in succession. The circuit can be done once or repeated multiple times. At one time circuit training was the standard “orientation” to a gym going machine to machine to do 8-10 exercises.

The benefits of circuit training include, first and foremost, the effective use of time. While you are moving from exercise to exercise you can accomplish a significant amount of quality exercise in a short time.

The disadvantages of circuit training, as it’s seen in many instances in intervals or boot camp environments, can be the lack of quality repetitions. Moving quickly from station to station in a group of individuals can reduce you’re awareness of form, technique, or disconnect your exercise from the results you seek.

Recent studies have suggested significant increase in muscle development by increasing the rest between sets for the same muscle group. That amount of rest, 3-5 minutes, may not be met in the type of rapid-fire movement done in boot camp

It’s important to note here, that more than one protocol in your program may contribute to your end goals. Alternating opposing muscle groups in what’s referred to as “super sets,” for instance, doesn’t allow for 3 minutes of rest unless you actually stop and wait before performing the next set, but can increase energy expenditure by 33% during the exercise session.

How to Start Circuit Training

For beginners it’s best to do a circuit one time. After a short period of adaptation, progression would include alternately increasing the number of times through the circuit or increasing the load and decreasing the repetitions. Changing just one variable at a time (increasing sets or increasing weight) is smart progression that reduces injury risk and improves results. Beware if you’re an exerciser excited about results and in the feel-good-I-think-I’ll-do-more mindset, you can easily set yourself up for an injury!

Little hinges swing big doors

Consider 3 Circuit Training Options

Heavy loads of 80% with power (as quickly as possible and 2 s eccentric) were compared to heavy loads lifted at controlled speed (2 sec to lift, 2 sec to lower) and also compared to moderate loads (50%) with power. What’s that in English? Lifting a weight you can’t lift more than 10 times (80%) compared to a weight you can lift up to 25 times (50%).

A study just accepted for publication in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning showed high loads for lower body and moderate loads for upper body produced significantly more power than controlled speed training.

How You Benefit from Power

  • Significantly more energy expenditure during the session
  • Increased energy expenditure following the session (after burn)
  • Increase in bone density benefits over slow controlled
  • Carry over to daily activities of life and reduced injury risk
  • Fitness improvements over long slow exercise protocols in older adults

It’s always important to consider the subjects in the study and their likeness to you. The subjects in this study 20-year old males and females. At least one of the key researchers, however, is a leading researcher in the study of effects of exercise on aging.

Dedicated people doing pushups with kettlebells at crossfit gym

How to Make Circuit Training Work for You

Step 1: Determine your top goals

Do you most want bone density? Weight loss? More Lean muscle definition? Sports performance? Even if you have multiple goals, you want to prioritize the top goal, and secondary goals in order to create the best-fit load and rest combination.

Step 2: Plan your exercise load

This step may be a multi-part plan. If for instance you want to reach 80% power, you want to begin with lighter loads and do slow contractions to allow adaptations to occur slowly. Gradual increase of load, then speed will keep you moving forward with the least amount of injury risk.

Step 3: Plan your rest between exercises.

To engage more muscle fibers as a beginner, more rest is recommended. If you’ve got adequate lean muscle, more experience and want to focus on performance, your recovery periods might be shorter.

Step 4: Evaluate existing programs to see if they meet your needs.

You may decide it’s best to create your own program or co-create with a personal coach.

Graber, T.G., et al. 2015. C57BL/6 life span study: age-related declines in muscle power production and contractile velocity Age 37(3): 36

Marcel, Taylor J., et al. 2013. Leg strength declines with advancing age despite habitual endurance exercise in active older adults. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 28(2): 504-13

Signorile, J.2013. Power declines nearly twice as quickly as strength, ACSM’S Health & Fitness Journal 17(5):24-32

Von Stengel, Simon, et al. 2007. Differential effects of strength versus power training on bone mineral density in postmenopausal women: a 2-year longitudinal study. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 41(10): 649-655.

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