There’s no shortage of ways to work out, and all of them have their own names—cardio, strength training, HIIT, and more—so it can be difficult to keep everything straight. One particular style of exercise, circuit training, can encompass all of the above, which doesn’t make things any less confusing. But given the broad scope of circuit training and the many benefits it can offer, it’s one of the best ways to get your blood pumping and your body moving. Below, we’re breaking down everything you need to know to begin adding this tried-and-true method to your own exercise regimen.
What is circuit training?
Circuit training is a form of training that involves moving through a series of exercises. It can encompass strength training, endurance exercises, or a mixture of the two performed back-to-back with little or no rest. A full circuit is complete once you’ve finished all the prescribed exercises in the program, and you can do as many rounds of said circuit as you wish.
A typical circuit training workout may include five to ten exercises, but it’s entirely customizable to the individual. Want to focus solely on strength-building dumbbells or bodyweight moves? Great. Want to do cardio conditioning instead? Go for it. Circuits can be created and adapted to cover a variety of disciplines and muscle groups.
How is it different than interval training?
Glad you asked. According to the American Council on Exercise, interval training alternates between periods of high-intensity exercise and periods of lower-intensity exercise or recovery. In other words, it’s less about the types of exercises you’re doing and more about the on-and-off timing and intensity of those exercises—for example, sprinting for 20 seconds and then walking for ten seconds.
Of course, there’s overlap between the two. A circuit training workout can be an interval training workout, and vice versa. But remember, circuit training must include a variety of exercises performed in succession.
The Benefits of Circuit Training
“The benefits of circuit training are similar to high-intensity interval training,” says Aaptiv Trainer Jessica Muenster. This is because “most circuits do and should incorporate high-intensity exercises either focused on endurance training or resistance training.” That means your heart rate will be raised and stay raised for longer than it is with steady-state cardio.
The customizable nature of circuits makes them very versatile, another factor Muenster likes about them. She says that because you can do as many reps or as much time as you choose and then repeat your circuit as many times as you want, the workout is entirely up to you. And with minimal rest time, you can really knock out a lot in a short period. “I think a major benefit people love [about circuits] is the max bang for your buck,” she notes.
How Circuits Work in Your Workout
Starting circuit training is easy. That’s why we include circuits and circuit-style routines into many of our strength training workouts in the Aaptiv app. All circuit training requires is a handful of exercises strewn together to make, well, circuits. Here are some things Muenster considers when she creates circuit training routines.
Vary your exercises.
Before you get started, you need to know which exercises you want to do. Circuits can include as many or as few exercises as you’d like, but five to ten is a good goal. No matter how many exercises her circuits include, Muenster prioritizes a variety of disciplines. “You can focus on strength or endurance, or you can focus on both,” she says. “One circuit can be all bodyweight, then the next all lifting. The sky’s the limit.”
Decide your work/rest timing.
Rest days are important and so are rest breaks during circuit training. Let’s say you’re doing a circuit composed of eight exercises. Between each is an opportunity to either rest or move right into the next one. One simple trick that Muenster employes to maximize a workout is to alternate between muscle groups, such as upper-body work and lower-body work. That way, you’re able to rest one muscle group while targeting the other.
“The key is not letting too much time pass in between reps/sets/rounds,” Muenster says. She stresses that your recovery time is when you can really tweak the difficulty of a circuit workout. The less time you rest, the harder it will be. If you want to take it a bit easier, incorporate more rest time between exercises and rounds.
Determine the number of rounds.
This part is easy. Do you do one round, three, six? There is no wrong answer here, says Muenster, but the number of rounds you choose will impact your energy expenditure and the total amount of time spent exercising. If you’re game to work out for an hour, you can opt to complete more rounds (or more than one Aaptiv workout) than if you’re squeezing in a 30-minute workout on your lunch break.
Circuit training is a highly adaptable exercise format so it’s suitable for all levels. You can use weights or not and perform circuits just about anywhere. If you still don’t know where to begin, head to the Aaptiv app and search for circuit training workouts or scroll through the “Strength Training” section to get started.