What Is Circuit Training? (Shape)

Posted: Sep 22, 2022 in In the News

This article was originally published in Shape on September 26, 2022.

Your Complete Guide to Circuit Training

For a one-two punch of strength and cardio work, use circuit training to structure your exercise sessions.

By Megan Falk and Lauren Mazzo

The standard approach to structuring your workouts — performing multiple sets of one exercise, with rest breaks in between, before progressing to the next move — is a classic for a reason. It gives your body plenty of time to recover in between sets, and you don't have to constantly swap out your equipment. But this method of training isn't perfect: You can easily get distracted between sets, and due to the frequent breathers, it's not exactly time-efficient.

To speed up your workouts and keep boredom to a minimum, turn to circuit training — a method of structuring your sessions that helps you build up strength, train your cardiovascular system, and more. Ahead, fitness experts answer, "what is circuit training?" and break down its key benefits. Plus, you'll find a round-up of circuit training workouts to try and exercises to include in a DIY circuit workout.

What Is Circuit Training?

Circuit training involves alternating between several exercises (anywhere from five to 15) that target different muscle groups with little to no rest in between, says Pete McCall, a certified personal trainer, spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, and creator of the All About Fitness podcast.

For example, you might start with a lower-body exercise, move on to an upper-body exercise, then perform a core exercise. You might follow up with another lower-body exercise and finish the circuit with an upper-body move. Typically, you'll perform each exercise for a specific number of reps (think: eight to 20) or for a particular amount of time (e.g. 30 to 60 seconds), according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine. After you complete those five exercises, you'll take a brief breather (about 90 seconds to two minutes), then you'll repeat the entire circuit for a total of three to five rounds, adds Antonia Henry, M.Sc., R.Y.T., an NASM-certified personal trainer and pregnancy and postpartum athleticism coach.

"The whole idea of circuit training is to work different muscles all at the same time with a minimum amount of rest," says McCall. In order to keep those breathers to a minimum, you'll alternate between muscle groups with each exercise (think: an upper-body move followed by a lower-body exercise), says Henry. This technique allows your non-working muscle groups to have a bit of rest without completely pausing your workout, adds McCall. For example, since your legs get to rest during pull-ups and your arms get to rest during squats, you can nix any dedicated rest time between exercises — making for a more effective workout that not only builds strength but also keeps your heart thumping, says McCall.

And on that note: Circuit training workouts don't have to consist entirely of strength-focused moves. In addition to compound exercises (which call on multiple joints) and isolation exercises (which rely on just one joint) exercises, you can also incorporate cardio-focused exercises, such as burpees or jumping rope, into your circuit training sessions, says Henry.

The Benefits of Circuit Training

By using circuit training to structure your workouts, you'll score benefits for both your muscles and your cardiovascular system. Keep on reading for the details.

Challenges Your Cardiovascular System

"Because you're moving from exercise to exercise with very little rest, circuit training produces a pretty significant cardiorespiratory response," says McCall. And that means, yes, you can totally count it as cardio. Remember: Cardiovascular training involves performing exercises that help stimulate and strengthen the heart and lungs, Melissa Kendter, an ACE-certified personal trainer, functional training specialist, and EvolveYou coach, previously told Shape. Over time, cardio training helps these organs work more effectively to deliver oxygen to the muscles. In turn, you'll be able to work harder without feeling as fatigued — both in the gym and out, she explained. For instance, you'll be able to climb up the stair stepper or chase after your pup in the dog park without feeling completely winded once you stop.

To score those health perks, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends performing 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combo of both each week. (To determine your activity's intensity, use the talk test: During moderate-intensity activity, you'll be able to talk but not sing, but you won't be able to speak more than a few words at a time during vigorous exercise.) And luckily, powering through a strength-building circuit that gets you a bit breathless can help you meet those goals.

Builds Muscular Strength and Endurance

Unsurprisingly, circuit training workouts that feature resistance exercises can help you build up muscular strength (read: the maximum amount of force a muscle or group of muscles can generate), research shows. And thanks to the limited amount of rest, you'll also improve muscular endurance, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). Reminder: Muscular endurance is your muscles' ability to work for an extended period of time. When you have a lot of it, muscle fatigue won't set in as fast, whether you're doing an AMRAP workout or you're simply holding your baby for an extended period, Corinne Croce, D.P.T., a co-founder of Body Evolved and in-house physical therapist for SoulCycle, previously told Shape.

Improves Your Lactate Threshold

Boosting your cardiovascular health and muscular endurance isn't the only way circuit training helps fend off fatigue. In fact, tackling resistance exercises via circuit training has been shown to improve the lactate threshold in untrained populations, according to the NSCA. ICYDK, your lactate threshold is the point at which lactate (a substance produced by the body in response to exercise) builds up in your bloodstream faster than it can be removed. The higher your threshold, the longer you can keep up with your exercise without your muscles feeling fatigued, according to information published by the University of Virginia's School of Medicine.

Makes Your Workouts More Efficient

If you barely have time to make breakfast in the morning — let alone squeeze in a workout — using circuits to structure your training sessions can be a game-changer. "You can get a ton of bang for your buck with circuit training," says Henry. "You can get the benefit of added muscle mass [through] the strength training and you can get the [improved] cardiovascular capacity in the same workout. So for people who are short on time, these are absolutely perfect."

Can Be Tailored to Meet Your Goals and Needs

Since circuit training is simply a way to structure your workouts, you're able to tweak your sessions to match your fitness level or help you meet specific performance goals. "It's useful for absolutely anyone, from absolute beginners to experienced athletes," says Henry. For example, fitness newbies can kick off their journeys with bodyweight circuits that help them master the basics, while CrossFit pros can use circuit-based WODs to build up strength for their sport. You can leave the cardio-focused exercises out entirely if your body and mind aren't in the mood, or you can focus just on your upper or lower body if you want to burn out those muscle groups, says Henry.

The Best Circuit Training Exercises

When you're putting together your own circuit training workout, be careful with your exercise selection: "You don't want to use the [same] body part too many times or do too many repetitive movements," says McCall. "With anything, if you do too much of the same exercise, it could result in an overuse injury."

On the same token, you'll typically want to avoid highly technical movements, including Olympic weightlifting exercises (think: heavily loaded snatches, clean and jerks) and explosive exercises such as box jumps, says Henry. Use those moves in a circuit training workout, and "by the time you get to the last round of the workout, you're going to be really tired — your muscles are going to be fatigued, and your central nervous system is going to be fatigued as well," she explains. In turn, your form may begin to suffer, potentially increasing your risk of injury.

Instead, focus on compound and isolation exercises (both for your lower and upper body), as well as core and cardio moves that you feel comfortable and confident performing, says Henry. To get started, consider performing different variations of these exercises:

If you want to get even more nitty-gritty, choose a few exercises that help you hit all your main movement patterns: push, pull, lunge, squat, and hinge, says McCall. But generally speaking, "I would say pick one upper-body strength movement, one lower-body strength movement, one or two core movements that you can disperse in between the upper and the lower, and then pick one strict cardiovascular movement," says Henry. "And there's your five movements for a quick circuit."

The Best Circuit Training Workouts

Ready to give circuit training the old college try? Skip your usual strength-building session and instead try one of the circuit training workouts below. Or, DIY your own workout by choosing five to 10 of the above circuit training exercises (depending on how much time you have available) and performing them for eight to 20 reps, taking 90 seconds to two minutes of rest in between sets, suggests Henry. No matter which option you choose, you're sure to feel strong and sweaty — in a good way — by the end of your first circuit.

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