January 27, 2010

Circuit Training: A Great Idea! (For Other People)

Sure, Sunshine, I Bet It's Really Really Fun!

I was thinking that since we're still in New Years resolution season, it might be a good idea to write about How To Get Started With Strength Training. But then I remembered: Whoops, I wrote that post already. So instead I thought: how about discussing circuit training? Circuit training is a clever and efficient way to do cardio and strength training all at the same time!

Then I remembered: I hate circuit training. I'd much rather do my cardio and weights separately, and be half as miserable for twice as long.

But of course I'm Crabby by nature, and I hate a lot of things that are good for you. And many of these healthy things I avoid (like celery and exercise bikes) are much beloved by others. So just because I don't actually do circuit training myself, that shouldn't keep me from encouraging other people to try it. So let's just pretend I'm Kirstie Alley telling you how to lose weight, or John Edwards giving you marital advice. Because "Do as I say, not as I do" is a time-honored didactic strategy, right?

So what is Circuit Training?

Circuit training is basically a series of resistance exercises done one after the other with a minimum of rest in between. The idea is to try to get a full-body strength training routine in, but to keep rest periods short enough (30-90 seconds) so that your heart rate stays in your aerobic range the whole time. That way, you get double credit--two workouts in the time it usually takes to do one.

The best circuit routines are designed so that consecutive exercises use different muscle groups. That way, you can go quickly from one exercise to the next without screaming in pain. Or, if you do end up screaming in in pain, you're at least screaming about different body parts. "Oh my god, I'm dying, my thighs! My thighs! My thighs!" gets boring after a while. Whereas "Please just shoot me now! My thighs! My back! My shoulders! My ass!" is a slightly more interesting sort of misery to experience or observe.

Why is it called "circuit" training?

"Circuit training" may sound like some sort of punitive regimen in which you are administered powerful electric shocks if you don't move quickly enough. But that's not true! It's a punitive regimen involving no electricity whatsoever.

Sometime "circuit training" does actually involve a formal circuit of exercise stations arranged in a circle. That's how the whole thing started back in the fifties. But there are lots of ways of approaching it now. Many people do circuit training on their own, with minimal equipment, customizing their own programs. And they don't have to run around in circles unless they enjoy getting dizzy.

What are some ways to get started with circuit training?

1. You can take a class or join a circuit-type gym.

Many gyms have circuit training classes, and this is a popular way to get started. Also, whole franchises like Curves use a circuit approach. This way, you can let some perky, motivated instructor handle the "thinking" and "planning" parts of the workout, and you can just show up and do what you're told and suffer whatever torture they dish up.

The downside of classes or circuit-gyms? If you, like me, are opinionated about what sort of muscles you want to work, how hard you want to work them, and how long you want to do it for--well, that's just too bad. Get over yourself. If these classes involve people moving from station to station, you can't dawdle or skip things or you'll mess everyone else up.

2. Get a Circuit Training DVD.

This way, you get all the perk pre-packaged, and you don't have to design your own program. Plus, the instructor can't see you, and you don't have any actual classmates. This means you can be as slow, klutzy, or half-assed as you want, and no one has to know but you!

3. Design your own circuit training routine.

If you already do strength training, you've got the building blocks for your own customized circuit training routine. But you may need to adjust a little and modify your usual exercises.

If you work out at a gym, one of the cool things about it is the variety of different strength training options you have. However, without prior planning, it can be a bit of a challenge to do circuit training there. Unfortunately, you can't just toss people off your favorite equipment when you need it, shouting "Sorry dude, I only have 7 seconds left before I need that roman chair!"

Well, you can try, but you won't be very popular.

Another issue is that circuit training works best with exercises that get you breathing hard, as opposed to the kind that exercise only one small muscle group at at time. So, for example, if one of your normal strength training exercises is a bicep curl, you may be better off ditching that for a combo move like pull-ups (or assisted pull-ups). Likewise, if you do an exercise just for your triceps, you may want to substitute some push-ups instead.

And because of the need to go quickly from one exercise to the next, it's best not to count too much on equipment that could be in use or that needs a lot of adjustment before each new user. So it helps to have a number of alternative exercises in mind that use your own body-weight, elastic bands, kettle bells, stability balls, free weights etc. Plus, the minimal-equipment approach is great for home exercisers who don't want to spend a fortune on fancy home gym set-ups.

Another thing to keep in mind is that circuit training works best with moderate resistance done with higher repetitions. If you're toning; that's great. But if you're used to doing high-weight/low rep body-building stuff, with substantial rests between sets, your regular routine may not work as well in a circuit.

4. Sample Circuit Training Routines:

So, want some ideas on good exercises to use to build your own circuit training workout? Here are a few ideas to get started with:

SparkPeople has some general instructions and some great 30 minute circuits for beginners, intermediate, and advanced exercisers; each exercise has a link with further instructions.

At Girl Get Strong, they've got a "hot body" circuit workout you can check out.

At Weight for Deb, you can get circuit workout emphasizing balance and stability.

And Go Workout Mom has some at-home bodyweight exercises that are a very handy option for your circuit training routine; and in addition, at Truth 2 Being Fit, there are 10 more At-Home strength training exercises you can incorporate into your circuit training.

Do any of you have any advice about circuit training? Or do you prefer to do your cardio and strength training as separate activities?

[Note: This is also being posted at Blogher's 10x Club. Join us there for daily challenges, rewards, encouragement, and of course, plenty o' whining.]


  1. Im with you entirely...and Im not.

    (oooh controversial)
    I really prefer cardio and weight training separately.

    Im of that outdated and proven *wrong* mindset that when I circuit train Im doing two things OK and neither thing WELL.

    (its like multitasking with ANYTHING for me)

    That said, my life seems to be circuit training city lately.

    and the ones, as you mentioned, of my own creation in my domicile.

    I do it to squeeze in a workout when I cant get to the gym.

    I do it and call it my workout for the day.

    I do it and STILL (blasphemy I realize) dont feel as though *I* get the same bang fer my workout buck as when I separate my cardio and my weights.

    Sign me:


  2. Ha!

    You can change your moniker Old School, but your voice is always recognizable to a big ol' fan like me.

    Maybe a certain popular talk show host will need a circuit training routine and this will create some renewed enthusiasm?

    But I'm with you--I seem to do better keeping them separate.

  3. I prefer them separate. Mostly, though, because getting my heart rate up equals massive amounts of sweat and there's nothing more gross than laying on the weight bench in a puddle of your own sweat :-) Except laying in a puddle of someone else's sweat.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. The trainer I work with has a variation: do one set each of 3 weight exercises (usually one upper body, one lower, then another upper), then 2-3 minutes of cardio, then a second set of the first 3 exercises, then another 2-3 minutes, then 1 set each of a different 3 weights, then 2-3 minutes cardio...

    I've come to like it quite qell. When I am on my own, I sometimes do just weights, but in a circuit pattern, and I always do a lot of cardio outside of these sessions (running, cycling). More and more, though, I find myself using his system even when I am not being watched. His variation on circuit training is good. It keeps my heart rate up while I work out, but it also allows a bit of muscle rest so that by my second or third set, I can still get a good number of reps in.

    It's probably not a way to get the fastest possible workout in while checking off both cardio and strength, but with those little breaks, you can get a lot done.

  6. I've always done strength and cardio on seperate days.

    Or is it...I've always done cardio and somehow almost always MISS my strength training days?

    Either way, I'm on the strength training bandwagon now since an ankle fracture has ruled out running for 6 weeks. I appreciate the link to your (and MizFits) previous strength training post.

  7. Although I see people doing circuit training, I usually stay with one cross training machine, and just do it the whole time. I may take a break in the middle as I read that it increases the calorie usage if you take a 20 minute break ie, do 20, break 20, do 20. Gives me an opportunity to read Cranky Fitness :-)

  8. Love circut training, HATE celery :)

    Recently I've found more and more people that hate celery.... hmmm, we should all join together.

  9. I don't have a gym membership, and I have very little fitness equipment at home (a stability ball, two resistence bands, and a jump rope). Most of my strength training is bodyweight training simply because it's what I have. I do a lot of circuit training, because it's effective for me (if something isn't seeing results anymore, it gets chucked for a harder skill), and because it's easy to switch around. Winter in Ohio with limited indoor space and no equipment can mean really, really boring cardio. I can only climb the stairs for so long before I want to scream. With circuit training, I can have a completely different workout each time.

  10. I prefer circuit training to separate. I am the opposite of you. I'd rather take all the torture in one neat package. My trainer introduced me to this kick-ass type of training and it's been the key to getting me past my stalled out progress.

  11. I keep my cardio an strength training separate because it is the exercise every single morning that wakes me up (as does the coffee, of course, but that comes after exercise).

  12. I've taken a (forced) 3 days off exercise. This article really just psyched me out for hitting the gym today.

    I think it is a circuit kind of day.

  13. I'm a fan of circuit training. Mainly because I have the mentality and maturity of a 4 year-old with severe ADD and get bored easily, so mixing up my workouts keeps me a little more focused.

  14. I like having every part of my body scream. I like going to my class and having someone tell me what to do so I don't have to think about it. (shoot, if I could exercise in my sleep I would!)

    Obviously I am a loon. :)

  15. I like circuit training. Most of the time it is a program I have designed myself but sometimes I just throw in a DVD. I used to only do DVD circuit trainings when I started putting them into my workout routine but once I began studying to be a personal trainer I started to design my own. Figured it would be good practice for when I take on clients.

    Oh and too your comment on my latest blog about my organization thanks! If I could send some your way I surely would!

  16. I really love my circuit training! Of course I pretty much have never met an exercise I didn't love but still:) Love your tips!

  17. I generally don't treat my circuits as 'cardio' the way other people do. I still lift heavy. The best advice I had from someone in designing my own circuits was that every circuit should be seperated by movement not body part.
    1. Squat
    2. Push
    3. Pull
    4. Single Leg
    5. Ab
    6. Jump.

    And then I do a HIIT session afterwards.

  18. That picture! My eyes, my eyes!
    Who knew that the lead singer from Twisted Sister* had a sex change?

    *Whaddya mean who? I'm not that old, am I?

  19. I'm a huge fan of cardio and a (new) huge fan of weight training...and I still haven't put the two together much myself.

    But when I do, I'll bet they'll go together like chocolate and peanut butter.


    Thanks for sharing our link :)

  20. I'm a martial artist so I like to think that I circuit train in a way when I'm in practice. Martial arts works the entire body at once so sometimes I add resistance bands calisthenics or dumbbells to the routine for more of a challenge. Would that count as a circuit?

  21. Crabby, as you read my next few posts on my workouts, you will see that I have taken circuit training into a whole new universe!!! I have the "Jody circuit training". I make my own rules now that I am an old broad so I doubt very many people are going to want to do many circuit training routines by the time they finish reading my posts. In fact, they may try to institutionalize me! :-)

    I LOVE MY CIRCUIT TRAINING! Jody style of course!

  22. I found your site on Google and read a few of your other entires. Nice Stuff.I’m looking forward to reading more from you.

  23. I have recently come to love circuit training with half marathon training. I get to get two days of strength training in still, as well as the cross training cardio I need on off days, and I don't have to work out for two hours.

    I am, however, looking forward to having a little more time to go to the gym and actually do some heavy lifting again. It comes and goes for me.

  24. I'm into the same old boring routines like the tread mill, floor and mat exercises. I know that weights would help me, but, I don't seem to fit them in very often. Thanks for the circuit training info!

  25. I LOVE LOVE LOVE circuit training... though, i go heavier on circuit days because there are less reps... I take classes, and we do 5 mins cardio, 3 mins legs, 2 mins arms for an hour....

  26. I had no idea what circuits were until I actually tried them with the Biggest Loser DVD.
    I must say it worked out for me greatly because I do not have much time, so it is a great way to avoid excuses and missing your workout. You just need to put on your sneakers and push play. AND SWEAT! with the circuit you get both cardio and strenght in for a guilt free day!

  27. Definitely separate for me. The happiest moment in my workout is when my cardio is finished, so I like to do it once and be done til next time.

  28. I struggled with weight gain and health issues. I found that my kids helped motivate me to get fit. Fitness and wellness should be free and accessible to everyone. I created a site dedicated to this.


  29. Like you, I like to keep my cardio and strength training separate. But then, I don't really do too much strength training because I want to be a run. I kinda build muscle quick so I try to keep it to a minimum so I won't put on too much muscle pounds. That could weigh or slow me down when running.

  30. Why do people think strength and cardiovascular training can't go hand in hand. Have you ever done an intense strength training workout? I am talking about one where you truly only take 60 sec rest between sets maximum. If your heart rate didn't stay elevated you were doing something seriously wrong. Why waste time doing it seperate when they go hand in hand. Choose full body exercises and quit wasting your time with so called isolation moves (tricep kickbacks)!!!!

  31. If you're feeling super lazy and don't want to bother with making your own circuit training workouts, check http://www.StrengthMob.com for new workout ideas. They utilize body weight exercises, dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, a bit of cardio, and mad core strengthening. Enjoy.


Thanks for commenting, Cranky Fitness readers are the BEST!

Subscribe to comments via RSS

(Note: Older Comment Threads Are Moderated)