Circuit Training: A Complete Guide To Everything You Need To Know (Plus A 12-Minute Workout)

Photo: @lauren_bongiorno

With so many gym and studio workouts to choose from, how do you know which type is right for you? I am a firm believer that there is no “one size fits all”, and that some people need more challenging workouts while others can benefit from some more restorative types of exercise.

If you’re someone who needs more intensity however, circuit training workouts can be a great option for you. Whether you’ve heard about this type of training before, or are new brand new to the concept, consider the following as your master circuit training workout guide:

What is circuit training?

Circuit training is a type of workout where single sets of exercises are performed back to back, completing one after the other with minimal rest in between. The entire circuit is repeated for a certain number of rounds before moving onto the next circuit. Circuit structure may vary, but each workout typically includes 3-8 exercises that you’ll perform for a set amount of reps (ex: 12 reps of shoulder presses, 15 bicep curls, 8 chest presses).These circuits consists mainly of weight training exercises but they may include some cardio components as well.

How is circuit training different from HIIT?

Circuit training is different than High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). The key of circuit training is to target and work as many muscle groups as possible in a short amount of time. HIIT, on the other hand, predominantly focuses on exhausting all of your body’s energy in short bursts of time followed by a period of rest or lower intensity work, like 30 second sprints followed by 30 seconds rest or jog. Circuit training aims to build muscle while HIIT is mainly used as a form of cardiovascular training that simply preserves muscle.

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How does circuit training work the body?

A misconception in the workout world is that you have to be at the gym for hours on end to yield great results. Circuit training disproves that belief, as its results show that less rest but the same amount of work can be very effective.

Circuit training also triggers a significant EPOC effect, which is the amount of oxygen required to restore your body to its normal, resting level metabolic function. This explains how your body can continue to burn calories long after you’ve finished your workout. The more intense the exercise, the more oxygen your body consumes afterward. This means that one 30 minute circuit exercise can burn more calories up to 48 hours after your workout!

Photo: Alex Trem

Who is circuit training best for?

This style of training is popular to many because it allows individuals to maximize their time with a more efficient workout in a short time frame.

Circuit training can be a great workout for anyone, with the exception of those who have high blood pressure or heart problems. This style of training is a prime option for those looking to improve their overall fitness, as it can improve both your body’s respiratory system as well as improve muscular function and strength. If you are someone who is looking to switch up their workouts and add variety in, circuit training may be a great option for you.

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The overall benefits for mind and body:

  1. Can be done with or without equipment.
  2. Maximum results in shorter amount of time.
  3. Easy to follow but also easy to create your own workout of the day! Find a template you like and plug in some of your moves you’ve seen from your favorite trainer on Instagram!
  4. Targets multiple muscle groups in one session.

The possible drawbacks:

While circuit training has many benefits, it does have a few drawbacks worth mentioning.

  1. Circuit training can be strenuous on the body if you overtrain so it is essential to give your muscles and joints time to recover in between sessions and always listen to your body if it’s craving a rest day.
  2. If you have a specific goal of trying to build a lot of muscle, circuit training might hurt you more than actually help you. Because one of the purposes of circuit training is to move fast, you aren’t able to lift as heavy as you would if you were resting 1-2 minutes after each individual exercise. During each circuit, you want to use moderate to heavy weights that are 70-90% of your max potential.
  3. Typically, directions for circuit training workouts will call for no rest in between exercises. Having a no-rest period can fatigue the body quicker, which may in turn, compromise form.
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Related Class

Tips for beginners:

If you’re new to the circuit training world, welcome! Don’t be intimidated, remember, everyone is a beginner at one point. During the first few weeks of incorporating circuit training into your routine, allow yourself to take longer rests in between rounds and allow yourself the opportunity to use lighter weights, or even just use your body weight! By doing these two things you’ll be able to let your body adjust to this type of training safely, which will prevent any injury from occurring.

Photo: Alex Trem

A 12-minute beginners circuit training workout:

Warm-up:

  • Begin with a proper 5- to 10-minute warmup before beginning your circuit. You may try walking on an incline on the treadmill paired with dynamic stretches that target the entire body.
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Directions:

  • Perform each exercise move for the number of reps specified, with little to no rest between exercises.
  • After you complete all 3 exercises, take a 1 minute break before repeating the circuit again 3 more times.
  • Happy sweating!

Beginner Full Body Circuit:

1. 20 Reverse Lunge Step ups

Benefits: The reverse lunge step up challenges your balance, activates your glutes, hamstrings and quads, increase your core stability, and trains explosiveness of the leg muscles as you step up.

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Equipment: bench or chair (+ option to hold 2 dumbbells in hands)

Directions:

  1. Begin by standing facing your bench/chair. Step up with your left foot, driving your right knee into your chest.
  2. With your left foot still on the bench, step your right leg back behind you, placing it on the ground.
  3. Step your left foot far back behind your right foot, lowering yourself down into a lunge until your left knee is one inch above the ground. You should be forming a 90-degree angle with both legs.
  4. Drive through your back left toes and step back up onto the bench with your left foot to repeat the left side again.
  5. At the 25 second mark, switch sides to step up and lunge back with your right foot instead.

2. 15 Squat + Medicine Ball Shoulder Press

Benefits: The sumo squat helps to lift and strengthen the glutes while placing more of an emphasis on the inner thigh adductors than a regular squat position would. The overhead shoulder press motion strengthens the front and side deltoids + increases core stability.

Equipment: Medicine ball

Directions:

  1. Start in a sumo squat position with your feet wider than hip width apart, turning your toes out to a 45 degree angle and holding the medicine ball at the center of your chest.
  2. Squat down keeping your glutes tucked under your body and knees tracking over your toes.
  3. As you stand up, press the medicine ball overhead while keeping your core engaged.
  4. Return medicine ball to center of chest as you squat back down.

3. 15 Walk Out to Pushup

Benefits: this move strengthens your legs, core, and arms simultaneously. It also gives a nice stretch through the hamstrings during the walk in/ walk out.

Equipment: No equipment required

Directions:

  1. From a standing position, roll the top half of your body down slowly in order to bring your hands to the floorWith a slight bend in your legs, walk your hands forward into a plank position with your wrists slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
  2. Do one pushup, keeping your core and glutes engaged and your gaze off the tip of your nose. Make sure your legs, hips and neck are all in one straight line. If you feel your belly sinking causing pressure in your lower back, drop to your knees to perform the push up as a perfectly acceptable modification.
  3. Walk your hands back to your feet, stand up, and repeat.

Want to avoid post-workout soreness? Try these stretches after your circuit workout.

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