Circuit Training: The Complete Guide

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Last Updated:
February 1, 2024

Key Takeaways:

  • Circuit training rotates through exercises with minimal rest, targeting major muscle groups for a quick and effective full-body workout.
  • Research shows that a circuit training routine improves VO2max by 6.3% and muscular strength by up to 23%.  
  • You can perform circuit training from anywhere, using any equipment or none at all. 
  • Circuit training is completely customizable, making it suitable for all ages and abilities.  

What is Circuit Training?

Circuit training is a type of training where you perform a series of exercises with little rest between them, resting after finishing the circuit and repeating from the start. The exercises can alternate muscle groups and combine cardio and resistance training, giving you a total body workout in less time. 

Besides being time efficient, circuit training has countless benefits, including a tailored approach to training that accounts for different fitness levels, the equipment you have at your disposal, and exercise preferences. This article will give you the tools to develop a fast-paced circuit training program so you get more bang for your buck from your workout. 

Understanding Circuit Training

We all want more time in the day, and circuit training can help you get it—which is why it’s been popular for many years. The modern-day circuit training model originates from research published in the 1950s by two British scientists, R.E. Morgan and G.T. Anderson (1). Even before these papers popularized circuit training in sport and fitness, this training style had been a mainstay in the military and gymnastics for centuries.  

The original model published by Morgan and Anderson proposed 9 to 12 exercises of 8 to 20 reps with a moderate to heavy weight and limiting rest to 15 to 30 seconds between stations. This circuit routine of almost non-stop work helped participants gain strength and cardiovascular endurance, making it an attractive choice for athletes and the general population alike. 

No two circuit training workouts look alike—circuit training can include any mix of resistance training and cardio-based exercises. Consecutive resistance training exercises typically use opposing muscle groups (like a chest press and then a row) or different muscle groups (like a squat and shoulder press). Cardio intervals and bodyweight exercises can also be included within a circuit, giving you complete flexibility in exercise selection. 

While a circuit training workout will increase your heart rate, it’s not the same as high-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT consists of planned higher-intensity intervals (typically on a cardio-based modality) followed by a set rest or active recovery with specific heart rate or power thresholds. 

Benefits of Circuit Training

Improves cardiovascular fitness: Cardiovascular fitness refers to how efficient your cardiorespiratory system is at delivering and using oxygen to the muscle cells to create energy., with the added benefit of a higher cardiovascular load—meaning your cardiorespiratory system has to work harder to maintain the pace of the workout (2). A 2021 meta-analysis supports these findings with an overall 6.3% improvement in VO2max and 2.6% in aerobic performance after circuit training (3). 

  

Boosts muscular strength and endurance: Following a circuit training program, studies show an improvement in strength across various exercises, increasing strength in the upper body by 20% and the lower body by 23% (3). These results were evident when compared to doing no exercise, but further research shows circuit training can provide the same stimulus to the muscle as a traditional resistance training workout (2). 

Intensity matters, though—strength gains are particularly more consistent in heavy circuit training exercises across age groups (4). Otherwise, you’ll see improvements in muscle endurance, which has its own benefits like enhancing your ability to perform activities of daily living (5). 

May aid in weight loss and body composition changes: The combination of strength and cardio stimulus may tip the scale lower. A meta-analysis found people who were overweight or obese saw a weight reduction of 3.39 kg and 5.15 kg, respectively (6). Circuit training has also been shown to reduce body fat mass by 4.3% (3), providing some evidence for fat loss and lean muscle mass preservation during weight loss efforts.

Creating a Circuit Training Routine

Circuit training is a workout structure; you choose the exercises to match your performance goals and fitness level. To build an effective circuit, though, you don’t want to fatigue one muscle group all at once. Doing all your lower body exercises and then upper body exercises in sequence can sacrifice form or technique to finish the circuit. A better choice would be to alternate the upper body and lower body so one muscle group can rest while the other works. 

Circuits are incredibly versatile, making them suitable for all abilities and fitness levels. 

Beginners can start with exercises they’re already comfortable with; simply changing the format of the workout into a circuit will be a fun challenge. Intermediate and advanced exercisers can increase the intensity of each station with added weight or reps in a strength exercise or length of time or distance in a cardio-based workout. You can manipulate rest periods based on your level and desired intensity. 

Here are some sample full-body circuit training workouts: 


Upper Body / Lower Body / Core Push / Pull Workout (using dumbbells/kettlebell and bodyweight exercises) A Mixed Circuit of Resistance and Cardio Exercises
Deadlift Push-Ups Squat
Bench Press Dumbbell Row Row
Plank Goblet Squat 2-min Jumping Rope
Squat Pull-ups Bench Press
Bent-over Row Dumbbell Shoulder Press Deadlift
Hollow Hold Romanian Deadlift 2-min Rower
Lunges Dumbbell Chest Fly
Shoulder Press Rear-delt Fly
Superman Triceps Extension
Romanian Deadlift Biceps Curl
Lat-Pulldown Step-Ups
Bird-dog

Nutrition and Hydration for Circuit Training

Daily nutritional choices directly support your workouts and how well you recover after a hard session. Circuit training has demands similar to traditional resistance training, so you can use a similar nutritional strategy to get the most out of your workouts. 

Dietary protein is essential for muscle protein synthesis: aim for 1.6-2.2 g/kg of body weight daily to gain and maintain strength. With the cardiovascular demands of circuit training, your carbohydrate intake keeps your glycogen stores intact. If you’re not too physically active, consume 3-5g/kg of body weight; if you’re moderately active, aim for 5-7g/kg; and if you’re moderate to highly active, target 6-10g/kg, every 2-3 hours.

Hydration plays a crucial role in recovering from a circuit training workout; dehydration reduces neural drive and affects performance. Adequate fluid intake (about 15.5 cups for men and 11.5 cups for women, including food and beverages) supports blood flow, pH balance, nutrient transport, and lactate management during and after workouts.

For post-workout recovery, 20-25g of protein around circuit training workouts may enhance muscle protein synthesis (but overall protein intake is essential here). Pre- and post-circuit training carbohydrate intake aids glycogen replenishment: aim for 1-4g/kg of carbs 1-4 hours before exercise and 1.2g/kg/hour (liquid) for 4 hours post-workout, considering your next session's timing.

Equipment and Space Considerations

You can create your circuit using virtually any equipment from anywhere in the world. Whether in a full-service gym or left to your own devices with no equipment and limited space, it’s easy to adapt circuit training for a quick, time-efficient workout. 

Say you’re traveling: A quick 20-min hotel workout might be running through a series of bodyweight and cardio exercises like:

  • 30-sec High Knees / 30-sec Butt Kicks
  • 1-min Jump Squats
  • 1-min Push-ups
  • 1-min Alternating Front Lunges
  • 1-min Crunches or Sit-Ups
  • 1-min Jumping Jacks
  • 1-min Triceps Dips Off Chair
  • 1-min Alternating Lateral Lunges
  • 1-min Mountain Climbers 
  • 1-min Rest

Safety and Injury Prevention

As with any exercise program, safety is essential. With short , if any, rest periods - if any - between stations, you may accumulate more fatigue, and your form can suffer as you try to finish the circuit.  

Programming highly metabolic or technical exercises, such as battle ropes or powerlifting exercises, one after the other, is also risky. While they will feel very challenging, performing exercises with subpar technique or in an overly tired state may put you at a higher risk for injury.

For a safe and effective training session that helps to prevent injury, choose weights and intervals that are well within your current abilities, knowing that it will feel harder during the overall workout. Additionally, pairing higher-intensity activities with lower-impact exercises provides balance and reduces fatigue in the workout. It’s best to start where you are and progress your workouts with added volume or intensity to challenge yourself over time.  

A circuit training workout's intensity starts immediately and usually doesn’t stop until the last interval—making a warm-up and cool-down critical. A warm-up will increase your heart rate and blood flow to your muscles and prime your body for the work you’re about to perform. A cool-down will bring your body back to equilibrium, making it easier to transition to the next part of your day. 

Quick Tips: 

  • Choose weights that are well within your abilities. 
  • Pair high intensity activity with low impact exercises to reduce fatigue.
  • Warm ups and cool downs are critical!

Advanced Strategies and Limitations

In elite athletics, training time is at a premium. Circuit training is an easy way to save time without sacrificing training stimulus. With careful programming, interval training, plyometrics, agility, or powerlifting exercises can be incorporated as circuit training exercises. To do this, you’d reduce the intensity or number of repetitions within these stations and perhaps follow up with an active recovery, muscular endurance, or core exercise. 

Once you adapt to the demands of a circuit workout routine, there are infinite ways to apply progressive overload. For example, you can increase the length of intervals or add to the number of reps per station, increase the intensity within each station by adding load, or reduce the number and length of rest periods. 

While circuit training enhances muscular and aerobic endurance, you’ll be limited in improving maximal power and maximal strength goals. Developing maximal strength and power attributes relies on high resistance or speed and requires adequate rests between sets. With circuit training in your routine, you may recover faster from these exercises, but saving the max lifts and power training for a different workout is best.

Conclusion

In conclusion, circuit training emerges as a practical and adaptable workout solution, offering a time-efficient form of exercise to achieve your performance goals. Whether you're a beginner or an experienced fitness enthusiast, the versatility of circuit training allows you to customize your workout to align with your unique preferences and needs. You’ll see meaningful improvements in your cardiorespiratory fitness, strength, endurance, and weight and body composition. Tailor it to your liking, stay consistent, and see the impact of this dynamic workout on your overall well-being. 

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Circuit Training FAQs

Is circuit training suitable for beginners?

Yes, circuit training is completely customizable, making it suitable for all abilities. Beginners can start with bodyweight exercises or shorter intervals. 

What's the difference between HIIT and circuit training?

Circuit training describes the structure of a workout, one exercise after the other with little rest in between. High-intensity interval training is based on hitting predetermined intervals of higher intensity (either through heart rate, a percentage of VO2max, or power output) with set rest periods in between. Traditionally, HIIT is performed on a cardio modality like a bike. 

Can you build muscle with circuit training?

Yes, you can build muscle if you perform enough volume per muscle group. See the AIM7 Hypertrophy Guide for more information. 

How many days a week can you do circuit training?

Since circuit training is typically a total body workout, including one to two days of recovery between sessions is best. Three to four sessions per week of full-body workouts is ideal.  

What are the benefits of circuit training?

Circuit training boasts a variety of benefits. It is a time-efficient way to improve physical fitness (cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength) and potentially lose weight. 

What is the best time of day to do circuit training?

Circuit training is metabolically taxing, meaning you’ll fatigue quickly (which is why sessions are normally shorter). Keeping this in mind, perform these workouts when you personally have the most energy in the day. Shorter circuits are also a great way to break up long bouts of sitting throughout the workday.

What should you wear while performing circuit training?

There’s no set dress code for circuit training, you can even wear your pajamas. Light-weight, comfortable, sweat-wicking clothing is your best bet. 

What is the maximum amount of time you can do circuit training for?

Circuit training workouts usually last between 30 to 60 minutes, but they can be as short or long as you want. Given the intensity of non-stop work without rest, it’s not typically recommended to not go beyond 90 minutes. Remember that your nutritional strategy depends on the length and intensity of your workout. If your workout lasts longer than an hour at a high intensity, you might need added carbohydrates to finish strong. 

  1. Circuit Training
  2. Physical Performance and Cardiovascular Responses to an Acute Bout of Heavy Resistance Circuit Training versus Traditional Strength Training
  3. Effects of Resistance Circuit-Based Training on Body Composition, Strength and Cardiorespiratory Fitness: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
  4. Impact of Resistance Circuit Training on Neuromuscular, Cardiorespiratory and Body Composition Adaptations in the Elderly
  5. The Importance of Muscular Strength: Training Considerations
  6. Weight loss effects of circuit training interventions: A systematic review and meta-analysis

Contents
For further analysis, we broke down the data:
Cite this page:

Reiner, S. “Your Complete Guide to Circuit Training” AIM7.com, February 1, 2024, www.aim7.com/exercise/resistance-training/circuit

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