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THE ELIMINATION CIRCUIT

I’ve always been a huge fan of what I call strength-circuits. Basically, doing a circuit of 3-5 exercises covering the whole body and performed for low reps.

You can find examples of strength-circuits here and here 

I like strength-circuits because they allow me to get a great full-body workout in a short period of time and they allow me to gain a large amount of strength rapidly. I normally add a significant amount of muscle as well. And to top it off, they improve what I call strength-resilience: the capacity to keep producing a large amount of force with very little rest, which is useful in many sports.

Another similar approach that is one of my personal favorites is the elimination circuit. I’ve been using it with clients for more than 10 years and they all report amazing physical changes in a short period of time. It also happens to be super fun to do!

The concept is fairly simple:

  • You pick 5 exercises covering the whole body (I’ll give several options in a few moments)
  • Perform the exercises as a circuit with 1 to 3 minutes of rest (more on that too)
  • Pick a rep range (normally 3, 5 or 7) and only perform sets of that many reps
  • Start at around 50-60% and ramp up gradually every round until you hit the max you can do for the selected rep number
  • When you reach your max (for the selected reps) on an exercise, you drop it from the rotation. The last exercise standing “wins”.

The goal is to hit anywhere between 5 to 8 circuits.

THE EXERCISES

Here are several options to pick from as well as their main effect.

  •  The Power Look Circuit

This one is to maximize what I call the “power look”: big traps, big delts. Just oozing strength and power. The exercise selection reflects that and puts the “yoke” area under load on most of the exercises.

A1. Zercher squat 

DB alternative: Crook squats 

A2. Continuous clean & press

DB alternative: DB clean and press

A3. Pendlay row
DB alternative: DB Pendlay row

A4. Bench press
DB alternative: DB bench press

A5. Snatch-grip high pull 

DB alternative: DB high pull

  • The Big 5 Circuit

This is for people who are decently efficient on the Olympic lifts (power snatch, power clean) and want to get strong on what we call the “Big 5”. It will provide the most overall strength gains as well as improvements in power which makes this a very good option for athletes.

A1. Back squat
DB alternative: DB squats

A2. Bench press
DB alternative: DB bench press

A3. Power snatch (floor, hang, blocks)
DB alternative:Two-DBs power snatch

A4. Deadlift
DB alternative: DB Romanian deadlift

A5. Power clean & push press
DB alternative: DB clean and push press

 

  • The Arms Focus Circuit

While our goal is to increase overall strength and power, which means focusing on big compound lifts, we can still make choices that will increase the demand on the biceps and triceps thus slanting the gains a bit more towards improving arm size.

A1. Zercher squat
DB alternative: Crook squats

A2. Close-grip floor press
DB alternative: DB neutral grip floor press

A3. Biceps lat pulldown 
Alternative: Biceps pull-ups (using band help if you are not strong enough)

A4. Snatch-grip high pull
DB alternative: DB high pull

A5. Close-grip high incline (60-75 degrees) press
DB alternative: DB high incline press with neutral grip

  • The Deadlift Focus Circuit

This is a circuit to focus on bringing your deadlift up, which means that two of the 5 exercises are deadlift variations. You can change the second deadlift variation for one that better targets your weak point. Note that there are no DB alternatives for the deadlift exercises since it is a program specifically designed to improve that lift.

However, since both deadlift movements can be done on the same bar it reduces the risk of hogging all the gym equipment. Note that there are no squats in that circuit because that would be too neurologically demanding along with the two deadlift variations.

A1. Deadlift

A2. Bench press
DB alternative: DB bench press

A3. If weak 1st pull: Snatch-grip deadlift. If weak passing knees/lockout: rack pull from below knees

A4. Pendlay row
DB alternative: Seal row

A5. Military press
DB alternative: DB military press

  • The Bench Press Focus Circuit

 This is for those who want to put more emphasis on their bench press. We are replacing the overhead press variation for a second bench press variation. Once again, I don’t provide a DB alternative for the bench variations because we want to do more specific work to improve the lift itself.

A1. Bench press

A2. Zercher squat
DB alternative: Crook squat

A3. Weak off of chest: Spotto press, Weak mid-range: incline bench press, Weak lockout: close-grip bench press

A4. Seated row (with bench press grip)
DB alternative: Bent over DB row

A5. Rack pull from above knees

  • The Squat Focus Circuit

 Well you probably guessed where this is going. Two squat variations, replacing the deadlift/pull by the second squat exercise.

A1. Back squat

A2. Bench press
DB alternative: DB bench press

A3. Weak anterior chain: Front squat, Weak core: Zercher squat, Weak posterior chain: Box squat

A4. Seated row
DB alternative: Seal row

A5. Military press

  • The Overhead Press Focus Circuit

A1. Military press

A2. Zercher squat
DB alternative: Crook squat

A3. Weak start: wide grip military press, weak middle: high incline bench press, weak lockout: push press

A4. Snatch-grip high pull
DB alternative: DB high pull

A5. Pendlay row
DB alternative: DB bench over row/DB Pendlay row

THE STRUCTURE

  • Circuit

 The five exercises are performed as a circuit. Understand that the main goal is not conditioning/endurance but strength and size. As such the goal is not to go as fast as possible. The rest intervals should be regular (stay the same throughout the workout) but selected based on your conditioning level, allowing you to perform at your best.

If the intervals are too short you will accumulate systemic fatigue and performance will suffer, not allowing you to ramp up as high as you could. But if they are too long, you will have too much time between two sets of one exercise, which can also decrease performance.

I use three levels depending on your level of conditioning and how fast you normally train. The goal is to eventually build up to the first level. But your progression should be fairly slow, maybe trying to move up a level every third week.

Level 1(low conditioning or used to a very slow workout pace): 2:00 – 2:30 min between exercises
Level 2(average): 1:30 – 2:00 min between exercises
Level 3(good conditioning or used to a fast training pace): 1:00 – 1:30 min between exercises

Do not go up a level if performance suffers.

  • Ramping

The circuit uses a ramping approach. Ramping means that with every set you are adding weight. This is in fact one of the core principles of the elimination circuit. You start your first set with 50 or 60% of your maximum on the lifts. If you select 7 reps per set you start with 50%, if you select 5 reps you go with 55% and if you opt for 3 reps per set you can start at 60%. The starting point isn’t thatimportant though.

When you are ramping up you only perform the selected number of reps. So, if you decided to go with 5 reps per set you stick with that, you don’t do sets of 8 at first because the weight is easy.

How much do you ramp up on each set? This really depends on the movement. The more you can lift on an exercise, the larger the jumps will be. By the way, you don’t have to use the same jumps for the whole workout. For example, if you’ve used 20lbs jumps on the bench press and when you reach 315 x 5 you know that you won’t be able to hit 335 x 5 (+20lbs) but you think you can do 325 x 5, then it’s fine to reduce the jumps.

Normally you want to do a total of 5-8 rounds of the circuit. But since this is an elimination circuit (you drop an exercise when you can’t go up in weight for the selected number of reps) it is possible to do 8 rounds of one exercise, 7 of 2 exercises and 6 of the other two movements, depending on which one fails first.

  • CAT or CTT

The easy sets should not be seen as easy and taken lightly. You should try to make the most out of them. This means increasing force production even when the weight is light. You can do that either by using compensatory acceleration (trying to accelerate as much as possible during the concentric portion) or compensatory tension (squeezing every muscle as hard as possible during every inch of every rep). I find compensatory acceleration to be best for most exercises in this plan but prefer compensatory tension for deadlifting and squatting.

In both cases you will develop the capacity of the nervous system to produce force, amp up the CNS so that you can reach a higher level of performance and improve fast twitch fiber recruitment.

  • Number of reps

Any variations of strength-circuits should be done with lower reps. There are several reasons for that but the main one is that we want to maximize neural activation and minimize muscle fatigue.

The goal is to increase your capacity to perform from set to set. When you excite/activate the nervous system you increase performance potential, but this can be offset by accumulating fatigue.

The more force you need to produce the more you activate the CNS. And the more work you perform the more fatigue you create. So higher reps will not get the same activation as lower reps and will create more fatigue. The outcome is that performance will not increase as much from round to round and might actually decrease.

That’s why the upper limit I will use is 7 reps per set, and this is really more for hypertrophy than strength. I personally prefer sets of 3 or 5 reps, although you can pick any number from 1 to 7. I normally stay away from sets of 1 and 2 because working up to a max for those numbers might be too hard on the nervous system for most.

TRAINING WEEK

While strength circuits can be used as your only (or dominant) training method (for example doing an elimination circuit Monday, Wednesday and Friday), my favorite approach is to use it once a week with the rest of the week being a more “typical” session.

For example:

Hypertrophy focused

Monday: Chest & delts/Biceps
Tuesday: Legs
Wednesday OFF
Thursday: Back/Triceps
Friday: OFF
Saturday: Elimination circuit
Sunday: OFF

Or…

Strength focused

Monday: Push
Tuesday: Legs
Wednesday: OFF
Thursday: Pull
Friday: OFF
Saturday: Elimination circuit
Sunday: OFF

Or …

Body comp focused

Monday: Elimination circuit
Tuesday: OFF
Wednesday: German Body Composition (whole body) workout
Thursday: Arms, Abs and HIIT (or sprints)
Friday: OFF
Saturday: Strongman day
Sunday: OFF

CONCLUSION

Strength-circuits are effective and fun to do. They allow you to get the most out of your time in the gym and they are among the best ways to train if your gym allows it. The elimination circuit is a cool twist because psychologically it gives you an extra boost to see if you can avoid dropping exercises, it is an extra challenge that makes the workout more stimulating for those who are naturally competitive. Give them a shot and you will be amazed at how they can improve your gains.

-CT

 

 

Christian Thibaudeau

Written by Christian Thibaudeau

Christian Thibaudeau has been involved in the business of training for over the last 16 years. During this period, he worked with athletes from 28 different sports. He has been “Head Strength Coach” for the Central Institute for Human Performance (of…