Do you struggle to fit fitness into your busy schedule? With work, kids, social obligations, and too many episodes to watch on Netflix, it can feel like there’s simply not enough time in the day to prioritize exercise.
But what if we told you that you could get a full-body, calorie-crushing, circuit training workout in before you even have your first cup of coffee? Okay, maybe after you have your morning dose of caffeine.
What is circuit training?
The fitness world is full of workouts, methods, and techniques that claim to get you in shape fast. While some fitness trends make a short appearance in the gym and then fade away, others seem to withstand the test of time. Circuit training is one of the methods that has survived the many fitness fads over the years.
Simply put, circuit training involves doing a series of exercises, one after the other, with no rest in between each exercise. At the end of the entire series of exercises, you typically rest for a set period of 30 to 60 seconds and repeat the complete circuit two or three more times.
The exercises focus on strength rather than cardio and include moves such as push-ups, squats, chest presses, lunges, and burpees. Since you’re moving through the exercises quickly, your heart rate does get a boost. So, depending on the intensity level of your training, you could end up with a strength and cardio workout all in one session.
Circuit training is often confused with high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. While both can provide you with a fantastic workout, they are not the same thing.
“Circuit work is a constant rotation of many exercises traditionally centered around resistance-based movements, and HIIT is the practice of differing your intensity levels with multiple exercises over a shorter amount of time, done repeatedly,” explains Josh Cox, certified personal trainer at Anytime Fitness.
Although the primary focus of circuit training is strength, you also get the added bonus of a cardio workout. HIIT, on the other hand, is only endurance and heart-rate driven. Circuit training has a built-in rest period at the end of the circuit (before you repeat it), which gives you time to recover. HIIT, on the other hand, does not have a rest period built in, meaning rest has to wait until you are done with the workout.
Benefits of Circuit Training
If you’re looking for a workout that packs the greatest punch in the least amount of time, circuit training may be right for you. “Circuit training allows you to work multiple muscle groups in one session,” explains Ackeem Emmons, a certified personal trainer who works with fitness app Aaptiv.
While anyone can benefit from this method of exercise, it seems to be the most popular with people who are looking for a total-body workout that can strengthen and tone most of the major muscle groups in under 40 minutes.
It also keeps your heart rate elevated, uses most of your body’s energy systems in one workout, torches calories, and, as Emmons points out, it’s optimal if you have limited time to devote to a workout.
Circuit training also offers variety since there is an endless combination of exercises to choose from, helping you avoid the dreaded plateau. If you start feeling bored with your workout, simply swap out a few of the exercises and you’ll be back in business. Consider changing your workouts every three to four weeks.
Circuit Training Tips for Beginners
Before you lace up your shoes and get your favorite playlist going, there are a few circuit training tips you should consider.
Don’t be afraid to start (and stick with) the basics. Cox says it’s smart to start and stick with basic or foundational movements when doing a circuit. Forget about the fitness “flavor of the month” that everyone seems to be trying, and focus on getting proficient at the basic moves you can swap in and out of a circuit.
Prioritize appropriate recovery time. “Don’t rest too long where you’re not keeping your heart rate up, but also don’t make rest times too short or else your workout may suffer,” says Emmons. It may take a bit of trial and error to figure out what rest period works best for you.
If it hurts, don’t do it. You may run into certain movements you cannot do, and that’s okay. “Explore what, where, and why something hurts, and then train confidently,” says Emmons. Remember, there are tons of exercises to choose from.
Opt for quality over quantity. Emmons says we obsess about How many? way too often when it comes to working out. In reality, 10 quality reps with proper form are better than 20 bad ones.
Be properly fueled. “A car can’t run without gas, and you cannot perform without food. Make sure you are hydrated and nourished before training,” suggests Emmons.
Ready to try a circuit training workout?
Now that you have a better understanding of what circuit training is and how it can benefit your body, it’s time to give one of these workouts a try.
One of the reasons circuit training is so popular is the fact that you can work out at home or the gym.
If you’re a “hop out of bed and head downstairs” type of exerciser, you might want to try this at-home circuit training workout.
At-Home Circuit Training Workout
You can build a circuit from several different bodyweight exercises. The key to being efficient and keeping your heart rate up is to quickly move from one exercise to the next with very little rest. If you are doing more than one round of the exercises, make sure to take a 30- to 60-second break at the end of each round before repeating. Generally speaking, a circuit is done two to three times.
If you prefer to work out in the gym, you can use this same circuit with the strength training machines. For example, consider swapping out the dumbbell squats for reps on a leg press machine. Instead of push-ups, hop on a chest press machine. You can also incorporate the lat pulldown, cable row, bicep dumbbell curl, and dumbbell shoulder press.
Warm up for three to five minutes with low-intensity aerobic activity such as walking around your house or neighborhood prior to starting the routine.
If you are new to squats, start by sitting in a chair. Now stand up and hold that position. Your feet should be a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Straighten your arms out in front of your body and lower yourself back down to the chair. If you want to use the seat as a “stop point,” gently touch your glutes to the seat, pause, and stand back up again. Otherwise, stand away from the chair and squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Add dumbbells for a bit more resistance.
Lie facedown on the floor. Push yourself up into a push-up position with your hands about two to three inches wider than shoulder-width apart. Fully extend your elbows and lower your body down to the starting position.
Get into a push-up position. Now bend your elbows and rest your forearms on the floor. This is your starting position. Your feet should be flexed with your toes on the floor. Your body should be a few inches off the floor in a straight line. Make sure to contract your abdominals and lower back muscles while holding the exercise.
Stand with your back pressed against a wall. Slide down into a squat by moving your feet forward until your knees are at a 90-degree angle. For added resistance, hold a dumbbell in each hand.
Get into a plank position. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart, back flat, abs engaged. Pull your right knee into your chest as far as you can. Now switch and bring the other knee in. Alternate running the knees in as fast as you can while keeping your hips down to prevent your glutes from rising up in the air. The goal is to maintain your plank while running your knees in and out.
Squats With Side Leg Lift
15 Per Leg
Stand in a regular squat position with your hands out in front of you for balance. Squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor. You can also go slightly lower than parallel if you want to make the move more advanced. Pause at the bottom of the squat. As you stand up, lift the right leg out to the side for a count of two. Lower your right leg as you bend both legs back into a squat and repeat, lifting the opposite leg.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees and squat down while bringing your hands to the ground. Jump your feet back into a plank position, keeping your core strong. Do a push-up, jump your feet forward to meet your hands, then jump up and off the ground. Repeat.
Lie down on your stomach with your arms stretched out in front of you and your legs extended. The key to this exercise is to squeeze your core and glutes to lift your arms and legs off the floor at the same time. When in this position, hold for five counts, and then lower back down to the floor. For beginners, you can hold at the top for three to five counts until you have more strength in your core and lower back.
20 to 30 Reps
Lie flat on the floor with your lower back pressed into the ground. Put your hands behind your head gently (do not pull on your neck), bring your knees toward your chest, and lift your shoulder blades off the ground. Straighten your right leg while turning your upper body to the left, bringing your right elbow toward the left knee. Switch sides and repeat.
Special Considerations for Circuit Training
As with any exercise program, there are certain people who need to take extra precautions when it comes to participating in circuit training workouts.
Emmons says if you have a history of injuries or heart complications, you should get professional medical clearance before jumping into any high-intensity program. Cox notes that if you’re recovering from a specific injury that requires concentrated rehab work, circuit training is not an adequate replacement for the approach your healthcare provider has prescribed.
If you’re pregnant, follow the exercise guidelines set forth by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) or ask your doctor if you’re clear to exercise. For the most part, working out while pregnant is safe as long as you’re experiencing a healthy pregnancy.
The intensity of your exercise is typically what changes during pregnancy, and it’s generally recommended that you participate in moderate-intensity or low-intensity exercise while pregnant. The good news is that circuit training workouts can be modified to accommodate lower levels of intensity while remaining engaging.
If you are cleared to pursue low-intensity circuit training during pregnancy, pay special attention to the exercises you choose and how high your heart rate goes (keeping it below 140). When exercising, use the rate of perceived exertion on the Borg Ratings of Perceived Exertion. The ACOG says moderate-intense exercise should involve perceived exertion around 13 or 14 (somewhat hard) on the 6 to 20 Borg scale.
If you want to stick to the lower end—and especially if you’re not as experienced with exercise—follow a more gradual progression, aiming for 9 to 12 on the scale. You can also use the “talk test” to monitor exercise exertion during pregnancy. If you can carry on a conversation while exercising, the ACOG says you’re likely not overexerting yourself.
Avoid exercises where you lie on your stomach (like Superman!) or your back for long periods of time, and steer clear of movements with a lot of jumping or jarring (like burpees). When in doubt, ask your doctor or prenatal exercise specialist for the best moves to do while pregnant.