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February 12, 2022 10 min read

When it comes to spicing up our workout routines, there are a lot of things we might try. New exercises, new pieces of equipment, new routines, and maybe even new gyms. However, there’s a different way to spice up your workouts without completely revamping exercises or getting new equipment.

Circuit workouts are one of the most effective ways to both stimulate muscle growth while also challenging cardiovascular fitness.

By combining different exercises to hit different muscle groups, circuits provide a total body training program. If implemented correctly, you can make seriously rapid gains while also sprinkling in a significant amount of conditioning training.

Let’s first take a look at what exactly makes a circuit, a circuit, and the benefits that bestow on its followers. Once we get well acquainted with circuit training, the system will make more sense and we’ll even have the ability to develop our own workouts around this system.

Muscular athletes training in a fitness studio Functional training workout in a gym

What Exactly is a Circuit?

A circuit is a group of five to ten exercises that are done back to back, with minimal rest periods in between them. Any group of exercises organized like this is a circuit, but most people tend to include movements that target different body parts. However, a circuit contains many more elements than just the exercises that go into it.

They include factors such as:

  • Rest time between circuits
  • Rest time between exercises
  • Number of exercises
  • Number of reps and sets per exercise
  • Number of total circuits in a single workout

By deciding on what these elements are, anyone can create a circuit for themselves with some basic knowledge. However, there are some common types of circuits that categorize the different ways circuits can be organized.

The Types of Circuit

There are four main types of circuit training. However, don’t feel that it’s necessary to completely build around a single type. Not only can the different elements be combined, but you can also combine different circuits and do them back-to-back, for example. 

The first two types use time as the primary measure in their requirements: the competition circuit and the timed circuit.

The competition circuit requires a person to complete as many repetitions of an exercise in a set amount of time. Instead of looking at reps or sets as you would in a regular lifting workout, the number of reps you’re able to do is going to be the primary measure of development.

The timed circuit is a variation of this where you’re not necessarily trying to get the most amount of reps in. For example, a circuit might call for jump roping for 30 seconds, in which case it’s impossible or difficult to measure “reps.” This is similar to high-intensity interval training (HIIT) but performed with a series of exercises.

The repetition circuit is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than pushing to complete as many reps as possible within a set time, the goal is to complete a number of reps before moving on to the next exercise. This is good if you’re working out in a group class, where people of different fitness levels are able to do their own number of reps. Reps are also useful if you’re doing a circuit that emphasizes heavier lifts, for strength training for example.

Lastly, there are sports circuits that have you train movements that are specific to a sport that you’re training for. This can either be exercises that improve the sport in general or exercises that improve a certain aspect of the sport. This type of circuit is often paired with running, where instead of resting you’re required to run for a few hundred meters. Some even include sprinting which adds another level of difficulty to the training.

We’ll largely be focusing on workouts you can do with minimal equipment or minimal space.

Circuits work especially well when you don’t have access to a lot of equipment that you might otherwise rely on.

This is because the quick rate of movement challenges you regardless of the difficulty of individual exercises, so it’s easier to get away with doing movements that may not require weights.

The Benefits of Circuits

By cycling through various exercises with minimal rest in between them, you get a workout that not only improves your strength but also your muscular endurance.

Furthermore, you can also get a cardio workout to different degrees, depending on the type of circuit you do. Circuit training can be great at improving conditioning, helping your cardiovascular function, improving overall health, and even leading to fat loss.

One study looked at three groups of people: 

One group did 12 weeks of endurance training, another group did 12 weeks of low-intensity circuit training, and a third group did 12 weeks of high-intensity circuit training.

The low-intensity group differed from the high-intensity in that they completed more reps with lighter loads. The endurance group completed about 30 minutes of traditional, steady-state cardio.

The high-intensity circuit training group improved in almost every health marker more than the low-intensity group and the endurance group.

This included things like:

  • More muscle gains
  • More fat loss
  • Decreases in blood pressure
  • Decreases in triglycerides
  • Decreases in cholesterol

This goes to show the benefit that a high-intensity circuit program can have on your overall wellness. Although circuits require a lot of energy expended over a shorter period of time, the results will speak for themselves. But there’s also the mental aspect when considering circuit training.

Breaking the Mold

Although the gym is supposed to challenge your physical prowess, it also becomes a mental came to a large extent. Getting bored doing the same thing over and over again, constantly watching the clock, and zoning out between sets are things that happen to the most devoted of us.

Switching up exercises and equipment is a good way to decrease this boredom, but circuits work especially well. 

Since you don’t have any time to look at the clock or zone out between sets, you’re constantly in game mode. There’s no thinking involved—it simply comes down to, “first I do this, then this, then this,” until you’re exhausted and have completed the circuit.

And because circuits are so easy to modify, there’s a wide variety of ways you can customize them to constantly keep you on your toes. And because you’re going to be moving quickly between exercises, circuit training is also a lot more time-efficient.

The time will already feel like it’s flying by since your mind doesn’t have time to wander, but you’ll also be completing your workouts in a shorter time frame. You don’t have to worry about getting less exercise since you’ll be packing in a lot more high-intensity work over this shorter period of time, which is where the fitness benefits come from.

The Circuit Training Workout Routines

Circuits are intense, so it’s important to warm up before going through them.

Warming up will get your blood pumping and your muscles relaxed. This will improve your performance and help you avoid potential injuries. It’s also a good idea to warm up according to the type of exercises you’ll be doing. For example, if you’ll be doing a lot of cardio, go for a quick jog beforehand. 

The circuits below use minimal equipment with some workouts being completely bodyweight.

This should allow you to do them anywhere you want. However, some pieces of equipment will always help, especially when it comes to increasing intensity and developing strength. If there is a piece of equipment you don’t have, it’s easy enough to modify these workouts to fit the equipment that you do have.

Circuit #1

This is a metabolic conditioning workout, which means that it’s a full-body circuit performed at a high intensity. This is one of the better ways to get lean and quickly burn body fat.

You only really need a pair of dumbbells and/or a kettlebell, but most of these exercises can be done with just your body weight—they will be significantly easier though. Complete around 5 minutes of cardio beforehand, and some stretching to warm up enough.

Each of these exercises should be done over 30 seconds, with about 10 seconds of rest time between each movement. Try to repeat the circuit 3 times if you’re able to.

If not, work your way up to completing three circuits back to back. Take a few minutes of rest between each circuit.

  • Burpees
  • Squat with overhead press
  • Squat jumps
  • Mountain climbers
  • Step-ups
  • Jumping lunges
  • Push-ups with side planks
  • Kettlebell swing

Circuit #2

Once again, remember to warm up with some cardio beforehand. Stretching is also a good idea.

This circuit should be completed at least twice, with it taking around 10 minutes to finish. 

Depending on your fitness level, you’ll want to either rest around 20 seconds between each exercise or not rest at all. If you’re comfortable working out, try going through the whole circuit without any rest. Take a 2 to 3-minute rest after you’ve completed one circuit, or if you want a challenge, go through without resting. 

This circuit will require you to count your reps, so you may finish your workout sooner or later than expected. Regardless, push yourself as hard as you can.

  • Squat jump: 10 to 15 reps
  • Push up: 10 to 15 reps
  • Calf raises: 15 to 25 reps
  • Bench dips: 10 to 15 reps
  • Crunches: 15 to 25 reps
  • Jump rope: 60 seconds

Circuit #3

This is an entirely bodyweight circuit making it ideal for home workouts.

It’s also a great workout for a hotel room if you’re traveling. Since you won’t be using any weights, you’ll need to ramp up the intensity in other ways. This means performing each exercise as many times as you can in the span of 40 seconds. After you’ve completed each exercise, take a 15 to 20-second rest and continue.

Try to complete 3 to 5 cycles of this circuit.  

  • Lunges
  • Push-ups
  • Bodyweight squat
  • Pull-ups
  • Burpees

Circuit #4

This circuit requires some actual equipment and technical lifts, but not too much.

You’ll want to aim for 4 to 6 rounds of this circuit, maintaining the same amount of weight as the round before. 

For the later rounds, you can slightly reduce the rep counts but keep the same amount of weight. Don’t rest in between exercises.

  • Hang cleans: 6 to 8 reps
  • Jump squats: 8 to 10 reps
  • Push press: 6 to 8 reps
  • Pull-ups: 10 to 12 reps
  • Dumbbell bench press: 6 to 8 reps
  • Bent-over row: 8 to 10 reps

Circuit #5

Another repetition-based circuit, this time you’ll be aiming to complete the entire circuit 3 to 4 times.

Try not to rest in between exercises (or at least no longer than it takes for you to get from one to the other) but take 2 to 3 minutes of rest between rounds.

  • Wide-grip pull-ups: 10 to 12 reps
  • Dips: 10 to 12 reps
  • Close-grip push-ups: 15 to 20 reps
  • Lunges: 10 to 12 reps
  • Barbell press: 10 to 12 reps
  • Bicycle crunch: 15 to 20 reps

Cooling Down

Since you’ll be hitting your body at a high intensity for some time, it’s going to be important to cool down with an easier workout after the circuit. 

A cool-down can be anything from easier aerobic work, to some simple stretching or foam rolling.

Gradually cooling down your body allows your blood to continue circulating, preventing it from pooling up in your veins. This gradual slowing of your body’s temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure is much better for you than simply coming to a full stop. 

Cooling down consistently after your workouts will lead to faster muscle recovery and greater flexibility.

In the long run, this means that your performance will also increase in your actual workouts. A light jog or walk can even be enough if you’re cooling down after some cardio. Incorporating stretches into your workouts will have further benefits.

Man jumping over barbells during burpees exercise

The Exercises in a Circuit

As you’ve probably gathered by now, a circuit can be almost any group of exercises.

The key factor is that you’re moving from one exercise to the next without giving your body ample time to rest. This means that it’s relatively easy to create your own circuit if you just know the basics and have goals you want to work towards.

For example, if your goal is weight loss, a circuit of cardio exercises is going to be all you need—movements that require a lot of moving around or explosive actions.

This includes things like:

  • High knees
  • Box jumps
  • Burpees
  • Sprints
  • Jump rope
  • Sprints
  • Jumping jacks
  • Mountain climbers
  • Stairs

On the other hand, you might instead want to get toned and get strength gains.

For this, you’ll want resistance exercises that challenge your muscles. You might further want to break this down between upper body and lower body workouts. And depending on whether you have access to any gym equipment, you’ll be either looking at bodyweight or weight training exercises. 

When it comes to the upper body, it can also be a good idea to split your exercises into “push” movements and “pull” movements, so you’re training antagonistic muscle groups.

For example, pull-ups are a bodyweight pull movement while push-ups are a bodyweight push movement. But rather than getting lost in the sauce of the various types of exercise, it’s important to first have a well-defined goal. If your goal is simply general fitness, feel free to combine 3 to 5 exercises including cardio, an upper body exercise, a lower body exercise, and a compound movement. But if you want a more specific target, choose exercises that mainly hit one part of your body.

You’ll also need to set a time limit for your workout. The less time you give yourself, the harder you should be pushing.

This largely depends on how much time you have to spare and how hard you want to work—circuits can range anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes. But of course, remember to give yourself enough rest between circuits so that you can still maintain technique and form by the end.

Completing the Circuit

Circuits are one of the best and most interesting methods of working out. They not only require you to push yourself harder than you might’ve otherwise done, but they also break the monotony of constantly doing the same exercises.

If you’re looking to spice up your fitness plan, circuits might be the right answer for you. 

But remember that you will be putting in a lot of work during a relatively short duration of time. This means that you need to give your body commensurate amounts of rest—overworking your muscles is going to  plateau your gains.

This is a common mistake made by beginner lifters because it seems so counterintuitive to physical development. 

Along with getting enough rest, you’ll need to be eating healthy foods and properly balancing your macros.

While protein is the most important when it comes to muscle gain, good sources of fat and carbs are also (usually) necessary for optimal performance. If you want to get the most out of circuits, you’re going to need to properly take care of your body’s needs. But once you do, a well-implemented circuit training routine can turbocharge your gains and take your physical fitness to new heights. 

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