What’s not to love about circuit training? When you use a circuit approach to training, you get variety and enjoy the benefits of a full body workout in a single session. No wonder it’s an approach that’s growing in popularity. If you’re not familiar with circuit training, it’s a workout structure where you do a series of exercises, which may include weight training, body weight exercises, or short bursts of cardio, in rapid succession.
Some instructors refer to the exercises in circuit workouts as stations. During the workout, you move from one station to the next and complete an exercise at each stop. Usually, each station is timed. For example, you might complete as many reps as you can of squats or biceps curls in 30 seconds or 60 seconds before moving to the next station. However, you can also build a circuit workout around a number of reps. For example, at each station, you complete X number of reps.
Sounds ideal, doesn’t it? Lots of variety and your whole body gets in on the action. As many benefits as circuit training offers, it’s easy to get sloppy with this type of workout and lose out on the full benefits. Let’s look at some of the most common mistakes people make when doing a circuit workout.
Mistake One: Resting Too Long Between Stations
You shouldn’t approach circuit training like a standard workout. It’s meant to be faster paced. The goal is to move quickly from exercise to exercise and keep your heart rate up throughout the workout. By keeping the pace snappy, you get more cardiovascular conditioning. Studies show that circuit training can improve aerobic capacity, or V02 max, as long as you keep rest periods between exercises short, and the intensity relatively high. Ideally, move from one exercise to the next with as little rest as possible. If you have to stop and set up your weights, your heart rate drops and you lose some of the aerobic benefits. Plus, you’ll burn fewer calories if you pause to rest as well.
Is circuit training a calorie burner too? Studies show you can burn 5 to 9 kcal/min. with circuit training but this assumes you keep the intensity high and rest periods minimal. To quicken the pace, know your exercises beforehand and make sure you can move quickly from station to station without pausing to set up weights or grab equipment. A little planning ahead will help make the workout seamless and boost the cardiovascular return you get when you train circuit style. Another way to increase the cardiovascular benefits of circuit training is to include aerobic intervals at some of your stations. For example, jump rope for 30 seconds at a station, do high-knees, butt kicks, kettlebell swings, or plyometric moves to increase your heart rate even more. Circuit workouts are highly customizable.
Mistake Two: Using Sloppy Form
When you’re moving quickly from station to station, your form can easily fall apart and that leads to fewer benefits. When you’re doing reps for 30 seconds, fatigue will set in and, unless you’re cognizant, your form can deteriorate. You start swinging the weights around and using momentum, thereby reducing the benefits and increasing your risk of injury. Don’t let that happen. Stay as focused on your form not only on the first rep, but also as you do your last rep at each station during a circuit workout.
Mistake Three: Only Doing Circuit Training or Doing It Too Often
While circuit training is an excellent workout for improving overall fitness, it tries to accomplish too many goals at one time. As such, it’s a “Jack of all trades” workout but a master at none. Because you’re not resting between sets, you can’t maximize the weight you lift at each station. So, it’s not ideal for building strength. Your muscles simply don’t have enough time to recover to lift at anywhere near your one-rep max. With a circuit approach, you typically use a weight that’s between 50 and 60% of your one-rep max. That’s not ideal for building strength, although you can see hypertrophy gains if you exhaust the muscles. Of course, you can always modify the circuits to allow more rest between stations but that makes it more like a traditional workout.
The take-home message? Use circuit training for variety and as a way to improve your overall fitness but don’t count on it to build significant strength, particularly if you’re not a newbie. Likewise, circuit training isn’t ideal for building cardiovascular endurance. You get modest gains in aerobic capacity but not equivalent to what you would get from a straight cardiovascular workout.
Mistake Four: Not Adjusting Your Approach
As already mentioned, a circuit training approach using lighter weights and no rest periods has limitations and works best as a time-expedient workout for improving overall fitness. But, as mentioned, you can modify the structure to make it more strength focused or cardiovascular focused. We already talked about the possibility of adding cardio intervals to elevate your heart rate more. You can also increase the rest period between stations more and use a heavier weight to shift the focus more toward strength building. Keep in mind that you’ll lose some of the aerobic benefits and will burn fewer calories if you do this, but nothing is set in stone with circuit training. You can also use various types of equipment – barbells, dumbbells, resistance bands, a stability ball, kettlebells, or even your own body weight. Modify it to best achieve your goals.
Mistake Five: Doing Circuits Too Often
Don’t try to circuit train every day. Anytime you work muscles against resistance, they need 48 hours of recovery time. Some people think that because you’re not lifting heavy you can do a circuit-style workout every day. Give yourself some recovery time between circuit workouts just as you would other workouts that use weights. Don’t try to do one every day.
The Bottom Line
Circuit workouts are a fast-paced, fun way to improve your overall fitness level but know its limitations and don’t make the mistakes above that can limit your gains.
Octane Fitness, White Paper. “Circuit Training: The Most Scientifically Proven Exercise System”