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A Brief History of Circuit Training and Peripheral Heart Action (PHA)

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The first time I can remember hearing about circuit training was shortly after watching the Bruce Lee masterpiece, Enter the Dragon. Although Lee was well known for his muscular-yet-wiry physique, he certainly cranked things up a notch for this film.

More on the 'how' in a minute. First, a little history.

Circuit Training

Circuit training was first developed by R.E. Morgan and G.T. Anderson at the University of Leeds in 1953. The idea was simple :

'A circuit consists of 9 to 12 stations (circuits consisting of fewer stations are often used now), with each station representing one exercise. At each station an exercise is performed, with a specific resistance and for a specific number of reps.

Work at each station takes 30-60 seconds, after which, the trainee moves directly to the next station on the circuit (with no break) and begins the exercise. An aerobics station requiring 15-180 seconds of work is placed between the main exercise stations.'

This original formula has changed little over the years, and has benefited from occasional refinements rather than a complete redesign. For example, it is now common to see people performing circuits with fewer than 9 stations, and circuits where all exercises are themed (such as boxing in boxercise).

Peripheral Heart Action (PHA)

A decade later, a system called Peripheral Heart Action (PHA) was developed by Dr Arthur Steinhaus, and popularised by bodybuilder Bob Gajda. Although it's often confused with circuit training, the goals are somewhat different.

In PHA, trainees seek to keep the blood flowing strongly through the body, throughout the entire workout. The smaller muscles around the heart are worked on first, followed by the larger muscles around the body's periphery.

Although the basic structure of a PHA workout is similar to that used in Circuit Training, there is a key difference in approach. In PHA, exercises are selected that will enable the trainer to pump blood to the extreme ends of the body, aiding overall circulation and seeking to reduce a build-up of lactic acid.

As an example, here is a 'typical' PHA workout. Note that the exercises alternate between focusing on upper and lower body muscle groups, with different areas being worked each time.

These exercises would collectively comprise one cycle, with 5-6 cycles generally being performed. The resistance of each exercise is increased for each new cycle.

  • Standing Overhead Press
  • Squat
  • Lat Pulldown
  • Standing Calf Raise
  • Push-up
  • Abdominal Crunch

Each exercise is performed for 10-12 repetitions, with the trainee moving directly onto the next exercise at the culmination.

Bruce Lee's Marcy Circuit Trainer

Back to Bruce Lee. In 1972 he had a rare break in a typically-hectic schedule, having just finished preliminary shooting for Game of Death (never completed); and with Meng Long Guo Jiang (The Way of The Dragon) premiering in Hong Kong. He had a little time off prior to beginning his next film, Enter the Dragon.

Although there was more time available than usual, his training showed that there were clearly still a number of demands on his attention. His routines were sporadic at best; consisting of stretching, light technique work and the occasional run. Something needed to change.

In December that year he ended up purchasing a nine station Marcy Circuit Trainer, which was shipped to him in Hong Kong and set up in the following month. This enabled Lee to take full advantage of the Circuit Training approach, with 30-60 sec bouts on each of the following stations :

  • bench press
  • lat pull-down
  • two high pulleys
  • two low pulleys
  • an isometric rack
  • roman chair
  • shoulder press
  • chinning bar
  • leg press

As you can see, a great range of exercises is available. And if you've ever seen Enter the Dragon, the results are obvious.

Final Thoughts on Circuit Training and Peripheral Heart Action (PHA)

I'm a big fan of circuit training. Although it's commonly thought of as a group training or CrossFit-type approach, it fits in beautifully with a solo, home-gym workout. Using any sort of equipment at your disposal, indoors or outdoors.

For details of the 'how' aspects (how to progress, how to modify the exercises, and how to incorporate circuit training into your routines), join us for the twitterchat. In the meantime, here's a look at some Circuit Training in action :

Love it.


Enter the Dragon
Bruce Lee, John Saxon

The Art of Expressing the Human Body
Bruce Lee, John Little

Wikipedia - Circuit Training

Premiere Personal Fitness : Peripheral Heart Action
Fred Fornicola

How to Keep Fit and Like It
Arthur Steinhaus
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