Conditioning

| July 8, 2021

Are Circuit Workouts Effective? Understanding effective circuit workouts

Circuit training has become popularized in many exercise environments over the last generation. Studios specifically designed for these quick, high heart rate, sweaty workouts have popped up everywhere.

By Trevor Mah

Read time: 11 min.

Circuit training has become popularized in many exercise environments over the last generation. Studios specifically designed for these quick, high heart rate, sweaty workouts have popped up everywhere. Trainers employ these methods often to get their clients working hard and “burn” fat off in metabolic conditioning phases. Even before that, home video workouts such as P90X were popular too.

I believe one of the main attraction points for this type of training comes from the optics of the high pace of these workouts observed externally, along with the sheer effort and feeling of accomplishment during participation.

Circuit training can be effective when done right and save you some time. But these days it is overexposed when you look at gym advertisements, social media, and even television to a point where it seems more of a marketing ploy than a training method. But beneath the façade of overused (but valid) terms such as HIIT (high intensity interval training), Tabata workouts, and the like, there is a subtle and sensible art of creating effective circuit workouts.

What is a proper circuit workout?

Metabolic conditioning and circuits need to be structured with a specific goal versus just throwing any random group of exercises together. This means these circuits should have training intentions based on either energy pathways (aerobic or anaerobic), athleticism, or any other goal related to the individual. It should also be based on personal ability levels to avoid injury and overfatigue. As it is with other forms of training, a measurable amount of capacity should increase each time a workout is done. Fortunately, this is where things get fun because improvements can come in many forms whether it be more work done within the same amount of time, improved ability if exercises are progressed, or general endurance measured by VO2 max levels. This is the main reason why proper circuit training does require more forward thought than simply “throwing a bunch of random exercises together”.

What do I need to include in a proper circuit workout?

Circuit workouts are normally associated with metabolic conditioning, but with a little creative thought it can be applied to other training goals such as hypertrophy, strength, and power. With this in mind, let’s break down a few important components based on its most basic goals of improving your endurance. This can be commonly seen as a “fat burning” phase or shred down if you were to match it up with the common mainstream application.

Note that while you can include different training goals by including variety, there is a tradeoff in how much you can improve on each. In other words, for example, if you include many muscle building (hypertrophy) aspects while also performing movements for power, you probably won't improve as much on either compared to a single focused workout.

Exercise Selection

In my experience, a circuit workout is generally full body and not limited to specific parts in most instances. Exercise selection should be geared towards compound movements with a higher demand of energy expenditure. Examples such as chin-ups, squats, and lunges are great choices to include that can be scaled down if needed, and provide the required stimulus to make you put in real effort. There is no wrong exercise to include in a circuit as this will vary between individuals based on their own proficiency. Generally speaking, if you have trouble executing the movement on its own, you should avoid including it in a circuit as fatigue will just further exacerbate your deficiencies and increase your risk of injury. With that said, even isolation exercises can be included if the volume is warranted. Just remember that most of your energy will be spent on the bigger movements. This leads me to...

Sequencing

After you have a good list of exercises that you can do well, putting them in order is also important to ensure that your circuit runs smoothly. A definitive truth with circuit training is that you are inevitably going to face fatigue as the workout goes on. With this in mind, placing your more complex and/or demanding exercises should be at the beginning. If you are squatting or doing pull-ups, they should begin your circuit in order for you to get the most out of them. As previously mentioned, fatigue exposes weaknesses and can compromise your abilities with complex movements even if you can place them at the end (it is just not recommended).

A decreasing level of complexity should follow suit in the subsequent exercises. Unless you are experienced and know your abilities very well, the safe bet is to continue with “easier” movements. By that I mean lower relatively technical demand. If you have already performed squats, then you can follow up with pull-ups and push-ups. These bodyweight exercises still provide the compound movements but are relatively easier to perform (assuming you can do them of course). Other options could be to tail off with isometric exercises, isolation movements, or cardio (such as a short run, row, or bike for example).

Another very common method is to incorporate alternating between lower and upper body exercises. Peripheral heart action is a term used to force constant circulation of blood throughout the body. Pairing lower and upper body exercises works on this principle as your heart works hard at pumping blood to working muscles that are physically more distant from one another. Using the example of squats paired with pull-ups, your heart has to pump blood to the working muscles of the legs, then shift its attention all the way up along your upper back. If you sequence this with another pair (i.e. lunges and push-ups), then this accumulated back and forth effect will drive up your metabolic rate during your circuit (as well as make you work really hard if the intensity and volume is just right).

Power is an interesting exception because these movements depend on the complexity of the exercise. For example, a barbell snatch or clean and jerk is very complex so it should normally be placed in the beginning. On the other hand, a much easier movement such as a medicine ball throw can be at the very end even though it is still a power movement where you still aim for max output of force. In my opinion, power at the end is important for athletic performance because you need to be explosive at all phases in the game of your sport of choice.

Distinct Parameters

Having intention for all workouts is important so you know what kind of results you are going after. Circuit training, as mentioned initially, requires clear training intentions. If you are looking to develop an aerobic capacity, then your structure should reflect that. These are the most common goals for circuit training, and there are many ways to achieve that. If you are looking to improve on athleticism, there should be a challenge in there that can be accomplished as well.

For aerobic work capacity, there are numerous methods to keep track when structuring your workout. Time is usually the most important factor as it is a limitation on how much work you can afford to accomplish. If your goal is to be able to do as much work as possible, then you can base it off of an AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) protocol in a set number of minutes. Alternatively, you can base it on volume and have a set number of reps to accomplish and time your overall workout. Either way, you have something to mark down to use as a comparison for improvement the next time. Whatever you choose, just make sure you can track your own progress.

Convenience

This last point is one that is overlooked because you have a really cool and fun program you can’t wait to get started. But then reality hits and you notice that it takes quite a while to set up because you need a lot of equipment, things are spaced far apart, and overall it’s just a big hassle. In some cases, this might even be enough to deter you from doing the circuit because of the effort, so you default to just spending time on a machine instead.

Convenience is important because it allows your circuit to move smoothly as you transition between exercises. Nothing derails your momentum more if you have to wait on a bench or station to be open because of someone else, or if you have to walk back and forth long distances in your gym (unless you count this as part of your circuit). Not to mention that at busy times, you might also be getting in the way of a lot of other people who are wanting to use what you have. This is why planning ahead is important so you know what you have in your arsenal. Knowing your gym layout well will help you know what exercises to choose from to keep things nearby and less obtrusive to others.

What about CrossFit?

CrossFit workouts are essentially a “branded” circuit workout. If you ever want to specifically learn more about it, or even get certified, you will learn that they follow a fairly well laid out structure for their WODs (workout of the day). These workouts normally consist of a thorough mobility workout that covers drills related to the actual exercise performed, a set structure to follow that allows you to reach clear goals (i.e. set time limit, volume, etc.), and a cooldown to settle you down after your hard work.

They may get a lot of negative feedback from other fitness communities, but at the end of the day I believe that the quality of a WOD comes down to the competency of the instructor. That person should be able to structure their workouts accordingly with a proper goal and intention, and most importantly know how to scale exercises that are appropriate for their participants.

Example Circuits

This wouldn’t be a proper blog article on circuit training if I didn’t actually provide any examples to showcase my points. So here are a couple that I have done in the past and check off all the boxes for the aforementioned points in this article. If all you’ve done is skip down to here, then hopefully you might unintentionally pick up on the key points by performing them.

Example #1: Traditional Compound Exercises

 

Sets Reps Exercise
3-5 8-10 Squats
3-5 8-12 Pull-ups (weighted if needed)
3-5 8-10 Straight leg deadlift
3-5 15-20 Pushups
3-5 30-45 secs Hollow body hold
Perform all exercises at around ~70-75% intensity, rest 30 seconds between exercises. Full 2:00 minute rest afterwards before the next round.

I’m cheating a little bit because I indirectly assembled this circuit through my explanation on exercise selection. To explain, this circuit consists of 4 standard compound movements and a core finisher at the end. You will notice that it also alternates between lower and upper body movements to force constant blood circulation. The intensity is moderate to still push towards a middle ground on rep range without reaching a point where form is compromised. Lastly, I did not state the type of equipment used, but this is where you can choose for your own convenience. If you have a squat rack or cage, you can pretty much do everything there. While I do have a protocol in the notes section, this is just an example and not rigid. You can also keep track of how many rounds you were able to accomplish, try to do more next time, reduce rest periods, or increase weight. Your options for progression are wide open.

Example #2: Mix of power, strength, hypertrophy, cardio

Sets Reps Exercise Notes
3-5 8-10 KB Dead Stop Swings Heavy
3-5 10-12 MB Chest Throws Light, but throw with max force
3-5 8-10 Pulls-ups Weighted if needed
3-5 10-20 yards Sled Push Moderate load, focus on speed

Again, this is a full body circuit covering a lot of opposing movements. You will notice that each pair (exercise 1&2, 3&4) are compound “slower” movements paired with faster speed based exercises. In combination, this covers a lot of the same points as before, but with a more less traditional approach based on exercise selection.

As stated earlier, while you can apply a mix strength, hypertrophy, and cardio, your improvements on each will likely not be by a lot (although there are exceptions). However, the benefit of doing this in the first place would be to maintain what you have and improve on your ability to apply it under different circumstances.

Example #3: Convenience (leave me alone in my spot)

Sets Reps Exercise
3-5 8-12 Landmine Squats
3-5 8-10 (each) Landmine Row
3-5 8-12 (each) Landmine Single Leg RDL
3-5 8-12 Landmine Shoulder Press
3-5 10 (each) Landmine Rotation
Perform all exercises at around ~70-75% intensity, rest 30 seconds between exercises. Full 2:00 minute rest afterwards before the next round.

Using a single piece of equipment showcases convenience in its purest form. In this case, a landmine is very versatile as you can easily transition between exercises. In this case, this is very similar to circuit #1, but with much less of a hassle to set up. Additionally, you have options to do some of these exercises unilaterally which essentially extends the amount of work performed as well. One potential drawback is having to adjust the weights, but having a set of plates ready nearby makes it easy. You could also try the entire workout with the same weight, but you might have to limit reps on certain exercises.

Example #4: Simplicity (get out of my way and leave me alone)

Sets Reps Exercise Notes
3- ∞ 6-8 KB Front Squat KBs should be heavy ~85%
3- ∞ 20 yards Sled Push Sled weight should be close to BW
3- ∞ 15 Pushups Complete as many rounds as possible with minimal breaks throughout

I haven’t touched on saving time, but circuit training usually has that as a bonus effect where you can condense your workout by reducing rest and performing work back-to-back. When you are simply crunched for time, circuit training is great to get in some quick quality work. In this example, it boils down to 2 demanding exercises in the beginning, followed by a low maintenance exercise that is made more difficult due to accumulated fatigue. Pushups on their own aren’t too bad, but after heavy front squats which also tax your core, and getting drained from pushing a heavy sled, they become more difficult. Not to mention you also get the additional transition of levels (standing, to mid level, to ground level). This is also a low maintenance routine as you require only two pieces of equipment. You can make it easier by using the kettlebells as part of the sled load too.

Sometimes, you do run into some issues and are not able to do what you have planned. Or perhaps you may have overestimated your abilities on something. To finish, I’ll leave it off with a final piece of advice that applies to all types of training: when in doubt, keep it simple.

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