The strength-skill circuit method

Christian Thibaudeau

Co-founder of Thibarmy, Trainer

Articles, Strength and performance

0 min
The strength-skill circuit method

The strength-skill circuit method

Not everybody wants to look like a bodybuilder. In fact, less and less people want to. The popular look nowadays is rather that of an athlete: a sprinter, football running back, mixed martial artist or rugby center for example.

The athletic physique is distinct from that of a bodybuilder and it can only be attained by increasing muscle mass via exercises and methods that improve performance as well: you need to increase strength, power and resistance. You also need to focus on exercises where most of the muscles of your body are working together.

Furthermore, athletes can’t afford to burn themselves out in training. And doing so will give you a stringy, soft-looking physique anyway. What we want is decent size, leanness and great muscle hardness. And this is exactly what this program does! If what you want is to look like an athlete, this is the program you need to be doing.

In addition to making you look better, this program will have significant health benefits. It will improve insulin sensitivity (because it creates less inflammation than typical muscle-building programs), resistance and cardiovascular capacity. Overall, it’s simply a great way to train!

What is this training method for? For getting stronger while minimizing neural fatigue, improving muscle tone and hardness, and losing body fat.

Who can use it? While you do not need a specific strength level to complete the program successfully, you should have skill with the big basic strength lifts (bench press, squat, military press, deadlift) as well as the simpler variation of the Olympic lifts (power clean and power snatch from either the floor or the hang). A simpler version can be done without the Olympic lifts, but it won’t be as effective.

Why does it work? It focuses on improvement of neural factors and technical efficiency, improves insulin sensitivity, increases testosterone and keeps cortisol low. It provides a very gradual overload so that the tendons can keep up with the neural and muscular adaptations.

What do I need to be able to do this program? The program doesn’t require any special equipment, it uses only barbells and free weights. However, you will need to train in a gym where you can set up 2 or 3 barbell stations (3 on Workout A, 2 or 3 on Workout B). The ideal location is a Crossfit box with open gym hours or a performance center. It can also be completed in a home gym if you have 2 or 3 bars.

Training outside of peak hours is, of course, optimal. And no, you can’t circumvent the crowd by doing all the sets of one exercise before moving on to the next instead of doing it as a circuit. While this would still be good, it just wouldn’t be as effective for body composition and performance changes.

How long will a session last? After your warm-up sets are done, the workout should last between 40 and 50 minutes depending on your conditioning level. The warm-up will last 5 to 15 minutes. So plan a total of 45 to 65 minutes for the session.

How often should I train? A session is actually not that neurologically draining, doesn’t deplete muscle glycogen stores and doesn’t create excessive muscle damage. Despite the workload, you can recover quite easily from each session. Someone who doesn’t have a stressful lifestyle can train 6 days a week on this program, while people who have recovery issues or a lot of stress in their lives should train every other day.

Can I add extra hypertrophy work? The program focuses on the 6 big basic lifts. Unless you are perfectly balanced, some muscles are doomed to receive less stimulation from these sessions. It is possible to add targeted hypertrophy work at the end of the sessions, but respect these rules:

(1) only use low stress exercises (isolation or machine/pulley exercises)

(2) keep the volume low; two gradually more difficult submaximal sets and one set to failure or beyond for 1-3 extra exercises per workout is the maximum

(3) only do bonus work for weaker/lagging muscle groups, don’t turn it into a full bodybuilding program on top of the strength-skill one.

What are the exercises involved in the program? Simple; you have 6 lifts to perform divided into two different workouts. Workout A is bench press / power clean (or hang power clean) / back squat (or front squat), Workout B is military press / power snatch (or hang power snatch) / deadlift (or sumo deadlift). When you select your variations you stick with them for the entire duration of the program.

What is the structure of each workout? The three exercises selected are performed as a circuit. You rest 1 to 2 minutes between stations. While the goal is to eventually be able to rest only 1 minute between exercises, if your conditioning level doesn’t allow this while maintaining maximum performance, start at 2 minutes and gradually work your way down.

At the end of the session, you can add 10-15 minutes of targeted hypertrophy work, but only for lagging muscle groups and only using non-stressful exercises. You don’t have to do the targeted work either, it’s a bonus.

Why do it as a circuit? As Vince Gironda once said “put two people on a program with the same exercises for the same number of sets and reps and only the one with a good workout tempo will get exceptional results”. A faster training pace (or more precisely a higher work to rest ratio) keeps you in the zone and increases energy expenditure and post-workout energy consumption to a greater degree.

On the other hand, taking too little rest between sets of a same exercise will decrease performance on that exercise. A circuit approach allows you to have a high work to rest ratio and still get plenty of rest (3-5 min) between sets of one exercise.

What are the drawbacks of the program? The main one is that you have to stick with it for at least 12 weeks. In fact, the longer you can stay on it the stronger you will get. This program’s founding principle is a progression model that favors progression over a very long period of time. People who suffer from training ADD (ie. needing to do something different every 2 weeks) should not use this program; you need to be dedicated to do it.

If you can stick with it, though, you will get stronger than ever. The second drawback is that the workouts themselves might neglect some muscle groups. However, this can be solved by using the aforementioned targeted hypertrophy work for the lagging muscle group(s)

What is the progression model? We will use a modified Hepburn progression model: You would start with a weight that is about 85% of your maximum and do 8 sets of 2 or 3 reps. The first time you do a workout you perform 1 set of 3 and 7 sets of 2 (with the same weight). In the second workout you keep the same weight and do 2 sets of 3 and 6 sets of 2.

In the third session, still using the same weight, perform 3 sets of 3 and 5 sets of 2. You continue in this manner until you reach 8 sets of 3 reps, then you add weight (10-20lbs) and go back to 1 x 3, 7 x 2 and work your way back up.

If you train 6 days a week start at 2 x 3 and 6 x 2.

For example:

Session A1: 2 x 3, 6 x 2
Session B1: 2 x 3, 6 x 2
Session A2: 3 x 3, 5 x 2
Session B2: 3 x 3, 5 x 2
Session A3: 4 x 3, 4 x 2
Session B3: 4 x 3, 4 x 2
Session A4: 5 x 3, 3 x 2
Session B4: 5 x 3, 3 x 2
Session A5: 6 x 3, 2 x 2
Session B5: 6 x 3, 2 x 2
Session A6: 7 x 3, 1 x 2
Session B6: 7 x 3, 1 x 2
Session A7: 8 x 3
Session B7: 8 x 3
Session A8: Add weight and go back to 2 x 3, 6 x 2
Session B8: Add weight and go back to 2 x 3, 6 x 2

If you train 4 days a week or every other day start at 3 x 3, 6 x 2

Session A1: 3 x 3, 5 x 2
Session B1: 3 x 3, 5 x 2
Session A2: 4 x 3, 4 x 2
Session B2: 4 x 3, 4 x 2
Session A3: 5 x 3, 3 x 2
Session B3: 5 x 3, 3 x 2
Session A4: 6 x 3, 2 x 2
Session B4: 6 x 3, 2 x 2
Session A5: 7 x 3, 1 x 2
Session B5: 7 x 3, 1 x 2
Session A6: 8 x 3
Session B6: 8 x 3
Session A7: Add weight and go back to 2 x 3, 6 x 2
Session B7: Add weight and go back to 2 x 3, 6 x 2

So, what does the sessions look like?


A1. Back squat 2-3 reps (depending on where you are in the progression)
1-2 minute(s) of rest
A2. Bench press 2-3 reps (depending on where you are in the progression)
1-2 minute(s) of rest
A3. Power clean 2-3 reps (depending on where you are in the progression)
1-2 minute(s) of rest

Perform the circuit 8 times with the same weight

10-15 minutes of targeted hypertrophy work (optional)

1-3 exercises for 3 sets of 6-10 reps, only doing the last set to failure


B1. Deadlift 2-3 reps (depending on where you are in the progression)
1-2 minute(s) of rest
B2. Military press 2-3 reps (depending on where you are in the progression)
1-2 minute(s) of rest
B3. Power snatch 2-3 reps (depending on where you are in the progression)
1-2 minute(s) of rest

Perform the circuit 8 times with the same weight

10-15 minutes of targeted hypertrophy work (optional)

1-3 exercises for 3 sets of 6-10 reps, only doing the last set to failure

What if I can’t do the Olympic lifts? If you can’t do power cleans and power snatches properly you can use high pulls instead (snatch grip high pull from the hang and clean grip high pull from the hang). For muscle-building purposes, it will be just as effective but will give you a little less improvement in performance.

If you can’t do high pulls either, then you can use bent over barbell rows (keeping the torso parallel to the floor) on Workout A and chin-ups (you can use resistance bands if you need to or added weight if you can) on Workout B.

For how long can I do this program? That’s actually the “downside” of this program: it works great for a very long time! I call it a downside because it means that you can stay on it for very long, even a whole year, and still progress.

For someone who likes to change programs often, this is bad news. For everybody else, it’s great news! The fact is, the longer you stay with this program the more results you will get.

Do I need to deload? “Deloading” refers to decreasing the training stress for a week to prevent accumulated fatigue which would slow down progression; essentially giving your body a break before it breaks! Because of the nature of this program (not going to failure, very gradual progression, not using maximal weights, moderate volume), there may not be a need to deload that often.

If you are someone with poor recovery capacities (or a lot of stress in your life), you might still want to deload once in a while as a preventive measure. If you need to deload after 2 or 3 cycles, I recommend the following strategy:

  1. Keep using the same weight as you did in the previous two workouts.
  1. Only do sets of 2 (no 3s)
  1. Do not do the sessions as a circuit. Do all the sets for an exercise before moving on to the next. Take 2:30 – 3 minutes of rest between sets.
  1. Do 6 sets instead of 8.

If you decide to do a deload, do it the week after you have completed a full cycle (once you completed 8 sets of 3), before you add weight for a new cycle.

Doesn’t this program go against what you said about volume being the no.1 enemy of the natural trainee? Not at all. The problem with excessive volume for the natural lifter is burning too much glycogen for fuel, which leads to an excessive cortisol response, makes it harder to build muscle and can lower testosterone levels.

With sets of 2-3 reps you don’t rely primarily on glycogen for fuel, you use mostly phosphagens (ATP and creatine phosphate). Yes, because of the fast pace you will use up some glycogen, but the overall volume is still moderate since you are still doing only 18 to 24 reps per exercise (which is the same volume as if you were doing 3 sets of 6-8 reps).

You also don’t reach muscle failure, so the overall cortisol response will not be that high, certainly not high enough to cause a problem for natural trainees.

Is this a good way to train if I’m a competitive athlete? If you play a strength and power sport and are in your off season, it’s a great way to train. You might want to add sprints and jumps once a week or loaded carries for 10-15 minutes instead of the bodybuilding work 2-3 times per week.

If you are dedicated and looking to get stronger, more powerful, leaner and feel better you definitely need to give this program an honest try! Keep me posted!