Does Circuit Training Stand Up to Traditional Lifting for Gains?


Cathe Friedrich Circuit Training

Forget spending hours completing a workout – circuit training brings efficiency back to strength workouts. This time-saving approach claims to torch fat and build muscle with quick rounds of exercises and short rest periods. But does circuit training really stack up to traditional lifting when it comes to gains? Can a 30-minute sweat session sculpt you just as well as an hour of pumping iron?

In this article, we’ll dig into the details of circuit training – what it is, how it works, and whether it delivers on its promises. We’ll chat about a comprehensive study that compared circuit workouts to regular weightlifting. Does circuit training build comparable strength and muscle? Does it rev up fat burn? Let’s break down the science so you can decide if circuit-style training deserves a spot in your routine. So, grab your workout gear, and let’s get moving!

What is Circuit Training?

What is circuit training? This time-efficient approach involves moving between exercises with minimal rest between each set. The key is to keep your heart rate up by limiting rest periods.

Here’s how it works – you lift lighter loads, usually about 40-60% of your one-rep max. This allows you to bang out higher reps, typically 10-20 per exercise. With the lighter weights, you’re able to seamlessly transition from one movement to the next, completing a series of circuits with little downtime.

Those rest intervals are short, ranging from just 15-30 seconds between sets. Some hardcore folks even eliminate rest completely, going nonstop from exercise to exercise.

The idea is that by lifting lighter loads with shorter breaks, you keep your heart pumping and muscles working almost continuously. This boosts the calorie burn while still providing enough resistance to challenge your muscles.

It’s a very different style of training compared to traditional lifting with its long rest periods between heavy sets. But can this fast-paced approach really deliver comparable strength and muscle gains? Let’s keep exploring the research to find out!

Advantages of Circuit Training

Cardiovascular Benefits of Circuit Training

One major advantage of circuit training is it improves cardiovascular fitness more than traditional strength training. While lifting weights certainly has health benefits, it typically doesn’t provide much aerobic conditioning. This is where circuit-style workouts shine.

The continuous movement and short rest intervals inherent to circuit training result in increased heart rate, oxygen consumption, and calorie burn during the workout. This contributes to moderate enhancements in cardiovascular capacity over time.

Research shows circuit training can improve VO2 max, a key measure of aerobic fitness, by 5-10% over 8-12 weeks. One study found young women doing circuit weight training 3 days a week for 12 weeks increased VO2 max by 10%, like the gains from moderate intensity jogging.

Another study in overweight adults found that 8 weeks of circuit training increased VO2 max by 5%, while traditional strength training showed no improvement. The participants also lost significant body fat.

While the aerobic conditioning effects of circuit training don’t match pure cardiovascular exercise, it provides a greater boost than traditional lifting. For those with limited time, circuit workouts are an efficient way to target strength, muscle, and heart health in one session. The combination of light weights with continuous motion and short rest periods offers unique cardiovascular benefits.

Circuit Training Is Time Efficient

One of the biggest benefits of circuit training is time efficiency. This workout style is all about maximizing every minute thanks to one simple strategy: minimal rest between sets.

By keeping rest periods short and sweet, just 15-30 seconds or even none, circuit training transforms your workout into a fast-paced circuit of exercises. You move seamlessly from one strength move to the next, keeping your heart pumping and muscles firing nearly nonstop.

Talk about a time saver! Without all that downtime between sets, you can complete a total body circuit workout in 30 minutes or less. That’s practically lightning speed compared to a traditional lifting session. No fancy equipment or complex programming is required – just you, some weights, and constant motion.

For time-crunched folks seeking strength and muscle gains on a tight schedule, circuit training is a game changer. In nearly half the gym time, you can torch calories, build muscle, and boost cardiovascular fitness. Now that’s an efficient workout.

Fat Loss

Circuit training has gained attention for its potential to burn more fat compared to traditional lifting workouts. The unique structure of circuit training – lighter weights, minimal rest, and continuous motion ramps up fat-burning capabilities. But does the research support the hype around circuits for fat loss?

Several studies suggest that circuit-style workouts may promote greater fat loss over time compared to traditional training. One reason is the elevated heart rate and heightened metabolism sustained during circuit workouts thanks to the quick pace and constant activity.

One study had overweight adults follow an interval circuit training program or traditional weight training 3 days per week for 6 weeks. The circuit training group lost significantly more body fat, dropping 2% compared to 0.5% in the traditional training group.

Another trial had women complete 8 weeks of circuit training, traditional strength training, or no exercise. The circuit group lost the most total body fat and abdominal fat compared to the other two groups.

For those seeking an efficient, time-saving workout that torches fat, circuit-style training shows promise. The combination of cardiovascular and strength exercises keeps the heart rate elevated and metabolism fired up, leading to greater fat burning.

Drawbacks of Circuit Training

Strength & Muscle Gains

The drawback of circuit training lies with the relatively lighter weights used, resulting in lesser gains in strength and muscle compared to traditional training methods.

Bone Mass Impact

Additionally, circuit training may have a limited impact on bone mass due to reduced loading compared to traditional weight training.

What a Groundbreaking Study Showed

A study looked at the effects of circuit training with heavier loads (6 reps) on body fat, strength, muscle, and cardiovascular response in comparison to a traditional routine. The study spanned 8 weeks, involving trained men. The traditional group performed a standard protocol with 3-minute rest intervals between exercises, while the circuit training group had a brief 35-second rest period.

Surprising Results

Remarkably, the circuit training group, despite the short rest intervals, had similar power strength gains as the traditional training group. Both groups enjoyed a decrease in body fat, with the reduction being significant in the circuit training group. Furthermore, improvements were observed in aerobic and anaerobic tests for both groups.


In essence, circuit training with heavier loads has the potential to yield strength and muscle gains akin to traditional routines. The key takeaway is the significant time-saving aspect, cutting workout durations nearly in half.

What’s the verdict – are circuit workouts or traditional lifting best? As with most fitness questions, there’s no single right answer. Each training style has its own strengths and benefits.

The big advantage of circuit training is efficiency – you can build strength and muscle in about half the time thanks to the non-stop pace. Circuits also provide more cardiovascular conditioning compared to lifting. For time-crunched folks seeking a well-rounded workout, this can be a major plus.

However, traditional lifting allows you to use heavier weights and focus more intensely on specific muscle groups. This remains ideal for maximizing pure strength and size gains. Lifting heavy also builds bone density better than lighter circuit training.

Ultimately, choosing circuits versus traditional lifting comes down to your personal preferences and goals. Seeking strength, muscle, and leanness on a tight schedule? Circuit training delivers. Want to solely focus on progressive overload and heavy lifting? Stick to traditional workouts.

The key is mixing up your training over time for the best results. Try incorporating both circuit-style and traditional lifting workouts into your routine. Keep challenging your muscles in new ways and you’ll be strong, fit, and ready for anything!

Whichever training style you choose, consistency is key. Find what you enjoy and makes you feel your best. With the right workout approach for your needs, you’ll stay motivated to keep hitting the gym and reaching your fitness goals. Now go get pumped!


  • Alcaraz PE, Perez-Gomez J, Chavarrias M, Blazevich AJ. Similarity in adaptations to high-resistance circuit vs. traditional strength training in resistance-trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Sep;25(9):2519-27. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182023a51. PMID: 21659889.
  • “Circuit Training – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics.” https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/circuit-training.
  • “9 Science-Backed Benefits of Circuit Training – Healthline.” 10 Sept. 2021, https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness/benefits-of-circuit-training.
  • “Effects of high-intensity circuit training, low-intensity circuit ….” 03 Sept. 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3846819/.

Related Articles By Cathe:

Why Circuit Training Shouldn’t Be the Only Way You Train

Are You Making These Circuit Training Mistakes?

5 Powerful Reasons to Do a Circuit Workout

Can Circuit Training Help You Meet All of Your Fitness Goals? 

Can Circuit Training Be a Substitute for Standard Weight Training?

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