Circuit workouts are growing in popularity. No wonder. Circuit training is a time expedient way to work out. When you’re pressed for time, you can work your entire body with circuit workouts in as little as 20 minutes.
In case you’re not familiar with circuit training, it’s a total body conditioning workout structured in a specific way. A circuit style workout consists of a sequence of exercises called a circuit. You perform each exercise in the circuit for 30 to 60 seconds with little or no rest in-between exercises. Once you’ve completed each exercise in the circuit, you repeat the entire circuit one or more times.
Circuit training exercises usually involve some form of resistance. The resistance could be your own body weight, dumbbells, barbells or resistance bands. If you’re just starting out, you might choose to use no resistance. The goal is to condition your entire body, get your heart rate up, burn fat and have fun doing it. It’s unlikely you’ll grow bored of circuit workouts since you can vary the exercises you do with each workout.
What are the advantages of a circuit workout? Circuit training wins points for hitting so many body parts in such a short time. Because you’re not resting between exercises, you’ll burn more calories than you would with traditional resistance training. Research shows circuit workouts with little or no rest between exercises increases your heart rate enough to give cardiovascular benefits, although it’s not necessarily a replacement for cardiovascular exercise, especially if you’re trying to build endurance.
Can You Build Strength and Muscle through Circuit Training?
For circuit training, you generally won’t use the same resistance you would for a focused strength or hypertrophy workout. When your goal is to build strength, “the formula” is to use a heavy weight and low reps with long rest periods between sets. To maximize hypertrophy, choosing a weight you can lift only 8 to 12 times and doing a higher total volume will help meet your goals. For circuit workouts, it’s customary to use a lighter weight, usually between 40 and 60% of your one-rep max.
The amount of resistance used for a standard circuit training workout typically won’t overload your muscles enough to build significant strength or muscle tissue. Circuit training builds muscle endurance rather than strength and mass due to the lighter weight and greater number of reps. Are there ways to adapt circuit workouts to target strength?
Building Strength and Muscle with Circuit Training
A 2011 study looked at the effects a modified form of circuit training on muscle growth and strength. One group of trained men did a circuit-style workout using heavier resistance. The men did 6 reps of each exercise circuit-style with 35 seconds rest between exercises. The second group of trained men performed an equal number of sets but rested 3 minutes between each one. Both groups worked out three times a week for 8 weeks.
The results? The guys who did modified circuit training using heavier resistance and minimal rest between sets experienced similar gains in strength and power as the men who did traditional strength training. The circuit training group had another advantage. They were the only ones who lost a significant amount of body fat.
Heavier Weights to Target Strength
This study shows modified circuit workouts using a more challenging resistance can increase strength and power. The key is to use heavier weights. The added benefit of strength training circuit style is it burns more fat due to the shorter rest periods. If your primary goal is to build strength, using lighter weights (40 to 60% of one-rep max) isn’t the best way to do it since you’re not maximizing muscle overload. Heavier weights and fewer reps offer greater benefits from a strength standpoint. You can still do this in a circuit style manner. By doing so, you’ll burn more calories since you’re not resting as long between sets. If you choose more compound exercises for your circuit exercises, you’ll increase the calorie burn and metabolic benefits even more.
Circuit Training for Cardiovascular Health and Endurance
Does research support the cardiovascular benefits of circuit workouts? One study looked at the benefits of circuit training from a cardiovascular standpoint. In this study, participants did a circuit-style working consisting of 10 reps of 10 resistance exercises, alternating between upper and lower body moves. The resistance used was 40% of their one-rep max and the participants took no rest break between exercises. With this protocol, their heart rate and oxygen consumption increased enough to offer cardiovascular benefits.
As you can see, circuit training offers cardiovascular and strength benefits, depending upon how you structure your workout. To maximize the cardiovascular component of circuit training, focus on compound exercises and don’t rest between exercises. To make circuit workouts more strength oriented, use heavier weights, fewer reps and longer rest periods but not as long as a standard strength workout.
The Bottom Line?
With circuit training, you get multiple benefits without spending lots of time working out. It’s a good workout when you’re pressed for time and want a fast way to work your entire body. It’s also a way to add variety to your existing workout routine. Enjoy the benefits this type of workout offers!
Exercise Biology. “Can Circuit Training Increase Strength and Muscle?” October 2011.
J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Sep;25(9):2519-27. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182023a51.
IDEA Health and Fitness Association. “New Insights Into Circuit Training”
“New Insights into Circuit Training” Len Kravitz Ph.D.
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 18(4). 760-764.
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