Circuit training is a popular way to work out because it’s time expedient. In a world with so much to do and too little time to do it, exercise sometimes takes a back seat. Circuit training to the rescue! It’s a “no excuses” way to work out because it’s so versatile. Plus, you can work your whole body in a single session. You have to love that!
The Wonderful World of Circuit Training
In case you don’t know what circuit training is, it’s a total body conditioning workout where you move from one exercise (or circuit) to the next with minimal rest in-between. Although circuit-style training has grown in popularity recently, it actually dates back to the 1950s when two scientists at the University of Leeds developed the concept. The idea was to create a series of stations. At each station, participants carry out a single exercise using a pre-set resistance and a set number of reps followed by a 30 to 60-second rest. Then, it’s on to the next one.
Circuit training still follows a similar structure and continues to offer the benefits of a fast-paced and varied workout. You might think that circuit workouts are best for total body conditioning or as a workout to do when you’re in a time pinch. However, with a few tweaks, you can use circuits to build strength, endurance, and muscle size. Are there any limitations to circuit training?
Can Circuit Training Improve Your Aerobic Capacity?
We all know how important aerobic exercise is for heart and brain health, but you might not relish the idea of running or cycling for 30 minutes or more. Can you improve your aerobic capacity through circuit training alone? The answer is yes, although you may not get as much improvement in V02 max with standard circuit training as you would with aerobic exercise or HIIT training. However, research shows you can improve your aerobic capacity by between 10 % and 15% with a standard circuit workout. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, circuit training meets the guidelines for a cardiovascular workout. This assumes that you’re not taking a two-minute rest between each circuit. With circuit training, shorter rest periods are important for improvements in aerobic capacity.
If your goal is to maximize your aerobic capacity, yet you still enjoy the variety that circuit training offers, you can adjust the circuits to challenge your cardiovascular system more. Rather than performing a resistance exercise at each station, make every third one a cardio blast. For example, for the first station, do a lower body resistance exercise. For the second, an upper body exercise. For the third station, a set of jumping jacks, butt kickers, jump rope, or a plyometric move that gets your heart rate up, like squat jumps. Repeat this pattern throughout your workout.
Another way to challenge your cardiovascular system is to reduce the rest period between stations. If you drop the rest time to less than 30 seconds, your heart rate will stay up throughout your workout. Keep in mind, this may not be as effective for boosting aerobic capacity as including aerobic exercises in your workout. A faster higher heart rate isn’t always reflective of oxygen consumption during exercise.
Can You Build Strength and Muscle Size through Circuit Training?
We know circuit training is an awesome conditioning workout – but can it help you build muscle strength and size? Again, it depends on how you structure your circuits. To maximize strength, use a heavy resistance, around 80% of your one-rep max for your stations, and increase the rest period between exercises that target that particular muscle group. You could rest as long as a minute between each exercise or station. This will give your muscles more recovery time so you can maximize how much you lift each time. That’s how to build strength!
With circuit training, it’s customary to switch back and forth between upper and lower body exercises so that you’re resting one muscle group while the other works. Doing a strength workout this way is time expedient since the rest periods are partially built into the circuits as you switch from upper to lower body. You’re resting your upper body while you work your lower body. The key to building strength with circuits is to increase the intensity of your training over time by increasing the resistance you use.
What about muscle hypertrophy? For gains in muscle size, use a weight that’s heavy enough to fatigue your muscles after 8 to 10 reps. Keep your rest periods shorter than with strength-oriented circuit training, around 30 to 60 seconds, and increase the workout volume by adding more stations to your routine. Using moderate resistance and doing a higher volume, by tacking on more circuits, will stimulate muscle hypertrophy as long as you’re increasing the resistance and/or volume over time. Progressive overload applies to circuit training too.
What about muscle endurance? Circuit training is ideal for improving muscle endurance. The key is to use weights that are 40 to 60% of your one-rep max and keep your rest periods short and the number of reps you do higher. Challenge yourself more by increasing the number of reps you do for each circuit over time. The shorter the rest periods, the more aerobic benefits you’ll get and the greater the calorie burn.
As with standard training, you can periodize circuit workouts to avoid overtraining.
The Bottom Line
As with a non-circuit approach to working out, you can manipulate a variety of variables when you circuit train. You can change the resistance, number of reps, number of sets, number of exercises, rest periods, the exercise order, and the exercises you do. You can use weights, barbells, resistance bands, or even your own bodyweight.
Circuit training crams a lot of variety into a single workout. Although it’s ideal for overall conditioning, by changing important variables like resistance, volume, and rest periods, circuit training can help you build greater aerobic capacity, strength, muscle endurance, or muscle size. Best of all is the variety you get.
Kraviz, Len “New Insights into Circuit Training”. University of New Mexico
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On Fitness. July/August 2016. “Creating Effective Circuit Training Routines and Programs”
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