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Barbell Circuit Training for Endurance Athletes

Barbell circuit training (or complexes) is a time-efficient way to build full-body muscular endurance, challenge your grip strength, and elevate your heart rate (not that endurance athletes need much help in that department).

How to Incorporate Barbell Circuit Training into A Program 

As part of a warm-up

The first method is to perform 1-2 circuits with just the barbell as a warm-up.

Example warm-up progression:

Foam Rolling —> Mobility / Activation Exercises —> Barbell Circuit

Using the barbell circuit as part of your warm-up progression will help ingrain movement patterns that carry over to all the main barbell lifts (presses, squats, deadlifts). Learning these movement patterns is essential for novice lifters, so take care to ensure every repetition is as perfect as possible. 

As a standalone training session

If you’re needing a shorter training session then warm up, knock out a few circuits, and call it a day. The key here is to use a heavy enough load and a challenging rep range on each circuit. Do this and you’ll finish in 25-30 minutes feeling like you accomplished a solid workout. 

Warm-up (use the progression from above)

Barbell Circuit AMRAP

    • 5 – Stiff-leg Deadlifts
    • 5 – Rows
    • 5 – Squats
    • 5 – Presses

—> AMRAP = as many rounds as possible. Rest as needed to maintain good form, but try not to set the barbell down once you start.


As part of a longer strength training session

There are two methods I recommend for using barbell circuits in a program. 

The first method and my personal favorite are to place 3-4 circuits at the beginning of a longer strength training session. This is especially true on those days I’m feeling a little beat up and the idea of throwing around heavy weights isn’t appealing. 

One of two things will happen after completing the circuits; 1) I’ll be amped up and ready to lift some heavy weights, or 2) I’ll still feel beat-up and know I should swap my heavy lifts for something easier. 

Warm-up (use the progression from above)

Barbell Circuit (3 Rounds)

    • 10 – Stiff-leg Deadlifts
    • 5 – Rows
    • 10 – Squats
    • 5 – Presses

—> Rest for 2 minutes between rounds. 


    • Lift some heavy weights! 


The second method, which is probably more common is to throw in the circuits at the end of a strength training session. When you do these circuits at the beginning of a training session there is a risk of using too much energy and being unable to give 100% during your main lifts of the day. Unless you’re performing your circuit AMRAP style with an extremely challenging load the risk of using too much energy is very small. 



    • Lift some heavy weights! 

Barbell Circuit (3 Rounds For Time)

    • 5 – Stiff-leg Deadlifts
    • 5 – Rows
    • 5 – Squats
    • 5 – Presses

—> Complete 3 rounds as quickly as possible. Time yourself and write down your time and weight used so you can compare future results.



Choosing Weights and Repetition Ranges

How to find the ideal weight

In my experience, choosing the proper weight for a barbell circuit is straightforward. Start with the most challenging exercise in the circuit and use a weight that allows you to complete at least 5 repetitions with good technique. This will be the shoulder press for most people, but if you omit the shoulder press for something else you’ll need to do a little testing to find ideal weights for each exercise. 

If you’re new to barbell training I suggest spending some time practicing with only the bar, then gradually add 5-10 pounds per week as you build confidence.

How to choose the ideal repetition range

Choosing the ideal number of repetitions for each exercise should be based on your goal. 

If your goal is to make each individual circuit challenging with longer rest periods then you’ll need to perform higher reps for some of the exercises. Your legs should be able to handle way more than your shoulders, so knocking out 8-10 reps for the squat or deadlift and maybe 5 reps for the row and press will make sense. 

During AMRAP or rounds-for-time style sessions the exact reps for each exercise don’t matter as much. In this case, it’s better to use a lighter weight and a lower rep range that allows for good technique under fatigue. The goal here is to elevate your heart rate while building muscular endurance, not increase explosive power or maximum strength. 

Exercise Selection

When choosing exercises for a barbell circuit you’ll want to take the following into consideration:

What is your goal for the circuit?

If your goal is to work on conditioning (getting your heart rate elevated and keep it there) it’s best to alternate upper body and lower body exercises. This will help you avoid too much focused fatigue on one muscle group so that you can work for longer periods.

Example: hang cleans –> stiff-leg deadlift –> bent-over row –> front squat –> push jerk press –> lunges

When targeting a specific muscle group you should choose multiple exercises that target that muscle group. This will help you overload those muscles and improve muscular endurance.

Example: stiff-leg deadlift –> back squat –> alternating lunges

Does it flow well with the rest of the exercises in the circuit?

You’ll have two main starting positions for any exercise in a circuit. The hang position (barbell down by your thighs), and the rack position (barbell up on your shoulder). You can start a circuit in either position, just make sure you perform all of your exercises in the position you start with before moving to the next.

Will fatigue impact your ability to use good technique?

Certain exercises require a higher degree of technical ability than others. Performing those exercises in a fatigued state can make it difficult to maintain proper form and technique. I use a couple of basic rules when designing a circuit for an athlete:

  1. Always use any Olympic lifts at the beginning of a circuit. e.g. hang cleans, hang snatches, etc.
  2. Move weaker movements towards the beginning of a circuit. For example, moving overhead presses from the end of the circuit to the middle or beginning will ensure form doesn’t become as much of a concern while holding heavy weights over your head.

Which exercises work best in a circuit?

Basically, anything that requires you to keep the bar off the ground and maintain good form.

Here’s a list of my favorite exercises:

  • Hang Cleans
  • Hang Snatches
  • Stiff-leg Deadlifts
  • Bent-over Rows
  • Front Squats
  • Back Squats
  • Alternating Lunges
  • Strict Overhead Press
  • Push Jerk

Wrapping Up

I hope you found this article helpful and learned some new ways to use a barbell in your training. If you ever have questions on anything don’t hesitate to shoot me an email. I’m here to help!

Kent Woermann

Kent Woermann is the owner/operator of Move Up Endurance Coaching. He is currently a certified personal trainer through the National Strength and Conditioning Association and holds a category 1 license in road, mountain bike, and cyclocross disciplines.

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