I can remember coming up in bodybuilding in the 80’s and reading about circuit training in one of the muscle magazines. Back then, they were one of the few sources of information available back then. It was a popular method of getting lean at a time when “cardio” was an unknown concept. It also is a great way to train for endurance sports. It’s been around a long time and it’s still used today. In fact, none other than Charles Poliquin advises it as a great way to get lean without using cardio. Let’s dive and see what it’s all about.
Circuit Training: What Is It?
As noted above, circuit training is designed for fat loss and endurance. It was originated in 1953 by R.E. Morgan and G.T. Anderson in England. Traditionally, circuit training refers to a series of logically organized exercises performed without rest. For example, you’re performing 8-20 reps per exercise and doing 9-12 total exercises with no rest in between. You’ll rest 2-3 minutes and do another circuit. The weight used will be moderate to light by necessity. Some researchers took this basic idea, established a 5 circuit session consisting of 10 exercises, and included 3 minutes of cardio in between each circuit. (1)
Fast forward to today, and the circuit training concept has not changed much. Depending on the source, you typically perform 10-15 reps and do a circuit of 10 exercises. The only rest is the time it takes to get to the next exercise. At the end of the circuit, you can rest for 1-3 minutes and go again. You can do as many circuits as you want, the average is 5 circuits. You can use machines, free weights or a combination of both. The weight used should be moderate (40-60% of your 1RM), however, there is a program or two that suggest heavier weight (75% of 1RM).
Circuit Training Benefits
- Fat Loss – Circuit training is an excellent option for someone that wants to get lean but does not, or cannot, train for size and strength. It’s also a great addition to a competitive bodybuilders pre-contest strategy.
- Endurance – This type of training also has applications in sports that require more endurance than size.
- Good For Older Athletes – Additionally, it’s a good choice for bodybuilders/athletes that need to train using more moderate weights due to injury or age.
- Time Saving – It can be a great choice for time-crunched trainees. If you lead a very hectic life and can’t find time to train, this is a great option.
- GH Stimulation – Research suggests that performing multiple sets with short rest in-between that increase lactate levels (the “burn”) also increase GH secretion.
- The Pump – It should also be noted that when set up the right way, you can get a great pump from a routine like this. (2, 3)
Circuit Training Examples
There’s quite a few ways to do a circuit, let’s look at a few examples.
The traditional circuit rotates upper and lower body exercises. All exercises start with 40% of 1RM. Perform 1 set and go on to the next exercise, use 15 reps per set. Perform this routine in the order shown. At the end rest for 3 minutes. Work up to 3 circuits.
- Bench Press
- Seated Cable Row
- Leg Extension
- Overhead Press
- Lat Pulldown
- Leg Curl
- Incline Dumbbell Press
- Seated Calf Raise
- Lateral Raise
- Barbell Curl
- Triceps Pressdown
A more advanced version of the above circuit would use a 3-5 minute warmup consisting of body weight exercises and light resistance band work. You would then use 60% of your 1RM and do 5 circuits. You could also drop the reps and go heavier as desired. Exercises can be substituted based on the equipment you have available. It does not have to be free-weights, you can use machines, or any combination that works. You can do less exercises, or more. However, I suggest no less than 10 and no more than 15.
Here’s another example:
Here’s a circuit that is, to me, more logically set up:
All exercises use 60% of 1RM and use 15 reps per set. Perform in order, at the end rest for 3 minutes. Work up to 5 circuits.
- Ab Wheel
- Bench Press
- Overhead Press
- Side Dumbbell Laterals
- Standing EZ Bar Extensions
- Triceps Pressdowns
- Medium Wide Grip Pull Ups
- Bent Rows
- EZ Curls
- Dumbbell Hammer Curls
- Standing Calf Raises
This routine can be made more advanced by dropping reps and adding weight. I would suggest 70% 1RM and 8 reps per set.
Hybrid Strength Circuit
If you wanted to do something more powerbuilding oriented, there are options. Of course, this approach kind of transcends into a basic Stronglift full body routine like my Hybrid Strength Training routine. Here is that routine adapted to this approach.
Warmups should consist of a very light (20% 1RM) 3 exercise circuit of squats/bench presses/bent rows. Perform 2 times with zero rest. All exercises use 80% of 1RM and use 5 reps per set. Perform in order, at the end rest for 3 minutes. Work up to 5 circuits.
- Ab Work
- Bench Press
- Wide Grip Chins
- Bent Rows
- Standing Overhead Press
- Close Grip Chins
- EZ Curls into EZ Drag Curls
- Triceps Dips
- EZ Extensions
Now that looks like a fun routine!
Your nutrition and supplementation for this style of training are primarily goal-oriented. If you’re using this as a aid to fat loss, you will want to follow a low carb approach. I advocate carb cycling. Of course, you’ll want to keep your protein intake high and eat clean. It should be noted that this style of training is a supplement to cardio, not a replacement for it. I still suggest doing cardio with this program. You can even try it the way it was originally intended, do 3-5 minutes cardio in-between circuits.
If your using the circuit training approach for endurance, I would suggest a more appropriate carb intake. After all, if you are an endurance athlete, you need carbs. Finally, I think this type of training can produce amazing pumps. The best way to maximize that effect is with supplements. My standard stack will always be a protein powder, pre-workout, a multi and creatine. To get a great pump, you can either make sure you’re using a pre that has an impressive pump complex, or you can add a product such as 5% Nutrition Full As F*ck, or Redcon1 Big Noise to your existing pre. Two more tips for the most insane pump are to ingest more carbs in the hours leading up to the workout and drink lots of water. All of this lends itself well to promoting water-based pumps. Combine that with the nitric oxide ingredients found in the better pre-workouts, and you have an amazing pump waiting for you!
As you can see, circuit training can be a great program to use if you’re getting cut or training for endurance. It’s also a good choice if you need to make a change to a more time-saving routine. I wouldn’t think of this as a long-term size and strength building routine, but it can have its place in your yearly training program. Give it a shot and see what it can do for you!
- Baechle, T., & Earle, R. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Stiegler, P., & Cunliffe, A. (2006). The Role Of Diet And Exercise For The Maintenance Of Fat-Free Mass And Resting Metabolic Rate During Weight Loss. Sports Medicine, 36, 239-262.