Here's Why Circuit Training Is This Professional Trainer's Go-To Exercise
"How do I find time to strength train when I barely have enough time to get my cardio in?" This is one of the top questions I hear so often as a fitness instructor. Usually, the answer is simple: Circuit training.
When you have limited time to dedicate to advancing your fitness level, circuit training allows you to get an awesome cardiovascular boost while also gaining strength. It’s scientifically proven1 to be an efficient and effective method of improving your overall fitness level—which is why it’s the framework for many popular group and boutique fitness classes.
I’m a big believer in taking a well-rounded, balanced approach to exercise. I find people tend to prefer lifting weights or cardio without considering the possibility of overdoing one and not getting enough of the other. Total fitness to me means that you have a nice balance between how fast and agile you are and how strong and powerful you feel. What’s great about circuit training is that it helps to check all these boxes in one relatively short session.
Circuit training fits in more movement into a shorter amount of time.
Circuit training is basically performing any series of moves with minimal to no rest between the moves. You can either rotate among stations or cycle through a series of moves using any form of resistance—dumbbells, kettlebell, sand bag, or even resistance band—to target your upper and lower body and core and build muscular strength. Your circuit will also include a sprint or plyometric (power) move to elevate your heart rate to improve your cardiovascular fitness.
You can either perform a certain number of repetitions of each move in the circuit or do them for a proscribed amount of time. For example, your program circuit could include 20 wide-legged goblet squats as one exercise or it could, for example, include two minutes of wide-legged goblet squats with pushups.
With circuit training, your metabolic rate spikes as you build strength.
Circuit training is a form of metabolic resistance training (MRT), which combines intense resistance exercises with very little recovery time between sets. What this means is that you are both spiking your metabolism to burn fat while at the same time building strength and lean muscle mass.
Another way to look at that is to say that the workout is both aerobic (meaning that you are using oxygen, which happens when you run or spin at a moderate pace) and anaerobic (meaning that you aren’t using oxygen but are instead relying on glycogen, which happens when you lift weights or sprint).
The result is that you are building strength and burning a lot of calories (or expend a high amount of energy) during your workout—plus you also earn major dividends through the so-called afterburn effect.
If you’ve heard someone talk about why high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is so much more effective for weight loss than steady-state cardio, they're most likely referring to the afterburn effect—the increase in your metabolism for roughly 38 hours or more after you complete your workout. The actual term for afterburn is EPOC, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, and it refers to the work your body has to do to return to its normal state after being challenged so intensely. If you're curious about the differences between circuit training and HIIT, read here.
Circuit training targets all the major areas of the body while improving cardiovascular health.
Because circuit training is intense and incorporates very little rest time, it’s also a quick workout. You can shoot for anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes of training time.
The circuit should progress from upper body to lower body and include a core-focused movement and a full-body exercise (like a burpee with pushup). One circuit can include anywhere from four to 10 exercises—six to eight is pretty standard—and the total circuit can be repeated two to three times, depending on how much time you have for your workout.
For example, your circuit could look something like this: 15 reps each of shoulder presses, triceps extensions, bent-over wide-grip rows, mountain climbers, sumo squats, and jump lunges. Rest and repeat. With that circuit, you've targeted shoulders, arms, back, core, glutes, and thighs and simultaneously raised heart rate.
Make sure your rests between sets do not exceed about 30 seconds. If you are working out at a gym with lots of equipment, it’s a great idea to make use of it and mix in body-weight exercises, too.
Pressed for time for a workout? Circuit training gets the job done.
Circuit training is great for anyone looking to increase strength and cardiovascular fitness at the same time. If you don’t have a lot of time to work out, or if you're bored with your usual routine and want to vary your workout and challenge yourself in a new way, circuit training is a smart option.
Moderation and variety are important with circuit training.
Circuit training has tremendous benefits, such as triggering afterburn and increasing cardiovascular and muscular endurance. Hormonally, you also tap into the benefits associated with resistance training by stimulating the release of muscle building and metabolism-boosting testosterone and growth hormone. At the same time, you experience the feel-good endorphin boost associated with cardio workouts like spinning or running.
While circuit-training has enormous benefits, to gain muscle mass and really reshape your body, a more effective approach is to follow a body-part split, in which you are focusing on one two muscle groups per exercise session and then allowing those body parts to rest and recover for an adequate amount of time. For my own workouts, I prefer following a body-part split and then having days on which I’ll go on a long run at a moderate pace or do intervals on the stair mill.
A few beginner tips to keep in mind:
As with any workout, don’t overdo it. Most of the people who come to my classes report being sore for about three days post-workout when they're first starting out, which is normal when you begin to train the body in a new way. However, you also don’t want to be so uncomfortable that you're unlikely to want to try the same workout again. Here are my top tips for starting a circuit-training routine:
- Make sure that you are not compromising form for speed. That’s a recipe for injury.
- Slow the moves down if necessary.
- Get adequate rest between sessions. Recovery is super important when circuit training, so allow for at least one to two days off between each workout to allow for proper recovery.
Tatiana Boncompagni is an NYC-based NASM-certified personal trainer, holistic health coach, writer, recipe developer, Athleta brand ambassador, and the creator of Sculptologie. Her writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Marie Claire, and more, and she has her bachelor's in international law, organization, and politics from Georgetown University.