Circuit, Interval, and Cross Training

If you are bored with your workouts and feel like the fitness improvements you used to see have vanished in thin air, then you may want to try circuit, interval or cross training. These three methods are not new. They’ve been around a long time and in fact if you stick around a gym long enough, you’re bound to hear about them. Here are the advantages and disadvantages.

Circuit Training
Circuit training was invented in 1953 as an efficient way for coaches to train many athletes in a limited amount of time with limited equipment.

The exerciser moved through a series of weight training or calisthenics “stations” arranged consecutively. It was a fast-paced workout of 15 to 45 seconds per station with little (15 to 30 seconds) or no rest between stations. Today, this is known as “circuit weight training”.

Research has shown that it can increase muscular strength and endurance. There is a mild improvement in aerobic stamina but only if the rest periods are kept very short.

Another variation is “aerobic circuit training”. Aerobic stations like a treadmill, rower, bike, or stepper (one to five minutes per station) are interspersed with weight training stations. This protocol has been found to increase aerobic stamina and muscular endurance and endurance.

Interval Training
Interval training was the brainchild of Dr. Woldemer Gerschler of Germany in 1930. He found that athletes could exercise at more intense levels if they were given intervals of rest or relief to recover from the intensity.

Interval training alternates periods of high intensity (called the work interval) with periods of lower intensity (called the rest or relief interval). One work interval and one rest interval equals one cycle. There are usually eight to ten cycles in one workout session. It is quite demanding so it should be done on alternating days.

The ratio of work to rest intervals depends on you. A ratio of 1 is to 3 or 1:3 means the recovery is three times as long as the work. An example is 30 seconds sprint and 90 seconds walking. A 1:2 ratio would be 60 seconds run and 120 seconds jog.

It is a time-efficient workout that trains both the aerobic and anaerobic systems. Aerobics is steady and continuous (walking or jogging) while anaerobic exercise is short quick bursts of power and speed (running as fast as you can for 30 seconds). A marathon is aerobic while the 100-meter dash is anaerobic.

It enhances sports performance because it mimics the way the heart and muscles have to work in sports of a stop-and-go nature like soccer and basketball. It can be adapted to almost any sport. For example, swimmers or cyclists could alternate sprints with slow swimming or cycling.

High intensity interval training is dangerous for people with low fitness levels. However, the concept can be still be used by alternating intervals of moderate and very low intensity exercise. For example, walk at a moderate pace for two minutes (work interval), and then walk at a very slow pace (rest interval) for two minutes.

Cross Training
In the early 80’s, runners realized that by adding biking and swimming to their programs (thus was born the “triathlon”) they could prevent overuse injuries, develop new skills and strengthen muscles not used in running while still maintaining their aerobic capacity.

The Eastern Bloc countries also discovered that when their athletes did low-level training different from their sport on their rest days, it enhanced recovery and maintained fitness levels better than pure rest.

Cross training means doing different exercise activities either during the same workout session or on different workout days. It relieves the boredom of doing the same exercise all the time. It helps you burn more calories by not allowing your body to become too efficient at one activity.

If planned properly, it prevents muscle imbalance by working all your muscles. For example, runners have strong legs and weak upper bodies if they don’t cross train with weight lifting.

In a nutshell
Circuit training has no rest periods as you go from one station to the next with the same intensity all throughout. In interval training, intensity goes up and down. Cross training is simply doing a different type of exercise either on alternating days or during the same workout session.

Peak Performance: What science has to say about circuit training routines
Dr. Len Kravitz: The fitness professional’s guide to circuit and interval training.

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