Complimentary Circuits: Effective Programming Made Simple
"Every training program for every client should feature the essential functional strength patterns in addition to client-specific accessory and supplemental exercises regardless of how frequently they train with you."
When designing a training program there are numerous variables that need to be considered if it is to deliver results in a safe and efficient manner. Individual bio-metric and vital metric data such as age, body composition, and medical and injury history are essential "needs". These non-negotiable elements form the foundation of a program to ensure all pain, injury and medical concern is taken into consideration before layering in the other aspects of the protocol.
The 4 Cornerstones of Program Design
Then there are functional, fitness and performance capacity considerations such as heart rate recovery, VO2 Max, movement quality, and relative strength tests. Collectively these items form the "abilities", or current conditions, that a client presents. These measures are used to guide the intensity and training volume/density to ensure safe, but effective, sessions take place.
Next are the client's goals - AKA the reasons they are choosing to train with you in the first place. These reasons effectively form the "wants" of the client and drive the style of programming and the prioritization. Hypertrophy, strength, power and athleticism, weight-loss, and general fitness are the most common answers here.
Lastly, there are the foundational elements of our craft - the science that drives our field. We can confidently acknowledge concepts such as foundational movement patterns, effective biomechanical positions, anatomical landmarks, and physiological processes. These evidence-based principles are the "Rules" that govern our program design.
Thus, when we put it all together we can ascertain that an efficient and effective program is designed within the constraints, or rules, of the science that drives our industry while honoring the needs, wants, and abilities of our individual client. In fact, that very last sentence effectively identifies program design in personal training in a nutshell.
While these 4 cornerstones serve us well as foundational elements of our practice - we need a way of delivering results in safe, effective, and efficient manner. For us personal trainers we need systems that help us deliver the goods without taking too much of our already precious time.
The Paradox of Programming for "General Fitness" Clients
For most personal trainers, the common client expresses "general fitness" goals at the onset of a training program. On average, most people want lose a little weight, build a few pounds of muscle, feel stronger and more capable, eliminate pain, and all-in-all live a better, healthier life. Typically, they are committed to their goals only so far as their lifestyle isn't too inconvenienced by their training, nutrition and recovery emphasis.
Sure, some coaches, specifically those with Strength and Conditioning credentials, have clients with specific performance our body composition goals. This article doesn't quite pertain to the highly-engaged clientele with specific outcome goals.
Instead, this article is for us - the personal trainers who actively serve the average Jim, Jane, Joe and Julia.
These clients have goals, and those reasons for training matter to us just as much, if not more, than it does for them. However, their abstract idea of "getting in shape" leaves us without effective guidance towards which "RULES" of programming we should apply. This sort of no-man's-land can leave a program in stagnation - too many inputs and too many desired outputs - leaving the system effectively at zero.
I've described this issue at length at a variety of seminars, workshops, and certifications like this:
Imagine you are standing in the center of a circle of people, twelve people, like a clock. And each person in the group ties a rope around your waist and holds it in their hand. When they hear "GO" each person begins pulling on the rope with the same amount of force and for the same duration.
Where do you think you'll go?
The answer is nowhere, which is exactly the same answer when we have a program that tries to accomplish a little too much during one microcycle of 4 to 8 weeks. We can't attempt to program for multiple physiological outcomes in such a short time (such as hypertrophy and aerobic endurance) and expect exceptional results.
Instead, we need to hone in on complimentary physiological outcomes, such as strength and hypertrophy, and pour all of our emphasis into those "RULES". Thus, an effective 8 week program would feature workloads in the 2-6 repetition range (strength) as well as the traditional 7-12 repetition range (muscle-growth).
This concept forms the first of our 3 critical Laws of Complimentary Circuits. Each law builds upon the last in an effort to design effective, efficient programs that safely deliver results for all clients.
The first LAW of COMPLIMENTARY CIRCUITS:
A Complimentary circuit emphasizes the proven programming concepts, processes and methodologies for no more than (2) related physiological adaptations during a single 4-8 week microcycle.
Understanding this foundational law of complimentary circuits allows us to factor our individual client's needs, wants and abilities into a program template that is built upon the understood science that supports training for the specific and desired physiological outcomes.
For general fitness clients - we will select the complimentary physiological goals by considering their needs, wants and abilities and making informed decisions regarding the most logical (and emotionally-satisfying) path forward for them. Backed by science we can confidently deliver a microcycle designed to improve the correct physiological or functional variables for the client.
For example, a client who would like to lose body fat could envision themselves being trained with a variety of HIIT intervals and sweat-sessions. Yet, after an intake the discovery of low-back pain and poor muscle mass vs. total weight would influence the trainer to favor strength training and pain-free dynamic warm-up processes to improve BMR and reduce or remove the pain presence, thus allowing the client to train harder and burn the necessary calories to lose weight.
Once we've confidently selected the complimentary physiology we can now focus on the weekly design of the program, which brings us to the second law of complimentary circuits.
The 2nd Law of Complimentary Circuits:
We must create programs that feature complimentary workouts - specifically, training sessions that stack with one another to cover all foundational movement patterns, required accessory and supplemental work, and energy system demands in a given training week.
Successful programs rely on the DOMINO EFFECT -
Any successful microcycle is the summation of 4 to 8 successful training weeks. These weeks are accomplished by having excellent individual sessions. Individual sessions are maximized by optimizing each exercise. Every exercise is effective once we emphasize each repetition with equal intensity.
This cascade of positive events is our desired outcome and each step along the way is equally important if we hope to be efficient and effective in delivering results. In the context of this article, our 2nd law is focused on the efficacy of a training week.
A given training week should feature all essential human movement patterns that can be optimized for long-term strength development, systemic and segmented rotation elements, client-specific supplemental exercises, appropriate energy-system-development, and customized warm-up and cool down approaches.
When designing an effective and maximally inclusive training week we must consider the client's frequency, especially with the "general fitness" population. A typical training client will be between one to three sessions per week - a major difference in ensuring a program is balanced and complimentary.
Effectively speaking, this 2nd law helps us identify our training density - AKA how much work we are trying to get done in a given session to ensure our clients get results.
In the case of a once a week client?
You'll have a low volume (1-2 working sets of every pattern as well as supplemental exercises) program that emphasizes higher intensities.
How about twice a week?
You can break down the program into hinge, push and carry days as well as knee-dominant, pull and rotation days. You'd include appropriate supplemental work in both days as well as some level of energy-system development.
Now you can get more creative and make the program feature greater volumes, complexities, and exercise variations. For the purposes of this post though, we'll be glazing past high-frequency clientele since their goals can be moved into more specific territory.
Once we determine the amount of time we get with a client per week and how we want to deploy the patterns - it is now time to move towards our next law of Complimentary Circuits.
The 3rd Law of Complimentary Circuits states:
Each individual workout should feature a variety of tri-sets or quad-sets that emphasize complimenting training patterns. A complimentary training pattern is any primary movement pattern that does not directly compete with another in terms of the musculature utilized to produce force.
For example, the hinge and the overhead push are complimentary patterns. So too are the squat and the pull-up.
Simply put, both patterns can be trained in a challenging way without causing direct impact on the next one. The muscular effects of a squat should not directly impact the performance on your pull-up pattern (excluding peak performance or fatigue-inducing set structures).
The benefit of a complimentary circuit is that you are capable of training two essential patterns back-to-back without losing too much time. Doing so will promote metabolic efficiency and increase the total work performed in a given session (density training).
Structuring a Complimentary Circuit involves the following:
PRIMARY (Essential Training Pattern) - KPI
SECONDARY (Essential Training Pattern)
CORE EMPHASIS (Pillar Function or Anti-Patterns)
(optional) Active Core/Accessory Lift/Unloaded PRIMER for PRIMARY EXERCISE
This structure allows for 3 major training emphasis' to occur in each circuit. This sort of efficiency is a great way to get a lot done with clients with lower training frequencies.
The Pillar emphasis allows to continue to train core stability and improve our client's ability to brace and stabilize the spin for force production while also providing that "feeling" of core work that so many crave.
The last exercise is optional because some clients will not do well with a fourth training effort in a single circuit. Those that are will benefit greatly from an accessory lift (such as some hamstring curls), a dynamic core pattern (such as a flutter kick or leg raise), or a primer for the next round of primary effort (such as broad jumps before a deadlift).
Factoring in this 3rd law of Complimentary Circuits quite literally builds the circuits that comprise our workouts. These workouts build our weeks and so on. For most training sessions - Aim for 2-3 Circuits of 3-5 sets of each exercise if your client can commit to at least two sessions per week.
Here is an example used in the Pain-Free Performance Specialist Certification Social Media Group:
Once we've designed our training program the final emphasis is to ensure our repetition ranges, load assignments, and total training volume matches the client's needs, wants and abilities while honoring the science that drives our field.
Simply put, you can't expect to have an effective max-strength training program if you are only doing sets of twenty repetitions in your workout. Just the same, you can't build metabolic capacity if you are only doing straight sets of singles.
The goal here is to match the intensity and design of each programmed exercise to the one or two physiological outcomes that you and the client have agreed upon for the microcycle. Completing this step correctly effectively closes the loop between the 3 Laws and lends to positive adaptations - AKA Results.
Having 2 Plans
Another worthwhile effort for coaches is to keep 2 plans on hand for your client to account for daily undulation in energy, emotion, and commitment. Having the ability to adjust up for a BEST day, or down for a WORST day, allows us to keep our clients engaged by demonstrating empathy and flexibility.
On average you'll train BEST days most often. But having the WORST day variation of your programmed workout will give you the flexibility to adapt when your client needs you the most.
Your client is unique. They are an individual with unique needs, wants and abilities. Never lose sight of these essential principles and you'll be rewarded with loyal clients, a successful book of proof, and a reputation as one of the best coaches in the industry.
Everyone wins when you keep the attention on your client in the design and execution of your sessions.
Safe, effective, efficient, and pain-free results that satisfy our client, streamline our processes, and demonstrate our commitment to excellence. That's what we all want. To bring this to life, just remember the countdown:
As you go forward working with the general population, be sure to stand on the 4 cornerstones of Program Design, observe the 3 Laws of Complimentary Circuits, always have 2 Plans in Mind (Best day and Worst Day) and never lose focus of the 1 person in front of you when you train.