Before Liberty Harper opened her own franchise of express hydraulic clubs, she watched one member after another hit plateaus on the equipment at other circuit facilities. So when she launched Liberty Fitness, she researched hydraulic equipment that allowed users to increase the resistance as they progressed — a factor that she says helps prevent plateauing. Now, all her franchisees are required to use this equipment, which is made specifically for Liberty Fitness.

While plateauing can occur when doing any exercise, beginners who use hydraulics may be more likely to quit when they hit their first plateau, especially if they're not guided by a skilled hand to revise their routines. As more people — particularly women — turn to express clubs for their entry into exercise, the issue of plateauing weighs heavily on many club owners' minds.

Dr. Wayne Wescott, fitness director at South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA, has researched circuit training since 1991. He agrees that plateauing is a problem in many hydraulic circuit facilities. To prevent plateauing, he recommends changing up workouts, using equipment that allows for a change in resistance and using equipment that offers a concentric and eccentric component.

Equipment at some hydraulic clubs doesn't allow for a true change in resistance. Instead, members are encouraged to go faster on the equipment to get in more repetitions during the allotted time.

“Because our equipment is attached to a hydraulic cylinder, what happens is the faster you move, the more fluid you are forcing through the orifices,” says Cassie Findley, director of continuing education and research for Curves where equipment is not adjustable for resistance. “You're working against that force. So it's almost like the weight is being increased.”

However, Richard Cotton, who is chief exercise physiologist at MyExercisePlan.com and a consultant to Liberty Fitness, states that changing the speed of the repetitions doesn't mean equipment is adjustable.

“When people want to increase the intensity of their workout, nobody thinks of adjusting speed; they think of resistance,” he says. “Just being able to do more sets and repetitions does not qualify as ‘adjustable.’”

Liberty Fitness' equipment offers six levels of resistance. Harper also has concerns about clubs that tell members to go faster.

“You are told it is adjustable because you can go faster,” she says. “That makes sense, but there comes a time when you can only go so fast. You only have a certain time to do reps.”

Westcott's largest concern is that by going faster on these machines, injuries can result. For example, he says he works with Boston hospitals that have noticed patients with tendonitis from fast weight training.

“Going faster isn't going to be good on joints on older, overweight women,” Wescott says. “When you do resistance exercise at fast speeds, you have a much greater rate of overuse injuries.”

However, Dr. Cedric X. Bryant with the American Council on Exercise (ACE) says that he isn't aware of a high incidence of repetitive use injuries in hydraulic clubs. The relatively short duration of the workouts and the number of reps being performed would make those kinds of injuries rare, he contends. Harper agrees that repetitive use injuries from hydraulic equipment use are rare. She says strain injuries incurred at conventional gyms also don't often occur at hydraulic clubs.

“That's why I picked hydraulics — the injury rates were so low,” says Harper, who has yet to have a major injury at any of her facilities. Ironically, the injuries often happen off the equipment doing the aerobics, she says.

Are You Double Positive?

While the equipment at Curves and Liberty Fitness differ in their adjustability, neither franchise offers the eccentric element on its equipment that Westcott says is also necessary to prevent plateauing. Findley and Harper both say that their facilities offer double positive on their equipment to prevent soreness and minimize the injuries that can occur from eccentric equipment.

However, Bryant says that while eccentric muscle actions are most closely associated with the delayed muscle soreness that people experience after workouts, members may actually see greater results using machines that offer the eccentric movement. While the eccentric movements can cause damage to muscle tissue, the body adapts by repairing the microtears and in turn, strengthening the muscles. The negative contractions experienced on a positive/negative system are more closely associated with the adaptive response to improve the quality and integrity of bone tissue, Bryant says.

“Provided that the loads aren't excessive, the injury concern is probably not warranted with the positive/negative system,” he says.

Liberty Fitness facilities offer positive and negative movement in their classes and free weight programs that complement the circuit, Harper says. Curves encourages members to exercise outside the club using their circuit workouts as a springboard to other physical activities (presumably some that involve eccentric muscle actions).

Adaptability

Another concern about hydraulic equipment stems from its adaptability to different body sizes. Many of the hydraulic equipment manufacturers say that their equipment is for women ranging from 5 feet to 6 feet tall. But in reality, if the seat and other parts of the equipment aren't adjustable, how can the equipment really accommodate a 5-foot woman and a 6-foot woman without some adjusting?

“You have the measurement for the average person, but if you are above or below that, you are at higher risk [for injuries],” says Shannon Powell, president of Active Ergonomics Inc., which looks at ergonomic issues in the workplace. A person who repeats certain movements at an awkward position is at a higher risk for injury, she says.

A recent ACE-funded study by the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse's exercise physiology department on the Curves workout stated that while the fitness chain's equipment is designed for women and includes pads on some equipment to make up for size differences, the machines may not fit some individuals perfectly causing the exercisers to sacrifice proper form.

Proper form isn't a big problem if the users aren't giving the workout all their effort. And that's another plateau issue with hydraulics — the workouts are dependent on the user's effort level, Bryant says.

“The exercise loads — and consequently, the outcomes — are proportional to your level of effort,” Bryant says. “So you could have people just go through the motions. You get what you put into it. For new exercisers that could be a problem. Because they aren't accustomed to pushing themselves, they may not put forth enough effort.”

That effort may become even less on hydraulic equipment because measures of progress on the equipment are less visual than with weight stack equipment where the increase in the number of plates allows the user to see their progress. For hydraulic equipment users, the only feedback is weight loss and feelings of more energy.

Despite the challenges that many hydraulic circuit facilities may have, these clubs have found their place in the fitness community. Overcoming the issue of plateauing by offering variety, resistance and eccentric as well as concentric muscle actions are three sure ways to keep members motivated and to move them past their plateaus.

Express Circuits Go Conventional

The success of Curves and other express clubs have caused conventional fitness facilities to take a look at their circuit setup. 24 Hour Fitness and Town Sports International (TSI) have revised their clubs to include an express circuit facility for members.

TSI has offered circuit workouts since it opened 30 years ago, says Ed Trainor, vice president of fitness services and product development at TSI. However, two-and-a-half years ago, the club installed its Xpress Line, a circuit area of eight weight stack machines.

“It fits people's lifestyles today as much as it ever did, but more so today,” Trainor said about the express workout. “They know strength training is as important to them as cardio workouts…There's no one that has to spend more than an hour at the gym unless they want to.”

The Xpress Line is located in the front of each facility, is manned by a trainer during primetime hours, and while it doesn't involve timed intervals or music, members can get through the circuit in about 22 minutes, Trainor says. The next machine is preset for members by the trainer (if on duty). Members are encouraged to do 10 to 12 reps and then work up in increments of five pounds. Because members don't take breaks between machines, it can also be a cardiovascular workout, often offering members a heart rate between 120-140 beats per minute, Trainor says.

The benefits of express circuit training are supported by research done by Dr. Wayne Wescott, fitness director at South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. While researching the effectiveness of weight stack circuits for TSI, Westcott found that working longer doesn't necessarily mean working harder. He performed a blind study where part of the group did the express circuit workout on weight stack machines and the other participants did longer workouts on the weight stack machines. Wescott tested the exercisers at the beginning and end of the workout period. The exercisers could choose whether they wanted to do the shorter or longer circuit. Two out of three chose the shorter workout.

When retesting was done, 80 percent of those who had done the brief, eight-station circuit workout had remained with the program. Less than 60 percent of those that chose the longer, harder program made it through. Those who completed the brief program had added four pounds of lean weight and lost four pounds of fat weight while those who did the longer workout had added two pounds of lean weight and lost four pounds of fat weight.

What Does This Mean to You?

If your fitness club is considering starting an express circuit facility, these five tips could help you on your way for a more successful program:

  1. Separate the circuit area from the remainder of the facility to make new members feel more comfortable.

  2. Make an instructor available during prime exercise times.

  3. Keep the atmosphere more subdued in this area with softer music and fewer TVs.

  4. Have a towel and spray bottle handy at each machine so beginners can wipe down the equipment before or after they use it, which can give the area a different atmosphere than the free weight cult they might envision.

    “If they see a nice, neat, clean, supervised area, they feel they can relate and feel comfortable,” Westcott says.

  5. Check out the quality of the equipment externally and internally and answer the following questions: How is the equipment manufactured? Is level one easy enough and is level two hard enough?