If the idea of working out on a cardio machine for 30 minutes sounds less than exciting to you, you can mix up your routine by adding in some circuits. By that, we don’t mean adding in actual electricity to your workout, but rather a series of exercises to challenge different muscles in different ways, also known as circuit training. It’s both less complicated and more effective than you may think, so here’s what you need to know about what circuit training is and how to get started.
Meet the Expert
What Is Circuit Training?
Circuit training is when you move “from one exercise to the next with minimal rest in between. This style of training typically includes exercises that work different muscle groups throughout the circuit,” says Joe Masiello, CSCS, MES, co-founder of Focus Integrated Fitness and Focus Personal Training Institute in New York City, and a Byrdie Advisory Board Member. He adds that typically it includes 5–10 different exercises, and a circuit can be all cardiovascular-based exercises, all strength-based exercises, or a combination of both.
What Are the Benefits of Circuit Training?
One of the main benefits of circuit training is that you can get both cardio and strength-training into an effective, total body workout. “By including strength training for multiple muscle groups with minimal rest, you can burn more calories during and after this intense bout of exercise as opposed to slower, steady-state cardio,” says Masiello.
The best thing about circuit training is its efficiency, because you work different muscle groups with different output goals (endurance, strength, cardio, etc.) all at the same time, adds Julia Gautreaux, a trainer and general manager at Rumble Boxing and Rumble Training in San Francisco. Steady-state cardio can be great for endurance, but if you only do cardio you could miss other things that contribute to overall health and body composition. Plus, circuit training is functional, as it "teaches the muscles in your body to work together as one unit and includes movements that assist you in daily life,” says Gautreaux.
It’s also a great option for anyone who doesn’t have a ton of time to workout and/or has a short attention span when it comes to exercise. “Circuit training allows you to move through several different exercises and work a variety of muscle groups in minimal time. It’s also a fun way to add variety to your workout and avoid workout boredom,” says John Thornhill, an ACE-CPT-certified master trainer at Aaptiv.
What Precautions Should You Take Before Doing Circuit Training?
Like with any other workout, make sure you warm up properly. Masiello suggests spending 5–10 minutes prepping your body for exercise, which can be a combination of dynamic stretches and some body-weight movements.
If you’re a beginner, ease into your circuits. “You need to start with less time, intensity, or resistance per exercise, and allow for more time between exercises to recover,” says Thornhill. When creating your own circuit workouts, Masiello says to try to pick exercises in a series that allow the last muscle group you worked to recover (e.g., if you do an exercise that works your lower body, your next one can work your upper body, or vice versa).
And all three trainers encourage listening to your own body and its limits. Says Gautreaux, circuit training can be beneficial for people of all fitness levels because it allows you to perform every exercise on your own time and at your own pace. But you should still be mindful of any injuries you have before beginning your circuit. For example, if you are dealing with a wrist injury, choose a circuit with exercises targeting the lower body or core. “Within the circuit, listen to your body and take breaks as often as you need,” she says.
How Long Should Your Circuit Training Workout Be?
There’s no one correct answer, as everyone’s bodies, goals, and abilities are different. “Duration depends on the intensity and your training goal. A more intense circuit would typically not last as long as a more moderate intensity circuit,” says Masiello. “A 20- to 30-minute circuit is a great place to start.”
Two Circuit Training Workouts to Try
If you’re ready to get an efficient, total body workout, here are three workouts you can try at home.
Circuit Training Workout 1
Masiello recommends this general strength and conditioning circuit with five different exercises and uses dumbbells, a medicine ball, and a stability ball.
- Stand with your feet flat on the ground, hip-width apart.
- Hold dumbbells at shoulder height with your palms facing each other. Your elbows should be directly under the weights (e.g., do not flare the elbows out).
- Descend into a squat until your thighs are slightly below parallel with the ground (your hip crease should be slightly lower than top of kneecap).
- Reverse the movement and stand back up to the starting position.
- As you reach the starting position, press the dumbbells overhead.
- Lower dumbbells to starting position and repeat back to squat.
- Do 10–15 reps.
Dumbbell Row – 3 Pt Stance
- Stand with your feet flat on the ground in a wide, supported stance.
- Hinge forward and place one hand on a bench or high step. Keep your arm extended.
- Pick up the dumbbell with your other (free) hand.
- Brace your core and pull the dumbbell toward your body until it is in line with your abdominal wall.
- Pause for a second, then lower and repeat.
- Do 10 reps on each arm.
Medicine Ball Tap
- Stand tall in front of a medicine ball.
- Lift your left leg and quickly tap your forefoot on the top of the ball, then quickly return foot to the floor.
- Repeat with the other foot and cycle back and forth with each foot.
- Arms should move in a reciprocal motion to make it a total body movement; maintain a neutral spine throughout the exercise.
- Continue for 60 seconds.
Push-Up Shoulder Tap
- Start on the ground at the top of a push-up position, with your knees on the floor. Your arms should be straight (elbows extended) with your hands under the shoulders. To increase difficulty of movement, move from supporting your body on your knees to a full push-up position (knees off the ground).
- Bend your elbows to lower your torso close to the floor.
- Push your hands into the floor to return to the starting position.
- Upon reaching the starting position, shift your weight to your left arm so you can balance yourself as you lift your right hand off the floor.
- Tap the left shoulder with right hand.
- Return right hand to starting position beneath right shoulder and repeat the shoulder tap, this time with the left hand to right shoulder.
- Return left hand to starting position then repeat movement, starting with the push-up.
- Do 10–15 reps.
Stability Ball Hip Bridge
- Lie on your back, knees bent, with the soles of your feet on the top/front surface of a stability ball. Your arms should remain on the ground at your sides.
- While keeping the ball as still as possible, press through your soles and drive hips toward the ceiling until your hips and torso are completely off the ground. Only your shoulders, head, and arms should be in contact with the ground.
- Hold for a count, then lower.
- Do 10–15 reps.
Circuit Training Workout 2
This 12-minute circuit from Gautreaux targets your entire body and combines endurance, strength, and cardio. It has four exercises, eight repetitions per exercise, performed on repeat for three minutes straight. After three minutes, give yourself a one-minute break and then do it again two more times (for a total of three times through the circuit).
Alternating Reverse Lunge
- Start standing with weights in hand.
- Step one foot back into a lunge, bending each knee to 90 degrees.
- Press through your front heel to stand back up.
- Switch legs at the top.
- Do eight reps.
- Start in a high plank position with your hands on top of and holding your weights.
- Hop your feet wide, almost into a low squat.
- Take your weights with you as you stand up.
- Do eight reps.
- Rack weights to your shoulders.
- Set your feet just outside, hip-width apart.
- Bend your knees and lower your seat toward your heels.
- Stand tall and squeeze your glutes at the top.
- Do eight reps.
Narrow Shoulder Press
- Start with your weights at 90 degrees, elbows at shoulder height and palms facing each other.
- Press both weights overhead. Lower back down to 90 degrees, stopping before your elbows drop below shoulder height.