*This article was originally published on JackedPack.com in mid 2014. For reasons not revealed to me, Jacked Pack have since removed the blog from their site. So I figure I’m entitled to re-publish my original articles here now. A few more re-posts will follow over the coming days.
For better or worse, we can attribute the likes of CrossFit, P90X and MMA-style training for the relatively recent boom in “metabolic conditioning”, “metabolic circuits”, “high intensity circuits” or, as I’ll refer to them, “finishers”.
I prefer the term “finisher” because it accurately indicates what its purpose is and where it should reside within a training session.
Unfortunately this style of training also tends to be heavily abused. Maybe it’s due to some people taking the efficiency benefits of circuit style training too far, or maybe because of the misguided “hardcore” image that many perceive from CrossFit and fighter training.
The misuse of finishers – i.e. using them as anything other than finishers – can often lead to the detriment of your training and your results. Here’s how to do it right.
What is a finisher?
A finisher is an exercise or sequence of exercises that should be designed to rapidly increase the workload on the cardiovascular system and/or muscular system, and with them, increase energy output.
It is deliberately placed at the end of a training session to not interfere with the primary exercises which are more technically demanding, more specific, and more important overall.
Too, a finisher should be brief. While there is no hard and fast rule on this, 5-10 minutes would be the typical duration of most finishers I’ll be prescribing here. However you could create effective finishers that take as little as three minutes, and 15 minutes would be on the very long end of the spectrum.
What is the purpose of a finisher?
Depending on the training goal we can use a finisher as a method of adding in some extra cardio, extra volume, extra movement practice, or just for fun. All of these will of course overlap.
What the purpose of the finisher is NOT, is to gain strength or power in a given exercise. These are attributes that should be trained with priority in the main portion of a session when they can receive the benefit of low fatigue and high focus.
What are the keys to designing a good and beneficial finisher?
As legendary strength coach Dan John has famously stated “The goal is to keep the goal the goal”. You should keep the context of the overall session and program in mind and design a finisher that will compliment your training, not detract from it.
So if your goal is fat loss*, the purpose of the finisher is to burn more energy both during the session and after it through the EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) effect, as well as building overall work capacity so that more and more work can be performed as your training program progresses. Thus, you want to get your heart rate very high.
(*Of course this isn’t to take from the fact that for fat loss, your training ranks a distant second to a sound dietary strategy that results in a net calorie deficit and emphasises adequate protein consumption, ample micronutrients largely via veggies and fruits, and personal preference resulting in sustainable habits.)
If the goal is bodybuilding, then the finisher should aim to increase volume of work done and create high metabolic stress in the working muscles – metabolic stress being one of the mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy (1). Therefore, you’d use simpler movements and “chase the pump”. Cardio benefits will be included by default, but these are of secondary importance.
If the goal is general conditioning, then you’ve basically got carte blanche. You might want to work within a particular heart rate range – whether mostly constant to emphasise aerobic system conditioning, or using specific work:rest intervals to emphasise anaerobic systems – or you may want to focus on endurance or volume in certain movements.
So with the specific training goal in mind, there are some general principles to getting your finisher right:
• Select low complexity exercises
Olympic lifts, such as a barbell power clean, is anything but simple. A kettlebell swing however, will offer some similar benefits of the power clean in that it works the posterior chain through hip extension, but is far less technical, and thus much better suited for higher reps, and being used while in a state of high fatigue.
Self-limiting exercises – a term that I first heard from Gray Cook – are usually even better. A self-limiting exercise is one that once you can’t do it properly, you can’t do it all. It effectively has an inbuilt kill switch. You know what happens when you jump rope poorly? You don’t jump the rope.
Or what happens when you’re too fatigued to push a prowler or sled? It just doesn’t move anymore.
However, a reasonably heavy barbell deadlift for example, when attempted to be performed under high fatigue, just promotes a really bad deadlift. You can still lift it, but it looks ugly, and might even get you hurt.
• Non-competing exercises
Non-competing exercises are exercises performed back to back that don’t continuously fatigue the same muscle groups. Alternating between a lower and upper body movement is a simple way to accomplish this most of the time. Pairing a push with a pull can work well too.
While sometimes with bodybuilding goals we may want to deliberately stress the same muscle group repeatedly, generally speaking, and especially with fat loss as the goal, you’re going to be able to perform more quality work if you give one muscle group a break while working on something else, yet not giving your heart and lungs a rest.
An oft-neglected point to consider on this one however, is grip strength and endurance.
Pairing kettlebell swings with rows might seem like a fine idea as it adheres to the aforementioned lower body dominant/upper body dominant split. However, consider that the grip is a major factor in both movements. In that particular instance, the swing is probably better to be paired up with an upper body push, which relies on virtually no grip endurance, and saving the rows for elsewhere.
• Use minimal equipment
During an exhausting finisher you don’t want to be loading and unloading plates.
Nor do you want to be interrupted by somebody else using a machine that you need.
Nor do you want to be spending your rest time running from one end of the gym to the other.
Nor do you want to be “that guy” or “that girl” in the gym who is hogging all the equipment at peak hour. Design your finisher around a minimalist selection of equipment that you can keep together in your own little corner.
• Keep it simple
Going hand in hand with the above point, this is a time where simple is almost always better. You’re far better off doing just a couple of exercises really well and with good focus than creating some highly elaborate circuit of ten exercises with differing rest times.
All of the examples I’ve provided below use just one, two or three different exercises.
I’m not just talking about recovery intervals within your finisher circuit here. Consider your whole program. What’s on the agenda for your training in two days’ time from now? Is it heavy squats? Because if it is, then maybe walking lunges with their high eccentric loading aren’t the best option in today’s finisher.
While both concentric and eccentric loading can cause delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), eccentric loading has been shown to have a more significant effect (2). And because excessive soreness can negatively impact force output during exercise (3, 4) your subsequent training sessions will likely suffer.
Something like pushing or dragging a sled however, will still get both the legs and lungs pumping, yet doesn’t load the muscles through a large stretch phase. This means that, despite feeling like your legs are on fire at the time, you probably won’t get much post-exercise soreness at all from the sled directly.
• Keep the rep range relevant to your goals
If your goal is to build muscle, then setting up a finisher with sets of 50 isn’t going to be a productive as setting it up where you push close to muscular failure within the typical muscle hypertrophy ranges of 8-15 reps.
Even if your goal is fat loss, I suggest erring more towards the bodybuilding template on this one. Because after all, during a fat loss phase, the primary goal of your strength training should be to maintain lean mass. More is not necessarily better.
• Use this section of your program to get creative and ad lib
I’m all for training with a purpose and using a structured training program that allows for logical progression.
However, we don’t always need to be so rigid. The finisher is a perfect time to ditch the prescribed program and just wing it. Keep your overall goal in mind, adhere to the above principles, and then make it up on the fly. Pick a few exercises from the available range of equipment and your ability, and then order them intelligently and adjust the sets and reps, or work and rest times, appropriately.
So there’s the key tenets and thought process behind intelligently designing an effective finisher for your training. Next time I’ll be back a bunch of done for you finisher examples that you can plug straight into your training, or use as a template to modify and better suit your needs.
Thoughts, questions, hate mail, or anything I missed? Feel free to drop a comment below. And of course, sharing this article will naturally help you jump the queue in your wait for karmic justice to start paying out.