What is circuit training?

First, what it’s not. Imagine a typical workout in which you pyramid sets of bench presses or squats, relaxing for two or three minutes between each progressively shorter, heavier set. That’s a slow jam mixed with brief bursts of heavy metal. Now, what circuit training is. Imagine a workout in which you never stop as you rush from one seemingly random exercise to the next, eight in all, each for at least 10 reps. And when you finish those eight you start all over again. And then again and again. It’s a 140-beats-per-minute trance mix, constant movement, forever up-tempo, relentless.

Circuit training is that fast-tempo mix. It’s nothing like your typical workout, and, depending on your goals, that may be a great thing.

CIRCUIT TRAINING DEFINED

A circuit usually consists of 6 to 10 exercises which together cover a wide area: upper half, lower half, or full body. Exercises are usually performed for at least 10 reps, and, unlike with giant sets, they may be selected to maximize the aerobic effect. So, compound lifts, like squats, are superior to isolation lifts, like leg extensions. And some exercises in a circuit, like burpees or battle ropes, may be done mostly to elevate your heartrate.

circuit training
Box jumps can work great in circuits.

CIRCUIT TRAINING ADVANTAGES  

Time Saver

Circuiting allows you to combine cardio and weights while also working broad areas together. In that way, it’s a tremendous time-saver. In fact, by circuiting, you can crank out an effective cardio/weights, full-body workout in under an hour. In contrast, if you hit each bodypart individually and tack a 20-30 minute cardio session onto each session, it might take 5-10 times longer than a single circuit session!

Fewer Workouts  

Perhaps you’re traveling or otherwise just too busy to get to a gym more than once or twice weekly. Circuiting is a great way to squeeze in a whole-body workout plus cardio in a single gym session. You probably won’t gain muscle or lose fat circuiting infrequently, but you can maintain your current shape.

Taking A Break 

Circuits are a change of pace from the grind of maximum-weight, high-intensity barrages. A month of thrice-weekly circuits may be just what you need between power cycles. Some trainers think of them as a working rest, allowing minor injuries to heal and the mind to clear before ramping up the intensity again.

Bonus Workout 

It doesn’t have to be either/or. You can do circuits in addition to more typical bodybuilding workouts. For example, you can divide your bodyparts into four or five weekly workouts and then on the fifth or sixth day do a full-body circuit session. In this way, you hit muscles twice weekly. Everything gets worked individually but also worked again collectively on circuit day. This can also be a means of adding a new component to your training—for example, emphasizing explosive lifts, like sled pushes, power cleans, and box jumps.

POWER CIRCUITS

Most circuit training is not ideal for gaining size or strength long-term. The rest periods are too short and the primary focus is on continuous movement, not muscle stimulation.

But there is another way…

Power circuits are not aerobic. They’re not designed to torch fat. They’re meant to work the entire body with a combination of several compound lifts performed in a circuit. Choose at least four exercises from these six: squat, bench press, deadlift, power clean, overhead press, barbell row. (The power clean and overhead press can be combined into the clean-and-press.) Perform those exercises in a rotation, doing sets of 8-12 reps for four to six circuits.

circuit training guide
Cleans work in power circuits as well as traditional circuits.

With power circuits, you can rest up to a minute between exercises, though you should still maintain a brisk pace, stopping only long enough to almost catch your breath. This is an excellent way of adding an extra workout to your weekly barrage, giving major muscles another reason to grow. Consider dividing your bodyparts into four sessions, taking a day off, and then doing a power circuit workout, before resting on another day and starting the split again. Whether you choose power style or traditional, there’s nothing softcore about working the circuit.

CIRCUIT TRAINING BASICS

✷ A circuit consists of several diverse exercises performed in succession.

✷ Focus on maximizing reps and minimizing rest to significantly elevate your heart rate.

✷ Choose compound exercises that together cover broad areas and do only bilateral exercises.

✷ Because you don’t rest between exercises of a circuit, you may need to plan so, as much as possible, workstations are near each other.

✷ Rest no more than one minute between circuits.

CIRCUIT TRAINING TIP SHEET

✷ Because you’re focused on broad, compound exercises, smaller bodyparts, like abs and biceps, may get no direct work.

✷ Lifts, like the clean-and-press, which work the upper and lower body together are ideal for full-body circuits.

✷ You can also add aerobic exercises, like burpees, battle ropes, and box jumps.

✷ Working with two or more partners will help you keep dibs on diverse workout stations in a busy gym.

FULL-BODY CIRCUIT ROUTINE

Clean-and-Press — 10-12 reps                          

Squat or Box Jump — 10-12 reps

Dumbbell Incline Press — 12-15 reps

Burpee — 15 reps

Inverted Underhand Row — 10-15 reps

Deadlift — 10-12 reps

✷ Do 4-7 circuits without resting.