Time Based Fat Loss Circuits: Some Thoughts…

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Once you have established that you can move without pain and 3-dimensionally in a strong, mobile and stable manner, it’s time to start thinking about your training goals.

Assuming that you don’t want to be a body builder or a power lifter, work capacity based fat loss circuits are a great option.

Basing the amount of work you perform during a work-set off of time versus reps can breathe new life into your training program.  Battling the clock can really ramp up a training session as you attempt to complete as many reps as possible before the beeper goes off, signaling the next rest period.

As much as I like the idea of time based training and how effective it can be, I also have some hesitations.  I feel like it’s natural of me to feel this way, and I wanted to get you thinking also.

–>  What amount of time is appropriate for work?

Yes, work capacity style training sessions are going to be highly metabolic.  Often times they are going to use incomplete rest periods (because they are fixed) and the work-sets are going to be a bit too long.

Just as the most common rep scheme in the fitness industry seems to be 10 reps, the most common duration of work in a fat loss circuit seems to be 30 seconds.  If I dig hard enough, I can probably find some research paper that the entire industry has interpreted to establish this 30 second work-set, but that will have to wait for another time.  Just my own thoughts for now.

First, let me say that 30 seconds is a long time to be performing work.  For the lower body, this might be more appropriate.  Movements like squats, lunges, step ups, etc could be managed by most trainees for 30 seconds.  But for the upper body, 30 seconds in my experience is way too long.  We often lose the training effect if we extend the work-set to 30 seconds.  The effort tapers and technique goes to hell.

The work being done becomes aerobic.

If you’re trainer reading this, observe it in your next session with clients.  Even the advanced clients are about 50/50 for solid movement technique and output for the duration of the 30 seconds.

If you’re incorporating upper body pulling movements, particularly vertical pulling movements like chin ups and pull ups, forget about it.  Very few can sustain a high effort beyond the first round of the circuit.  Body rows (aka: inverted rows), maybe.

The time that each person works is dependent on their physical abilities (strength, stability, endurance, etc).  Selecting a time that is appropriate for the later rounds of the session should be considered before you ever start the workout.  The first round of a high tempo fat loss circuit doesn’t provide a glimpse into what is coming once fatigue sets in.

And fatigue will set in, trust me here.  It sneaks up quick.  Plan for it.

So, for me, I would reserve 30 seconds of work for a proven population.  Mostly advanced who can produce the output and handle the fatigue.

15-20 seconds might be more appropriate to get the training effect you’re looking for.

5-10 seconds of work can make all of the difference in the world.

—>  What exercises are best for a time based fat loss circuit?

It has to be sub-maximal (lighter weight) or bodyweight here.  I haven’t necessarily found a sweet spot for gauging the number of reps a person should achieve, but somewhere in the 1 rep for every 2-3 seconds is probably manageable for most.

That would mean a 30second work set would allow for 10-15 reps during that period of time.

Not bad.

How aggressive you are with your loading will also change the reps completed in that time frame, so consider this.

Lower body movements are fantastic for fat loss circuits.  Keep them simple.  I haven’t found a need to go beyond something as simple as say a squat.  Squatting while balancing on a BOSU ball with resisting band rotation just complicates matters.  You’ll end up performing the entire sequence with awful form maybe mediocre at best, versus executing perfect squats with every single rep.  Don’t sacrifice form for entertainment.

This is also largely a judgement call for you.  Can you manage a squat with external forces also being applied?  An of an external force would be incorporating a rotational component to the squat, say a resistance band that wants to pull you left or right.  If you can, go for it.  If you are sacrificing form for it, ditch it.  This is my personal opinion.

Save the anti-rotation training for after the circuit when you can focus on, well, resisting rotation.  The middle of the fat loss circuit is not the time to introduce new exercises to yourself.

Upper body movements are great too, but there is a fine line here.  The upper body, for most people, isn’t suited for handling the high volume that the lower body is.  That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t work to change that, it just means that you’ve got to choose exercises wisely for your circuits.  Overhead pressing has been identified time and time again to be an issue for a lot of people.  If it hurts to go overhead or form is sketchy, ditch it.  If it hurts, like pain type hurting, you might need to make an appointment with a health professional.  If your form is breaking down, you’ve either got mobility or stability issues.  Usually it’s mobility issues.

Bodyweight movements like body rows, push ups, battling ropes and even dive bombers work quite well when training against the clock.  Technique, technique, technique!

Hybrid moves like the squat-to-press, burpees and sled pulling/pushing are all fantastic moves for a high tempo fat loss circuit.  Sled pushing is a favorite of mine because of how effective it is while being extremely safe.  It’s really hard to push a heavy sped improperly.  The sled determines when your technique fails.  The instant feedback is great.

Experience sparked this article.  Training against the clock is extremely effective, but what works for one person might not be appropriate for the next person.  It’s the beauty of being human, we all have different needs.

I hope that it can help you improve the design and effectiveness of some of your workouts


Cheers to re-thinking how we workout…


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