Circuit Training Practice

Burn calories and tone your muscles in half the time...Screen shot 2011-06-03 at 6.26.20 PM

Circuit training involves combining aerobic activity and strength training exercises. Circuits can be performed with a variety of equipment and apparatus, including free weights, pneumatic machines, weight machines, elastic bands and/or strength training moves such as pushups (body resistance). It is especially effective at both toning and fat reduction. A circuit workout improves both strength and endurance, and jump-starts metabolism. Once you build muscle, muscle burns more calories (than fat), so you continue to burn more.

Circuit training is a great way to tone your muscles and lose weight. Circuit training can be done outdoors or indoors with or without costly equipment and combines cardiovascular and strength training into a short, intense and fun workout. The principle is simple: warm up for a few minutes, perform a number of exercises in succession without rest, rest for a short time, repeat the process three to five times and finish with a few minutes of stretching.

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You can expect: full body workout

Level of Effort: Moderate to Difficult

Time Involved: 30 minutes (or more)


Getting Started:

  1. Determine your goals
  2. Understand the basics of circuit training
  3. Choose a circuit training format - you can do circuit training on your own and in your home, with an instructional fitness video or at a gym
  4. Instructions for designing your own routine
  5. Determine your program schedule
  6. Warm up and Cool down with each workout
  7. Write in your activity journal


What to Consider:



1. Determine your goals

Define any specific goals you may have for circuit training. Do you want to tone specific areas of your body (i.e. upper arms, abs, etc.)? Knowing these goals will allow you to design or choose a program that incorporates and focuses on those elements. Set up your workout to meet your goals and focus on that during the workout.


2. Understand the basics of circuit training

Circuit training is short bursts of resistance exercise using moderate weights and frequent repetitions, followed quickly by another burst of exercise targeting a different muscle group. Since the exerciser switches between muscle groups, no rest is needed between exercises. This gets the heart rate up, which usually doesn't happen during resistance exercise. To up the heart rate even further, aerobics are alternated between the resistance exercises.

A well-designed circuit training workout features full body strength training exercises at a high intensity followed by a 30 second rest period before moving onto the next exercise. Today circuit training is practiced indoors and outdoors and in private and group settings. Circuit training typically includes several exercises arranged in a specific order to challenge the entire body. An integral part of circuit training is moving from exercise to exercise without rest. This element of circuit training causes your heart rate to remain elevated throughout the exercise session, which results in greater caloric usage than in traditional strength training.

There are several forms of circuit training practiced in fitness facilities, homes and public locations.

  • Boot camp is a popular outdoor fitness experience that combines cardiovascular training, muscular endurance training, strength training, flexibility and body conditioning in one session. Learn more with Boot Camp Practice…
  • Resistance machine circuit training utilizes several weight lifting machines to challenge each muscle or muscle group within the body by moving from one machine to the next.
  • Free-weight circuit training is comprised of several exercises set up in advance so the exerciser can progress from one exercise to the next without rest.
  • Circuit Interval Workouts - In fitness, the term "interval " is often used to define a workout that alternates high intensity exercise and lower intensity exercise. Therefore, with circuit training intervals, you alternate cardio with strength training, toggling the intensity of the cardio and strength portions as well. Learn more about Intervals…
  • HIT Circuit Training - Circuit training is a form of conditioning combining resistance training and high-intensity aerobics (HIT = High intensity training). It is designed to be easy to follow and target strength building as well as muscular endurance. An exercise "circuit" is one completion of all prescribed exercises in the program. When one circuit is complete, one begins the first exercise again for another circuit. Traditionally, the time between exercises in circuit training is short, often with rapid movement to the next exercise.


3. Choose a Circuit Training Format

There are many options available for how to work out, whether you belong to a gym or just want to workout at home. Review what is available and evaluate what will work best for you and your lifestyle, budget and schedule.

Workout Formats



Exercising in a predesigned circuit in a gym takes the guesswork out of which exercises to perform, how many repetitions to do and how long your cardio portions should be. As a member of a gym, take advantage of the circuit routine and machines your gym provides to make the best use of your workout time. Check with a local gym and see if they offer a circuit-training group. With a group a trainer will set things up for you, tell you when to move from station to station, and will help you do each exercise correctly. The trainer will also vary the workout each session so you will be toning many different muscle groups.

Circuit training in a gym involves performing prescribed exercises in 30- to 60-second intervals, with very little rest time in between. Most gyms offer circuits, which involve both weight and cardio exercises. Each gym has a different number of stations, but you will generally perform between 10 and 15 different exercises per session. Most gyms recommend repeating the circuit several times. Ask a personal trainer or gym employee to show you the recommended circuit routine. Once you are familiar with the machines and cardiovascular exercise options you can think about designing your own circuit.

Map out which exercises you will do during your session before you begin your circuit. Knowing what exercises you need to complete will allow you plan which exercises you will add or change if another client is using the machine you want in order to avoid dead time in your workout circuit and keep your heart rate up during the entire session. Typical strength-building exercises on a gym circuit use exercise machines, although most gyms also have circuit stations with dumbbells or barbells.

Gym Circuit Example:

  1. Select eight or more strength exercises and one or more modes of cardio.
  2. Warm up for three minutes
  3. Then perform a minute of one strength exercise, working the large muscles first.
  4. Then move to cardio for 1 to 2 minutes
  5. Move on to the next strength exercise and continue to alternate between strength and cardio exercises.
  6. Work your way up to two or three total circuits depending on your fitness level.
  7. Use the exercise machines or weights to work your legs, chest, arms, back and abdominal muscles. Strength exercises such as presses, curls, rows, leg raises, squats, push-ups, dips and flies are common on a gym circuit.
  8. Choose from cardio exercises in your circuit such as using the treadmill, elliptical trainer, running in place, burpees, jumping jacks or even skipping.


Treadmill Circuit Example - Alternating strength exercises with treadmill work helps you achieve both cardio and strength training in one workout.

  1. Warm-up on the treadmill for about 1/2 mile and then perform squats for one minute.
  2. Jog on the treadmill for 1/4 mile, step off and perform one minute of chest presses.
  3. Continue to alternate 1/4-mile jogs with other strength-training exercises, such as bicep curls, triceps kickbacks, lat pull-downs and walking lunges.
  4. Repeat the circuit at least once, and cool down with another 1/2-mile jog or brisk walk on the treadmill.


Fitness Videos & DVDs

There are a number of good resources for circuit training routines on the Internet. The sites listed below will give you a jump start finding one that will work for you:

  • Video Fitness - gives reviews of workout videos and then links you to a way to view or buy the workout you choose.
  • The Biggest Loser - both trainers on the show how workouts that are great and provide options for circuit training without weights (using body resistance).
  • Circuit training gurus:

Cathe Friedrich - offers high intensity workouts that focus on circuits and interval training

Jackie Warner - has a variety of circuit training workouts for all levels and interests. You can go directly to her website or use the following link to try out her "No Gym Circuit" which you can download or watch from Fitness Magazine


Do-it-yourself at home programs

You can set up your own circuit using on of the examples below or from or resources as your guide. This will allow you to choose the equipment you have or substitute other exercises.


Routine Examples from Other Daily Body Practices

Circuit I Workout - A 30 minute workout for beginner or intermediate levels that can be done at home or in the Gym

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Circuit II Workout - A 30 minute workout for intermediate levels that can be done at home or in the Gym

Printer Friendly Version Detailed Instructions

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4. Design your Own Routine Instructions

An exercise "circuit" is one completion of all prescribed exercises in the program; the idea being that when one circuit is complete, you start at the first exercise again for another circuit. Traditionally, the time between exercises in circuit training is short, often with rapid movement to the next exercise.

1. Determine a number of circuits: Starting out, you can choose to do only one or two circuits and then progress to three or more and adjust weights and repetitions upward to suit your fitness as you progress. Be careful not to make the mistake of using too light of weights or an intensity that is too low. Your workout should feature elements of high intensity aerobics combined with muscle building strength and conditioning. The intervals between exercises should be deliberately minimal and are mainly just changeover time. This is designed to keep that heart rate pulsing along in the higher-intensity zone; strength development and aerobic fitness are more likely to be complementary. Learn more about intensity and duration...

2. Determine length of one individual circuit: a good guideline for a circuit is 15 minutes - therefore a complete circuit would take about 15 minutes and could involve around five exercises.

3. Determine if you will use equipment: inventory what equipment you have available to you. Some good pieces to have would be a step of 6 inches and dumbbells. Make sure you have a space sufficient to utilize a step platform or equivalent, a set of dumbbells and sufficient room for lunges and squats.

  • Weight used: The dumbbells should be of a weight so that the maximum number of repetitions for each set of the exercises cannot be done more than once with good form. For example, if you choose to do an overhead press with 12 repetitions, choose enough weight that you can only do those 12 with good form and then must stop. It's important that these weights are heavy enough to build strength and muscle. You want to try to get this weight at the limit of your existing strength and endurance so that you just about fail at number 12 lift. (This is called 12 RM, repetition maximum.)

4. Determine cardio activities: Examples could be basic step aerobics, or certain exercises involving leg movement such as step-ups and lunges are meant to raise the cardio intensity. You could use a stair stepper machine, treadmill or stationary bike if you have them available. However, one of the keys to circuit training is to have a minimal interval between exercises so be prepared for each transition.

5. Determine which muscle groups to target and the related strength exercises: For example, you could choose the shoulders, arms, back, legs, butt, and abdominals. The related exercises would be dumbbell overhead press, arm curl, weighted lunge, squat.  Standing weights exercises allow some comparative interval rest while focusing on muscle and strength development.


Sample Routine:

1. Warmup. Start with a light warm-up of about ten minutes. You can stretch, jog, or fast walk on the spot

2. Cardio - Step-ups, fast - 40 steps. Step up onto the step bench starting with the right foot, follow with the left, then reverse it down again, alternating the starting foot at half way if you wish. This exercise should be performed as fast as possible with balance and safety. Ensure the step is anchored solidly before starting.

3. Strength Training: Upper Body - Dumbbell curls. Hold the dumbbells at the sides, palms facing inward (like a hammer grip). Do 12 alternate curls with each arm lifting the dumbbell to the shoulder by rotating the forearm so that the palms face upward, flexing at the elbow, then return to the side. These curls should be done somewhat slowly while emphasizing good form.

4. Cardio - Step-ups, fast - 40 steps.

5. Strength Training: Lower Body - Dumbbell lunges, fast - 20 lunges, 10 each side. Hold dumbbells by the side, hammer grip, and lunge forward with each foot alternately, ensuring the knee does not extend beyond the toes. Keep the dumbbells by the side as you lunge. This exercise should be done as fast as reasonably possible with balance and safety.

6. Cardio - Step-ups, fast - 40 steps.

7. Strength Training: Upper Body - Overhead press - 10-12 repetitions. Move immediately to the dumbbell weights station. Run if possible. Do 10-12 overhead dumbbell presses. Hold dumbbells horizontally at the shoulders with upright arms. Lift the dumbbells overhead with full arm extension making sure not to lock the elbows out explosively. Return to the shoulder and immediately repeat the exercise.

8. Cardio - Step-ups, fast - 40 steps.

8. Strength Training: Lower Body - Dumbbell squats - 20 squats. Do 20 squats; rest for 20 seconds after number 10 if required, else do 20 without rest. Hold dumbbells at the sides with arms long. Squat down, bending at the knee until thighs are approximately parallel with the floor ensuring knees are not extended too far beyond the toes. Straighten to the starting position and repeat the squat. Do these squats slowly with good form. The back should be kept straight or slightly arched inward, the neutral position, but not rounded at shoulders or spine, with head still, looking forward.

9. CIRCUIT REPEAT. Rest for two minutes between circuits only if necessary. Remember to move quickly between exercises.

10. Cool Down with gentle stretching and cardio for a total of ten minutes.

Tips: Start slowly and build up, do one or two circuits to start with until you get familiar with the program. Then, if you choose to ramp it up, increase the number of circuits. Further along, you can begin to increase the step repetitions, the strength exercise sets or the weight used. Use each exercise to work the abdominals. Remember to pull in your abs with each exercise for cardio and strength. Bracing the abs should feel similar to the contraction in the abdominals as you cough or clear the throat, this will then work the abs continuously through your workout.


5. Determine your practice schedule

There are certain elements to consider for this practice. Specifically you will want to determine the length, frequency and intensity of your workout sessions. Next, you can figure out how to monitor your intensity while walking or running based on your speed and the terrain you are on. Your goal is to find a pace that challenges you, gets you out of breath, and makes you sweat.

Length of workout: The length of your workout is up to you but the National Institutes of Health recommend at least 30 minutes of cardio, 5 times a week. Depending on the number of activities you build into your overall daily body practice and your intensity for each session you can decide how long to make your workout.

  • Workout Duration. Determining how long you should workout per week and per session can be done in many ways. Use the button below for some suggestions:

Workout Duration

  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) You can also calculate the number of calories your body actually needs in order to function. If you understand the amount of calories your body needs to function then you can determine how many calories are needed to maintain your current weight and then how many to lose weight. There is a right number of calories for you to eat each day. This number depends on your age, activity level, and whether you're trying to lose, maintain or even gain weight. Knowing your BMR can also help you think about how much exercise you are willing to do.

Calculate Your BMR


Intensity - Vary the intensity of a workout with number of exercises, speed and weights. Aim for medium to high intensity.

Frequency - Based on the length of your session, intensity and other workouts you are doing you can determine how often you want to perform your outside practice.

Schedule your Workouts - Now that the elements are determined, schedule your workout. If you set aside the days and times you will perform your practice you are more likely to stick to it. Remember the idea is to make it a habit, so schedule at least 4 sessions and don't miss or change them and you are on your way.


6. Warm up and Cool down with each workout


7. Write in your activity journal

Track your activity, duration, intensity and how you felt before and after the activity. Learn More...


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Familiarize yourself with exercise intensity

Familiarize yourself with the target heart rate and perceived exertion scales in order to monitor your exercise intensity.

Exercise Intensity


Be cautious

Participants should seek the advice of their physician before beginning any program of physical activity. It is extremely important that a participant in circuit training pay close attention to details of proper form and to the effect the exercise is having on her body. For instance, a participant must immediately respond to an abnormally rapid heart rate, shortness of breath or joint pain.


Additional Resources and Articles

  • No gym workout you can download or watch online from Fitness Magazine