Effective Circuit Training for Team Sports

Will Ruth

Main Takeaways

1. Training with weights doesn’t have to be time-and-space-consuming if you have pre-planned workouts and structure within the weight-room.

2. Implementing effective circuit training can improve safety, team unity, and quality of session.

Many teams and programs hesitate to add team strength training into their practice regimen due to concerns of time and space. While many programs lack a weight-room sufficiently sized to train a whole team at once, circuit training can be an effective way for individual athletes, small groups of athletes, or an entire team to make efficient use of training time and space. 

For individual athletes, set your exercises up to take the least amount of setup effort, space, or time as possible while still maintaining your program’s rest intervals. I frequently use and program back-to-back sets of exercises that won’t interfere with each other, such as squats and shoulder pre-habiliation, bench presses and pulling exericses, and more to cut down on workout time. With beginning lifters, low-rep circuits are a great way to get a lot of quality work in a shorter amount of time. This helps practice the movements, keep rep quality high, but still build up some systemic fatigue through training density.

I often see inefficient training when I walk into a team weight-room. Team members are split up haphazardly around lifting platforms, with different heights and strengths of athletes working together, athletes arriving late or starting early, or one athlete lifting while the others do nothing. Here are some easy ways to streamline the process.

1. Match athletes in groups of 3-4 based on the following qualities: schedule, similarity in height, similarity in strength, personality.

  1. First priority is schedule, making sure all the athletes in one group can attend every planned schedule as one unit. Make it clear that they are expected to train together as a team-within-a-team.
  2. Match athletes with similar heights, so that a 6’4″ (193cm) athlete is not trying to use the same power rack height for squatting as a 5″11 (180cm) athlete. One will have to be on their tippietoes while the other stoops awkwardly under the bar, both of which can result in injury. A 2-3″ (5-8cm) difference between athletes is fine.
  3. Match athletes of similar strengths only if possible and convenient. This will reduce weight-training time if there is not a great disparity in strength, so that the bar does not have to be loaded with 300lbs (136kg) for one athlete and then 150lbs (68kg) for another.
  4. Try to avoid obvious personality conflicts. I’m not talking about setting the athletes up through Match.com, or making sure they’re all best friends, just ensure that no fights will break out mid-session.

2. Provide the athletes with the weight-room workouts at least a day in advance, if not a week. If you are following a strength training program such as can be found in my manual on the Block Periodization system, training sessions should be planned out entire seasons at a time. Not only does this allow the athlete to mentally and/or physically prepare for the session, it also allows them to calculate the weights needed ahead of time. I provide my athletes with a printout before each training block that contains all of the weight-training workouts for that block on a single sheet of paper with space to write in weights. I cannot stand watching athletes break out a calculator mid-session to figure out what weights they should be using.

3. Once the athletes have a regular schedule, regular mini-team, and regular pre-planned workouts, provide instruction for the choreography of each session. Training sessions should revolve mainly around a power rack and lifting platform, with minor assistance lifts using dumbbells, cables, and bands off of the rack/platform. In groups of 3-4, when using racks and platforms, here is each athlete’s duty:

  • Athlete #1: Lifter
  • Athlete #2: Side-spotter and weight-loader
  • Athlete #3: Opposite side-spotter and weight-loader
  • Athlete #4: Resting and/or spotting from behind if necessary

After the lifter completes their set, they move to the rest “station,” the resting lifter takes the place of one of the side-spotters, and one of the side-spotters prepares to begin his lift. The rack or platform set-up would now look like so:

  • Athlete #2: Lifter
  • Athlete #3: Side-spotter and weight-loader
  • Athlete #4: Opposite side-spotter and weight-loader
  • Athlete #1: Resting and/r spotting from behind if necessary

If you prefer, the resting athlete could instead become the lifter. The advantage of this is that it provides the lifter time to get his belt set and hands chalked before their lift, but the downside is that the lifter has to then go directly from their set to spotting.

The athletes may follow this same rotation when using other weight-room equipment as this is by no means limited to power racks and platforms only.

Having this structure in a weight-room ensures that no athlete has wandered off to chat or text, that the bar is loaded properly for each athlete, and that the lifting athlete always has two spotters for safety. Furthermore, it acts as a self-policing rest interval system as athletes are kept on schedule by their teammates.

Not only is this a safer way to lift and a more effective use of time, but having the athletes focus on each other and feel responsible for helping one another out will improve team unity. This is especially important in rowing, as you could easily design the platform groups to be bow and stern four of an 8+, the A 4+, the B 4+, etc. In lacrosse, athletes could be easily grouped by position: starting mids, defense, and attack. Additionally, taking an active role in forming lifting groups helps avoid new athletes being left out and encourages retention. I have also designated leaders in some lifting groups, an athlete whom I know understands the lifts, can provide some technical advice (but is by no means a substitute for a coach), and can set the climate of the training session and keep things on track. This is especially effective in the fall season when I can put a veteran athlete in a group of novice athletes to quickly instill the novices with the team training culture.

Even if you are unable to have this level of control over your athletes’ weight-training sessions, implementing (or suggesting that your strength coach or trainer implement) some of these tips may help your sessions run more smoothly, more quickly, and take up less space in a weight-room while also maximizing team benefit through improving safety and team unity.

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