The Benefits of Circuit Training

A workout style that can add muscle while burning fat.


Pavel Ythjall

Imagine a typical workout in which you pyramid sets of bench presses or squats, relaxing for two or three minutes between each progressively shorter set. That’s a slow jam mixed with brief bursts of heavy metal. Now imagine a workout in which you never stop as you rush from one seemingly random exercise to the next, eight in all, each for at least 10 reps. And when you finish those eight you start all over again. And then again and again. It’s a 140-beats-per-minute trance mix, constant movement, forever up-tempo, relentless. 


Circuit training is that trance mix. It’s nothing like your typical workout, and, depending on your goals, that may be a great thing. A circuit usually consists of six to 10 exercises that together cover a wide area: upper half, lower half, or full body. Exercises are usually performed for at least 10 reps, and they’re selected to maximize the aerobic effect. So compound lifts, like squats, are superior to isolation lifts, like leg extensions. And some, like burpees, may be done only to elevate the heart rate.

Most bodybuilders compartmentalize cardio and weight training in order to hoist heavy metal with maximum intensity. This is a perfectly good strategy, but it’s not the only one. Circuiting allows you to combine cardio and weights while also working broad areas together. In that way, it’s a tremendous time-saver. In fact, by circuiting, you can crank out an effective cardio/weight full-body workout in less than an hour. In contrast, if you hit each body part individually and tack a cardio session onto each workout, it might take more than 10 times longer than a single circuit session.

That said, circuit training is not ideal for gaining size or strength long term. The rest periods are too short, and the primary focus is on continuous movement, not muscle stimulation. You’ll need to slow your circuits down considerably to speed up growth. (We’ll get to that.) Traditional circuiting has three primary uses for bodybuilders. 

  • 1. Fewer Workouts 
    • Perhaps you’re traveling or otherwise just too busy to get to a gym more than once or twice weekly. Circuiting is a great way to squeeze in a whole-body workout plus cardio. You probably won’t gain muscle or lose fat circuiting infrequently, but you can maintain your current shape.
  • 2. Take a Break 
    • Circuits are a change of pace from the grind of maximum-weight, high-intensity barrages. A month of thrice-weekly circuits may be just what you need between power cycles. Some trainers think of them as a working rest, allowing minor injuries to heal and the mind to clear before ramping up the intensity again.
  • 3. Bonus Workout 
    • You can also do circuits in addition to more typical bodybuilding workouts. For example, you can divide your body parts into four or five weekly workouts and then on the fifth or sixth day do a full-body circuit session. In this way, you hit muscles twice weekly. This can also be a means of adding a new component to your training, for example emphasizing explosive lifts, like sled pushes, power cleans, and box jumps. 


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