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Deceptively Simple: Three Exercises in One Circuit for Strength and Endurance

By James Parker

A fighter's training depends on circuits designed for functional strength, endurance, and/or explosive speed. If you want to get fighting fit, or just prevent overtraining injuries, the circuit I'm going to describe will be great for you. But it's important to understand that, while you might get some hypertrophy from exercises done this way, you also might not. Even so, guys who have hypertrophy as a goal will find that a circuit like this is appropriate for whenever you need a change. Either way, the whole point is to get results quicker—without the extra recovery time you would need from a more conventional body-building routine. If you are an exercise fanatic that just loves a good workout, don’t worry, this one will easily fit the bill.

Background: Lactic Acid and Soreness
A very old belief-system about lactic acid threshold holds that your routine is supposed to train you right up until you feel the “burn” and then back off to minimize the amount of lactic acid in the muscles. The belief is that lactic acid will lead to soreness, and that too much of it in the muscles is the leading cause of over-training. However, recent research theorizes that lactic acid is actually a fuel system for the body (that is, the starvation of oxygen in the muscles leads to the release of lactic acid into the muscles to fuel them). Many people only feel a workout is worth the time if they feel sore afterwards. Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is muscle pain that doesn’t hit until two or more days afterwards, and it has typically been a gauge for the severity of the workout and the time needed for recovery. One too many sets in a row, and your soreness will let you know you over-did it.

Is it lactic acid that does it, though? The recent research available believes it is not. This research is fairly conclusive, but might miss the point. Regardless of your feelings on lactic acid buildup, one thing is clear: working out too much on one or more muscles will lead to soreness (whether or not it is caused by lactic acid build up). Too much soreness can interfere in all the other ways a fighter needs to train, slowing him down and potentially overtraining him. Finding ways to minimize damage from routines, while still keeping them effective, becomes priority number one. The circuit template I'll describe is used by many top strength and conditioning trainers in the world of mixed martial arts. It completely circumnavigates the issue of lactic acid by avoiding the ways most types of hypertrophy training are typically done, while still maintaining effectiveness for strength and endurance increases (especially with a few modifications).

Warm-up: Every Joint, Every Time
Always warm up thoroughly to prevent injury. Start with a minimum of five minutes on a cardio machine of your choice, your particular martial arts repertoire of forms, or some light bag work. By the way, I do mean light work. Too many clients and students come in to warm up, and go at the pads and bags like money was owed. This just over-taxes the very systems we want to work for the next half-hour, taking away from what we need to do. Please try and refrain from taking out the frustrations of the day during your warm-up (or, just do your bag cardio and leave it at that).

After this warm-up, activate the muscles you’ll be focusing on for the next hour or so. Perform forward and backward circles with both arms, holding your arms at shoulder level. Circular motion works to help get the shoulder joint activated, as long as you have the room and you won’t accidentally smack another gym member. Next, take another minute to do the same types of rotations for your torso, hips, knees, ankles, and wrists, making circular motions with those joints. Make sure you are thoroughly loosened up when you've reached your warm-up time limit.

Workout: The Strength Complex Circuit
Here’s where we begin our workload. For this circuit, we will use complex exercises. Complex exercises utilize more than one body part and thus typically cause the trainee to exert more energy than in an isolation exercise. Athletes of all stripes tend to prefer complex exercises, as they do the most work in the least amount of time. But all that is good about these exercises in isolation is maximized in combination. To build a series of complex exercises into a circuit, pick three different exercises that work the whole body, but that don’t use the same major muscles as their primary mover. For example: you could put together the pull-up, the dead-lift, and squat as one strength complex. All are full-body exercises—functionally training the body as a whole—but each has a different dominant muscle group: upper back for the pull-up, middle and lower back for the dead-lift, and quads/hamstrings for the squat. These three exercises would form a complex—shorthand for a group of complex exercises capable of training the entire body.

Once you've grouped your exercises, you should repeat the complex so that all exercises are done for three to four sets. In your routine for that day, you can easily add more than one complex, as long as you keep in mind the overall principle of not over-doing it. If you build a second complex, you can change the order of the exercises, thus reducing overwork in the primary or major muscles hit, while keeping those muscles worked. This can lead to better recovery by lowering the extended stress on any one area of your body.

Below is a sample of a strength complex circuit. You'll notice that the exercise use many of the same muscles—and that's fine, as long as you are changing the primary muscle in each exercise.

Exercise Muscles Worked Sets Recovery Notes
Pull-ups Primarily middle and upper back (rhomboid, infraspinatus,teres major and minor), latissimus dorsi 3 - 4 90 seconds (or modify to less) Do not overshoot the range of motion, going only as a far as to stretch position
Barbell Russian Deadlifts Primarily lower and middle back (latissimus dorsi, erector spinae) and upper leg (glutes, quads hamstrings) 3 - 4 90 seconds (or modify to less) Make sure that in your forward flexion at the hip, you don't over-arch your spine. Keep your core engaged throughout.
Barbell Squats Primarily quads and hamstrings; also core. 3 - 3 90 seconds (or modify to less)

Intensity: Recovery is Everything:
By varying your recoveries, you can control the impact of this circuit on your body. If you wish to keep the exercises anaerobic, leave your rest time to a minute. However, if you want to turn it up a notch and add a high-intensity or even Tabata feel to your workload, narrow your rest time to 30 seconds. For athletes that need to focus on quick recoveries as well as strength, shortened rest brings another useful aspect to this routine. Doing this through three to four times on very short recoveries will definitely get you breathing hard.

But there's an even tougher way to do these complexes—completing all the exercises back-to-back, without rest. When body-builders do this within a muscle group it's called a mega-set, but for this type of routine it becomes more of a sprint variation. Obviously, the focus does change slightly away from strength, as you won't be moving the amount of weight you might normally need to for hypertrophy. However, I have noticed strength increases from this program, even while the cardio output increases, much like what one would see from Tabata training.

An added benefit to compressed rest times is the shortened length of the workout’s total time. You can easily be done with three complexes in anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes. This can also easily shorten the impact on recovery time outside the gym as well.

Variation: Get Tough
The complex above is just a sample; you can add any types of exercise to a template like this, and depending on your choices, you can make it a lot harder. The key is to keep the exercises functional. Think: bodyweight exercises rather than beach-body exercises. Or, push-ups are a yes—bicep curls are a no. (For more on functional exercises, see this article.) For example, here's another personal favorite of mine: push-ups where you rotate your body to touch a hand underneath to the opposite foot at the top of the push-up, followed immediately by sandbag dead-lifts to alternate shoulders, followed by sandbag squats, and all done for roughly 20 repetitions. Try all of it with no rest, for four sets. When I do this sequence, my heart rate easily reaches the eighty-fifth percentile of my V02 max. That means I not only reach one of my training goals, I also get my weightlifting done in a shorter amount of time than I would normally need.

Please make sure that if you do the more nasty versions of this complex circuit, you take the appropriate measures for safety. Pay close attention to your body and take heed of any warning signs it tries to tell you. If you get those feelings, stop and recover. The whole point of these exercises and routines is to improve yourself, not cause damage. As always, be safe and train hard.

About James Parker: James Parker is a certified personal trainer, mixed martial artist, mixed martial arts conditioning coach, and freelance writer in Los Angeles, California.