It is a form of training we have all dabbled with at some point in our gym going lives. When I began working out as a teenager, the only training offered for younger trainees was circuit training. Now, more than a decade later, circuit training still forms a part of my training tool kit. At its simplest, circuit training involves moving from exercise to exercise with very little rest in between. In practice, it can take any manner of appearances.
Bodybuilding friends of mine will rotate between upper and lower body movements continuously over the course of an hour. Others will run through arm exercises until their t-shirts no longer feel loose or sprint, crawl and burpee their way to weight loss. The more sadistic of my powerlifting friends have even taken to doing deadlift circuits for ‘fun.’
All of this is my way of saying that circuit training is used by numerous training groups for a variety of motivations. This has been the case for decades, if not centuries. Illustrative of this fact, today’s article examines the history of circuit training, from early gymnastic beginnings to its rebirth in the 1960s.
The Early Origins of Circuit Training
Traditionally histories of circuit training have begun in the 1950s, when two British scientists, R.E. Morgan and G.T. Anderson, published a series of articles on the topic. While this marked the first major scientific studies into circuit training, it did not mean the creation of circuit training itself. That honor undoubtedly dates back to the early nineteenth century when a series of gymnastic instructors across Europe began to popularize physical activity for the masses.
In Germany, individuals like Johann Basedow and Friedrich Ludwig Jahn set up their own gymnastics schools for adults and children. (1) They were emulated by those in other countries like Pierre Henrik Ling in Sweden or Francisco Amorós y Ondeano in France. (2) These men, and those they inspired, effectively kick-started the modern interest in physical training as they, and their writings, made working out an acceptable and understandable practice.
Operating in the early 1800s, these men did not have dumbbells or barbells, so instead they focused solely on bodyweight exercises. Jan Todd’s work on Monsieur Beaujeu in Dublin, for example, found that Beaujeu had his clients use dips and pull ups to build their strength. (3) Why this is important today is that the men’s training systems, and their implementation, were oftentimes done in a circuit fashion. The emphasis may not have been on short rest periods but the practice of quickly moving from one exercise to the next, ‘moving briskly’ to use the term of the day, certainly existed. (4)
Where the men listed above oftentimes had large gyms to choose from, those copying them were often placed in small classrooms or halls. This meant that the practices of exercising in different stations where, for example, I might do push ups while you do chin ups, became a necessity. (5)
Although some in the fitness community of the nineteenth century cautioned against exercising too vigorously, even informing their clients to stop short of losing their breath while training, the practice of training groups in a rudimentary circuit fashion did exist, and in some cases, thrived. (6) This was especially the case after the 1860s when the British military overhauled its training system. Done under the supervision Archibald MacLaren, soldiers were given three months physical training where they would alternate between “various conditioning drills involving rope-climbing, trapeze work, and the negotiation of obstacles while carrying packs and rifles.” (7)
Equally important was the growth of physical education in schools in Great Britain and the United States. Operating in a world in which exercise was now important, educationalists like Dio Lewis, began to write on new styles of exercise for children. Lewis’ 1860 book, New Gymnastics, was one successful example. (8) Lewis himself was relatively silent on the point of how to set up training classes but we know he often split classes into groups using different exercises. This meant that groups could simultaneously use different exercises. (9) The only thing missing was shortened rest time.
Lewis was usually in favor of longer rest periods, but this does not mean all of his contemporaries agreed with this approach. James Johonnot’s 1878 work Principles and Practices of Teaching, for example, pushed for quick forms of physical education in classrooms in which students moved from exercise to exercise.(10) We see here then that rudimentary or early kinds of circuit training existed long before the 1960s.
Circuit Training in the Gymnasium
From the late nineteenth century, the desire to get some form of physical activity grew among the general public in Britain and the United States. Addressing, and fueling, this desire was the emergence of physical culture, a late nineteenth and early twentieth century fitness phenomena previously discussed on BarBend. With the growth of physical culture, trainees could now choose between dumbbells, barbells, calisthenics, Indian club swinging and any many of weighted implement.
For trainees in the United States, Alan Calvert’s Milo Barbell, founded in 1903, marked greater access to many of these items. Calvert’s entrepreneurial spirit, which included Strength magazine, was matched by others, like Bernarr MacFadden, whose Physical Culture magazine became one of the most dominant voices in the health and fitness industry. (11) Both men, in their own way, helped push more and more people into exercising which, in turn, meant that training methods capable of managing large crowds in a short space of time became a necessity.
Now while some attempted to capitalize on the new interest in health and fitness with books about exercising in bed or losing weight with just five minutes exercise a day, others took to fitness classes. In the United States, Great Britain and much of Europe, the new interest in physical culture came to be seen in group exercise classes for adults and children. Again it wasn’t the slick style of training found today, but it was something. Furthermore it intensified the importance of some form of circuit training.
So how exactly did group exercise classes work during the early 1900s? One book from the Carnegie Institute in Washington gives some indication. In exercise classes for men, lasting 90 minutes, trainees were put through a series of different exercises and movements. For twenty minutes, the men were put through a program of ‘vigorous’ calisthenics which, the instructor later claimed, few could actually complete owing to the constant strain. (12) Reading into the Washington gym’s approach, the classes were split into different groups, all performing separate exercises. This, it seems, was a common approach.
Circuit training, in this way, sort of meandered on during the early 1900s. What helped change things was the First World War, 1914-1918. Physical training, in the military, could, at times, rely on circuit and group training. (13) When War broke out, millions of men were introduced to exercise, many of whom had no experience training whatsoever. When the war ended in 1918, many retained their interest and belief in physical training. As a result, the 1920s and 1930s saw dozens of governments around the world began promoting mass systems of gymnastics and calisthenics.
While this development was most clearly seen in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, where large-scale group exercise took a remarkable level of importance, the same was true in Great Britain and the United States. (14) A physically fit nation was taken, not unreasonably, to be seen as a militarily strong nation. Using systems devised along the lines of Ling, Jahn and their contemporaries, circuit styles of training were used in larger numbers than ever before. This point became doubly true during the Second World War, 1939-1945.
Without delving too much into the history of things, the Second World War was important for two reasons. First it brought a new generation into physical activity and, more importantly, it was during the War that many first came into contact with progressive weight training. Jason Shurley, Jan Todd and Terry Todd’s recent work on the history of strength coaching highlighted the fact that many Americans first took an interest in weight lifting and bodybuilding during the time as troops in the War. (15)
Troops met the best of both worlds — they had experience training in circuits and lifting weights. Second, it meant that many wanted to continue this interest. This also extended into their research, as many of the mid-century’s leading exercise physiologists were bitten by the Iron bug during the conflict.
A Whole New World
The Second World War also helped further the growth of exercise science and physiotherapy. Owing to the vast numbers of injured troops returning from the front, doctors and physiotherapists began to take a much greater interest in weight training. Specifically, they wondered, having trained with weights themselves, if weight training could help injured men recover faster. Thomas DeLorme in the United States, used progressive weight training to help rebuild leg strength and size among American soldiers during the 1940s and 1950s. (16)
Prior to DeLorme, rehabilitation was based largely on light callisthenics from the early 1900s. DeLorme, in contrast, spoke of the need for weight lifting, and heavy weight lifting in fact. In this instance DeLorme’s own interest in health and fitness spilled over into his medical testing.
It is against this backdrop that the first major scientific intervention in circuit training occurred. In Great Britain, two researchers took their own personal interest in fitness into the laboratory. Their goal? To discover the best way of producing ‘holistic fitness’, that is the kind of fitness applicable to both aerobic and anaerobic activities. This led R.E. Morgan and G.T. Anderson, to create the first breakthrough study on circuit training following their research at the University of Leeds.(17)
Done in 1953 and subsequently popularized for broader audiences in Sorani’s 1966 work, Circuit Training, Morgan and Anderson’s work was relatively simplistic at first glance. Set up 9 to 12 stations with different exercises to be performed at each station. Move trainees from station to station with relatively little rest in between exercises. Individuals would perform 8 to 20 reps at each station with a moderately heavy weight, rest 15 to 30 seconds and then begin again at a different station. (18) The results appeared to speak for themselves. After a short period of training, participants were not only stronger, but their cardiovascular health improved as well.
People began to take notice, not least because this form of training appeared to promise an effective way of exercising that anyone could do with relatively little time. In 1957 Morgan published another work, this time with another exercise physiologist, G.T. Adamson, which further refined this approach. According to Morgan and Adamson, Circuit training encapsulated three things –
- It builds muscle and cardiovascular fitness
- It uses progressive overload
- It allows large groups of people to train at the same time (19)
Such was the success of Morgan and Adamson’s work, that the second edition Circuit Training boldly, but accurately, claimed that
Circuit Training, a form of progressive training for physical fitness, has aroused widespread interest in this country and overseas. Further teaching and practice at Leads University and to certain articles which the authors have published in this country and America, the general pattern of this form of training has become known to an ever-widening circle of athletes and physical educationalists … (20)
Circuit training appeared to be the answer to numerous problems. For school teachers and coaches, it meant an easy and effective way of training their charges. Returning to the recent work published by Jason Shurley and Todds, we know that sports coaches at this time were often skeptical of spending too much time in the gym. (21) Circuit training, with or without weights, appeared an excellent compromise.
For exercises scientists and physicians, circuit training meant disease prevention and muscle growth. It seemed a win-win.
Bodybuilding Takes Notice
Remarkably, Morgan and Adamson’s work had an almost immediate impact on the fitness industry. As highlighted in the second edition of their book, circuit training took Britain and America by storm. It was only a matter of time before bodybuilders began experimenting with it. Given his pioneering nature, it is perhaps surprising to learn that Vince Gironda was one of the first trainers to use circuit training for clients.
Gironda, whose own bodybuilding career was previously covered on BarBend, used circuit training for beginners in the weightroom. In this regard, Gironda’s circuit training was similar to Morgan and Adamson’s prescriptions in that it was a combination of bodyweight exercises and free weights. In typical Vince fashion, he also added his own twist. From Vince’s past clients, we know that beginners would do whole body circuits two to three times a week. (22) For the first week, they did one set per body part. Week two brought two sets per body part before three sets would be done in week three. It was a pretty basic set up but it meant that trainees were often ready to train properly with Vince in less than a month.
Vince used circuit training to help beginners, and some used it to win bodybuilding championships. That man was Bob Gajda, the winner of the 1966 Mr. America contest. Gajda, who counted Sergio Olivia among his training partners, stumbled upon circuit training during his time at University. Under the tutelage of Dr. Arthur Steinhaus, Gajda became convinced of the benefits of ‘Peripheral Heart Action’ (PHA) training. (23)
Preparing for the 1966 Mr. America contest, which he won, Gajda put his faith entirely into his PHA system. Speaking to Norman Zale in the mid-1960s, Gajda gave an insight into what his system looked like.
Jog a full mile before attempting workout.
- Back Squat – 10 sets of 5 reps (including warmups)
- Reverse Curl – 10 x 5
- Crunch Situp – 10 x 15-40
- Motor Pathways Olympic Press – 10 x 3, no more than 135 lbs.
- Snatch – 10 sets of 3 reps
- Crunch Situp – 10 x 15-40
- Neck Exercise With Head Strap – 10 x 10
- Flexibility Exercise – light lateral flyes on bench, 15 reps
- Jerks Off Rack – 10 sets of 3 reps
- Front Pull With Expander – 10 x 10-15
- Frog Kick – same as crunch situp
- Cleans, motor pathway – 10 x 3, no more than 150 lbs (24)
It doesn’t seem particularly strenuous until we remember that this was done in a circuit, with heavy weights, and with very little rest. The reaction from others in the sport was overwhelmingly positive. Peary Rader, the man behind Iron Man magazine, devoted an entire issue to Gajda’s PHA protocol in 1967. (25) Between Gironda and Gajda, circuit training entered the bodybuilder’s toolkit, where it has remained to this day.
The General Public
In 1969, the American scholar Dr. Paul Ward co-authored ‘The American Training Pattern’, a short book which sought to bring Morgan and Adamson’s work to the American public. Although Morgan and Adamson’s findings were already being discussed, and in the case of Gajda adapted, Ward’s book helped further the significance of circuit training. (26) Coincidentally, Ward’s book came one year before Arthur Jones’ released his Nautilus machines for public consumption.
BarBend’s past article on Arthur Jones is a must read for anyone seeking to learn more about his Nautilus machines. For now we’ll content ourselves in the knowledge that Jones’ Nautilus machines, which began to be sold in 1970, changed the fitness industry in a way few would have predicted. Easy to use and said to be even more effective than free weights, Nautilus machines helped make weight training less intimidating for the general public. Part of Jones’ genius was the fact that he often targeted those people with no previous training experience who were eager to transform their bodies.
It was for this reason that Jones began to franchise out Nautilus training centers during the 1970s. These training centers solely used Nautilus machines. In them, trainers would move from station to station, hitting each body part in timed sessions. Now admittedly trainees were given more time in between exercises than in Gajda’s approach but the mass circuit training class was now established. This was also the case during the 1980s when a new fitness boom — think Jane Fonda and Bill Simmons — brought more and more people into the short but effective circuit class. (27)
Since the 1980s and early 1990s, circuit classes have continued to grow in importance among the general public. What is different from previous generations is the specialization of such classes. One of the best, and most successful examples of this is the Curves workout chain which offers circuit training exclusively for women. Although they don’t explicitly say it, Curves is very much a continuation of Morgan and Adamson’s initial vision of accessible exercise for the general public. (28)
For weight trainers, circuit training has become increasingly intense. My favorite, and least favorite, example of this is the ‘Death Circuit’ made popular by the late Chatles Poliquin. Done for three to four sets, the circuit is aimed at bodybuilders, strength athletes and weightlifters short on time. Using a slow tempo of four seconds done on each rep, the Death Circuit, shown below, shows the extremes people now take circuit training.
- A1 Barbell Back Squat 3-4 x 10-12 4010 no rest
- A2 Pull Up 3-4 x 10-12 4010 no rest
- A3 Deadlift – Mixed Grip 3-4 x 10-12 4010 no rest
- A4 Dips 3-4 x 10-12 4010 180s rest (29)
In 2020, circuit training occupies a very strange position in the fitness industry. For some circuit classes are their only means of training, their weekly escape from a busy world. Others use circuit training almost as a form of punishment or, at the very least, as a means of violently shaking up their training routine. Either way, circuit training is now a staple in the fitness community. Whether you enjoy it or not, circuit training has long held importance for trainers of all levels.
- Leonard, Fred Eugene. A guide to the history of physical education. Lea & Febiger, 1923.
- Todd, J. (1992). The Classical Ideal and Its Impact on the Search for Suitable Exercise: 1774–1830. Iron Game History, 2(4), 7-16.
- Muths, Johann Christoph Friedrich Guts, and Christian Gotthilf Salzmann. Gymnastics for Youth: Or A Practical Guide to Healthful and Amusing Exercises for the Use of Schools. An Essay Toward the Necessary Improvement of Education, Chiefly as it Relates to the Body. P. Byrne, 1803, 153.
- Whorton, J. C. (1982). ‘Athlete’s Heart’: The Medical Debate over Athleticism, 1870-1920. Journal of sport history, 9(1), 30-52.
- Campbell, James D. ‘The Army Isn’t All Work’: Physical Culture and the Evolution of the British Army, 1860–1920. Routledge, 2016, 35.
- Lewis, Dio. The New Gymnastics for Men, Women, and Children: With a Translation of Kloss’s Dumb-bell Instructor and Schreber’s Pangymnastikon. Ticknor and Fields, 1862.
- Morris, R. Anna , Physical Education in the Public Schools. American Book Co., 1892, 111.
- Johonnot, James. Principles and practices of teaching. D. Appleton, 1878.
- Pollack, B., & Todd, J. (2017). Before Charles Atlas: Earle Liederman, the 1920s King of Mail-Order Muscle. Journal of Sport History, 44(3), 399-420.
- Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication, Volume 280. Carnegie, 1919, 666.
- Oldfield, E.A.L., History of the Army Physical Training Corps. Aldershot, 1955.
- Rau, P. (2009). The fascist body beautiful and the imperial crisis in 1930s British writing. Journal of European Studies, 39(1), 5-35.
- Shurley, Jason P. , Jan Todd, and Terry Todd, Strength Coaching in America: A History of the Innovation That Transformed Sports. University of Texas Press, 2019, 70-77.
- Kravitz, L. (2005). New insights into circuit training. IDEA Fitness Journal, 2(4), 24-27.
- Morgan, Ronald Ernest, and Graham Thomas Adamson. Circuit training. Bell, 1962, 33.
- Shurley, Todd, and Todd, Strength Coaching in America, 234.
- Vince Gironda 6 Day Training Routine’, Iron Guru.
- ‘Gajda’s Peripheral Heart Action,’ Physical Culture Study.
- ‘Bob Gajda and His Sequence System of Training – Norman Zale (1965)’, Tight Tan Slacks of Dezso Ban.
- Roach, Randy. Muscle, smoke, and mirrors. Vol. 2. AuthorHouse, 2011, 462-464.
- McKenzie, Shelly. Getting physical: The rise of fitness culture in America. Lawrence, KS: University press of Kansas, 2013, 88-124.
- O’Toole, L. L. (2009). McDonald’s at the gym? A tale of two Curves®. Qualitative Sociology, 32(1), 75-91.
- ‘Advanced Fat Loss Routines’, Body Solutions.
Feature image from oneinchpunch / Shutterstock