Athletes often tell me that they are circuit training when they are actually super setting, or compound setting. Lets go over the difference between circuit training, super setting and compound setting. These three types of training programs are different from one another, although somewhat similar in format.

Circuit training is when an athlete performs a series of generally 8 to 12 resistance training movements, in succession, one right after another, then repeating it again for 2-3 more times. Typically they are full body routines and can be done in a relatively short time, within a half hour or so. The work intensity is low around 40-60% of 1RM and a high repetition range of 15-30 reps. Circuit training is targeted at increasing cardiovascular endurance, local muscular endurance, and strength, although the strength gains are moderate at most.

This type of training first became popular when selectorized weight machines, such as the Universal and Nautilus brands were introduced a few decades back. The idea behind circuit training was to incorporate cardiovascular conditioning, strength, and muscular endurance all in one workout. This is a good training routine for beginner athletes to improve overall fitness levels and those looking to improve local muscular endurance. Those who train who train in a non-linear periodization format typically incorporate this type of training into their program, along with other types of resistance training.

Super setting is when a series of 2 to 5 resistance training movements are performed consecutively, one immediately after the other, without rest. They are multiple sets exercises that work agonist muscle groups, then the antagonist group, such as bench press to seated row, or triceps pushdown to biceps curl, so it is a push-pull training format. The work intensity is typically greater than 60% 1RM, with a repetition range of 6-12 repetitions. This type of training is efficient for maximal strength training, allowing the athlete to move from one exercise and immediately to another. Since there is little to no rest between sets, less time is spent resting, allowing for maximal time efficiency.

Compound sets are basically the same as super sets. The difference being that the athlete performs multiple exercises that utilize the same muscle groups back to back. An example of this would be to perform two or three chest exercises in a row, or two to three quadriceps exercises in a row. This creates a greater amount of overload by training a muscle in a fatigued state. This type of training is generally used for muscle hypertrophy.

All of these training formats help improve overall muscular endurance. The main differences with these three types of training are that circuit training focuses more on training type I muscle fibers (low threshold, fatigue resistible motor units, more aerobic in nature), while super setting and compound sets focus on type II muscle fibers (High threshold, highly fatigable, more anaerobic in nature).

Going back to one of my earlier postings, “Ten Tips to a Great Workout” tip number 1, says to “Mix it Up”, start incorporating these three types of training in addition to your regular routine. Remember doing the same old workout time after time again leads to stagnation and plateaus.

Jon Torerk, CSCS