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Express Workouts

How to capitalize on the popularity of express workout circuits in your fitness center.

Though not new, express workouts are seeing a resurgence in popularity in recent years, fueled in part by busy schedules and the need for a total-body workout in less time. "Express workouts fit into our society," says Ellen Barrett, owner of The Studio in New Haven, Conn., and creator of Buff Girl Fitness.

Back in the '80s, express workouts (or circuit training) were often held on the weight room floor. Resistance machines were lined up and an automated voice announced when it was time to change stations. Sometimes, cardiovascular training was included in the form of jump ropes or jumping jacks in between each strength station. Classes were often held before work and at lunch. Evening classes were longer in length, and music was professionally made, with songs lasting just as long as the workout at each station.


Today's express workouts are similar in set-up, but with newer machinery. For instance, Curves, the fastest-growing franchise in the world, is known for its express workouts that cater to women. It offers hydraulic strength machines and trampolines in between. Hydraulic strength training uses pedals to take air in and let air out, making the resistance more or less intense. This way, the person who follows does not have to change weight.

Barrett says that the hydraulic machines and trampolines are great because they are easy to use, and are "virtuously maintenance free." From a start-up standpoint, they are cost-effective because they don't require any special electrical wiring and they don't run up the electric bill. Likewise, using trampolines for cardio makes it easy to get the heart rate up quickly. It can take as much as 10 seconds to get a treadmill setup. That's too much time for an express workout, where it is all about getting the exercise started right away.


Express workouts are largely marketed toward women. This focus may perhaps explain the resurgence in express popularity. Suggests Barrett, there is more propaganda (TV infomercials, magazines, etc.) for women to work out, but there is also typically less time, because women often not only work outside of the home, but they typically are responsible for more of the household chores. Says Barrett, "Perhaps express workouts just appeal time-wise."

Express workouts within fitness centers

24 Hour Fitness jumped on the express bandwagon last year, and launched its own express workout called Xpress Zone. It is adding Xpress Zones to each of its 300 locations, in a separate area with their own dedicated machines. Says Kari Bedgood, spokesperson for 24 Hour Fitness, " Xpress Zone is marketed to those who use time as a reason not to exercise. The No. 1 New Year's resolution is to exercise and lose weight, but the No. 1 excuse not to exercise is lack of time."

For Xpress Zone, exercisers perform a five- to10-minute warm-up, followed by 30 seconds on each of eight strength machines. Members adjust the weight so that they can complete 15 repetitions in that 30-second time frame. The exceptions are abdominal crunches, which members perform prior to strength training (for 60 seconds), and the Prone Cobra, which members perform for 60 seconds after strength training.

Next, members perform 120 seconds of maximum-effort cardiovascular training on a cycle, treadmill or stepper. They repeat this strength/cardio circuit twice before their five- to 10-minute cool-down. The program allows 15 seconds between machines for set up, and a dedicated trainer helps people through the program, and ensures their workouts are safe and challenging.

Bedgood says that 24 Hour Fitness feels a separate area for theXpress Zone program is important because it prevents those not involved in the workout from using machines that are part of the circuit.

For many facilities, adding express workouts to their center means adding circuit-type classes to the group fitness schedule, because budgeting and space constraints prevent adding new equipment. The group fitness circuit format works well because of the variety introduced in each class, and the camaraderie of participants.

Marketing to special populations

Older populations benefit from group fitness circuit classes, too. At Prince William Hospital's, Manassas, Va., fitness center (run by fitness consulting company L&T Health and Fitness, Falls Church, Va.), Fitness Coordinator Michelle Detwiler works with her instructors to give group fitness attendees (primarily 55-plus years old) a varied workout with 20 stations per class consisting of cardiovascular, strength and core stability training. They use a variety of tools for class, like bands, balls, weights and steps.

Each class has a different format and focus. Says Detwiler, "Some classes are set up alternating cardio and strength training, and some are set up to focus on the upper body, then lower body, core and cardio." Each instructor writes in a class binder what exercises were performed for each class and how it was set up so that the next instructor will not duplicate the previous workout.

Because Prince William Hospital is a hospital-based program with primarily an older adult population, the L&T staff focuses on maintaining a safe heart rate for each member. Many members choose to wear heart rate monitors, and Detwiler likes that they learn to monitor their workouts by checking their heart rate. Members know when they are in their appropriate range and when they are out of it. "You'll see people take their intensity up and down during class as needed," she says. The circuit program is an effective tool for teaching members how they should feel when exercising because they can see with the heart rate monitor what their bodies are doing, intensity-wise.

Another L&T-managed site, Navy Federal Credit Union Headquarters, Vienna, Va.,makes use of down-time in the fitness center by offering a circuit workout. Members alternate between strength machines and cardio machines, and an instructor monitors not only circuit time, but form and intensity.

The cardiovascular and strength machines are in the same room at Navy Federal Credit Union Headquarters facility, so, to avoid confusion, machines are numbered and members follow the order, mixing between strength and cardiovascular training. It's a format that works from a spacing perspective, and during down-times at the facility. It's also a format that encourages women to use the strength machines, because the strength circuit class is for women only. This program also attracts women who might otherwise look to a women-only facility, and it encourages employees at the headquarters to stay fit and healthy at no cost to them by using their own corporate fitness center.

Get in the express circuit!

You may already offer a form of express workouts in your facility. Classes that are shorter in length and that provide a variety of training can be considered express. If you are not currently offering a circuit program, the easiest and least expensive way to start one is to use equipment you already have, or no equipment at all.

Consider circuit classes using jump ropes, wall squats, jumping jacks, push ups, etc. To speed things up, you can focus on multi-muscle exercises like squats and lunges. You may also choose to incorporate combination moves, like a squat with a medial deltoid lift.

Offer plenty of stations, so that participants aren't going around and around the same circle. Also, use some creativity to keep it fun. Add in partner exercises, if appropriate to your population. Have them toss each other a medicine ball, have two members hold the ends of a band while a third person shifts side to side underneath it. Barrett also suggests taking your workout outside. Boot camps are a great format for outdoor settings where there is plenty of room.

Whatever form your express workout takes, ensuring your members get a fast-paced and varied workout is the key to their success. Express workouts have the potential to get people out of a fitness rut by changing things quickly and often. It's a great format that works in our fast-paced society. Ensure people move quickly from station to station, but not too quickly within each station -- proper form stills applies, even when the workout is shortened.

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