Circuit training is being used by many coaches as a method to run their strength training team sessions. Traditional circuit training requires the assignment of a few exercises that players have to execute in a certain order, either for a specific duration or for a number of pre-assigned repetitions. Each player then moves from station to station until they complete a full circle. Circuit training has been popularized mainly because it allows the coach to train relatively large numbers of athletes at the same time, with minimal equipment requirements. Lately, the availability of easy-to-purchase training tools (suspension devices, hurdles, med balls etc), has given a new boost to circuit training programs amongst sports teams of all levels.
But if the goal is to increase strength and power or reduce injury incidence then circuit training might not be the best method to use, as it does not allow for the most important aspect of program design: Personalization. That is, the adjustment of all training variables to match the individual needs, goals and injury profile of an athlete. Here are the main problems regarding this method:
Personal characteristics and individual training goals define exercise selection. Although personal characteristics is a little general term, factors like age, skill level, injury history, individual anatomy, training history, position, height, game schedule must be considered when selecting the appropriate exercise for that person that day. Exercise selection must also be based on each athlete’s training goals. For example, different exercises might be selected if the goal is maximum strength development then if the goal is power development. Circuit training just doesn’t allow for such customization, since everyone has to move quickly around the different stations.
The inability to select the appropriate load for each athlete is probably the biggest culprit of the circuit method. Every exercise in a strength training program must have specific goals along the strength- speed continuum (eg. max strength, speed-strength etc) which obviously must correspond to individual goals. Training should never aim to simply make the player tired, or get him/her to “feel the burn. Each drill and exercise must have a purpose and aim for specific physiological adaptations. To achieve those goals, loading parameters, in particular weight, reps, sets, speed of movement must be carefully selected. Without the ability to adjust all of the above parameters the end result is that almost everyone is getting the wrong training stimulus and often end up just going through the moves, without achieving any significant gains.
Teaching and Coaching
Teaching proper technique for each exercise is paramount in order to train safely and effectively. Every repetition and every set needs to be perfectly executed. Teaching and coaching proper technique takes time and focus, both from the player and the coach and it takes many repetitions with lighter loads and slower speed of movement for any pattern to become automatic. Even experienced lifers need concentration when executing any lift and feedback on their performance. Proper exercise progression is another area that suffers when using circuits, as each individual has his own learning curve and therefore needs different progressions in order to keep improving.
As stated earlier, not everyone can do or should be doing the same exercises. An athlete’s injury profile is one of the most important factors that must be taken under consideration when designing any training program. Exercises must be carefully selected to cause no pain, protect the injured area, achieve the desired training adaptations and help the athlete recover function.
Where is circuit training useful?
We use circuits during speed, agility or conditioning work, but only after teaching proper technique in each skill. For example, at the beginning of each season, regardless of the level of the players, we go over the basics of movement technique, teaching acceleration mechanics, jumping and landing techniques etc . When our athletes have achieved a certain level of competency, we then increase intesity, speed of movement and progress to more complex drills, sometimes using circuits.
Although circuits and “group training” have been popularized in the sports and fitness world, I don’t think they are the most appropriate methods to train at any environment. Program design should be based on each individual’s needs and goals. Talking about “group training” sounds similar like talking about “group medicine”, in terms that everyone is getting the same medicine regardless of their condition. So, I think personalization and training with purpose is the only way to go about program design. At the end of the day, we must fit our training logistics to match our training philosophy and not the other way around.
A better way to organize weight room sessions would be to split the team into two or more smaller groups. This way there will be more time available to coach, teach and focus on each one of our athletes. We need to create an environment where we will be able to get to know our athletes and their individual characteristics, where we will be able to constantly adjust their program according to their improvement, current injuries and pains, playing schedule and goals. We need to build a relationship of trust and communication with each one of them, so that they will accept and follow our lead, knowing that we always have their best interest in mind.