Circuit Training

Looking for something a little different for your next workout? How about circuit training? Circuit training will increase caloric expenditure, strengthen the heart, reduce stress on joints, and increase skeletal muscle endurance while simultaneously keeping workouts fresh and fun.

Defined, circuit training is the performance of various movements (exercises) for different body parts, with little to no rest between each set. An example would be the completion of movements for the legs, chest, back, shoulders and arms, with zero to twenty seconds of rest between each specific exercise. Circuits are very popular in fitness clubs and in fact, many clubs even have entire sections of the gym dedicated to circuit training of one form or another.

These sections allow members to complete more work in less time, vastly important in today‟s fast-paced society. After reading this article, be sure to ask a personal trainer in your gym to show you the circuit section.

Think of your body as an automobile . Using this analogy, skeletal muscle is the body‟s engine, and your blood, the fuel. To create a functioning environment (a running engine), each is dependent on the other. The blood carries the essential elements (the fuel) of oxygen and glucose. The oxygen and glucose diffuse into the muscle cells. The powerhouses of the muscle cells, the mitochondria, take in the essential elements. Finally, chemical reactions take place inside the mitochondria to create the energy necessary for muscles to complete a task.

When an individual is completing a leg exercise such as squats, the leg muscles need energy. The heart pumps blood to the legs so energy can be created. If a person performs fifteen squats, much blood (fuel) is required, and the leg muscles become saturated with blood.

Then, by quickly switching to an exercise for the pectoral (chest) muscles, the heart must redirect the blood to the chest. By the time fifteen repetitions for the pectoral muscles are completed, the blood is saturated in the chest. If the next muscle-group in the circuit is the muscles of the back, then blood is needed in that location in order to complete the exercise, and the process continues.

This constant redirection of blood forces the heart to work hard enough to complete each task, creating a unique training environment. Circuit training forces the heart to increase its rate much more than simply completing one exercise with four sets of eight repetitions with a minute rest between sets (a standard resistance training approach).

Heart rate is a deciding factor in contributing to caloric expenditure during exercise. The number of calories burned drastically increases along with the increasing heart rate. A much desired result is increased fat loss, and another is a stronger, more efficient heart.

Getting Started

Most people who undertake circuit-training programs want to lose fat, gain strength, or both. Circuit training can accomplish these goals, however, randomly choosing exercises will not do. Proper exercise selection and repetition ranges ensure effective workouts and efficient results.

The circuit trainer must know the difference between single-joint and multi-joint exercises. As the name implies, single-joint exercises move exclusively from one joint, such as the elbow or knee. Examples of single-joint exercises are arm curls, arm extensions, leg extensions, leg curls and calf-raises.

Single-joint exercises could be removed from a majority of the population‟s workout routines without adversely affecting the results attained. Typically,bodybuilders and individuals involved in some form of physical therapy,recovering from injuries, are the most likely to benefit from single-joint exercises.

Barring injury, all of the exercises in a circuit-training program should comprise of multi-joint exercises. Multi-joint exercises move from more than one joint, such as the shoulder and elbow simultaneously, or the knee and hip simultaneously. Examples of multi-joint exercises are the squat, dead-lift,lunge, step-up, chest press, shoulder press, row, pull-down and pull-up. These exercises force more than one muscle to work at the same time, increasing the heart rate more than single-joint exercises and in so doing, getting more work done in a compressed time-frame.

There are many ways to put together a circuit. A sample exercise selection for a circuit could be squat, chest press, row, pull-down and shoulder press. A circuit can have as few as five exercises and can have as many as ten or more.

Proper exercise selection also contributes to training the nervous system, a bonus for athletic endeavors, which all require multi-joint movements. Training this way teaches the body how to properly function, and translates well from the gym to the court, the field and even playing at home with the kids.

Another aspect to consider when developing a workout routine is repetition range. When performing a circuit, repetition range should generally be no less than eight reps, and reach as high as twenty-five reps.

Proper exercise selection and a higher repetition-range will reduce the stress on individual joints in two ways. First, multi-joint exercises disperse the weight across several joints. Second, the higher repetitions performed force the individual to choose a lighter weight. Furthermore, both of these circuit-training aspects create better skeletal muscle endurance.


Circuit training has an unlimited amount of variation. Circuits can be completed using basic modalities such as machines, dumbbells and barbells. They can also be performed using less orthodox styles such as medicine balls,stability balls, fitness bands and kettle bells. Such a multitude of variation prevents the user from getting bored, and keeps each workout fresh, fun and exciting. Circuit training can be modified in other ways as well. One variation of the basic circuit style is known as High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT. HIIT workouts are for the advanced exerciser. HIIT is characterized by performing every exercise to near muscular failure, and can incorporate cardiovascular aspects such as sprints. HIIT workouts force the trainee to push beyond perceived limits.

Another modification of the standard circuit training protocol is Peripheral Heart Action, or PHA. Technically, all circuits incorporate PHA. The one aspect that helps define a specific PHA circuit is the exercise selection. PHA workouts switch between lower body and upper body exercises. For example, a PHA workout would consist of squats, chest presses, dead-lifts, rows, lunges,shoulder press, step-ups and pull-ups. Only advanced athletes/trainees looking for a challenge should perform PHA workouts. This is because PHA places additional stress on the heart, but for the properly trained individual this can be an enormous benefit.

Bonus Tips

Many health clubs get very busy at night. With so many people exercising in one place, it may be difficult to „hold‟ five machines, different benches or bars, in order to complete a planned circuit. There are few ways around this dilemma.

During this busy time, grab a few sets of dumbbells and an adjustable bench. Place the equipment in a corner and go to work, using the selected dumbbells for the weight. Another way to survive “primetime” is to hire a personal trainer. An experienced trainer knows how to navigate through the traffic, and some gyms even have specific sections of the gym dedicated for personal trainers and their clients.

Circuit training is beneficial for the beginner, the advanced athlete and exercisers of all fitness levels. Circuit training will not turn you into a bodybuilder, but it will make the trainee healthy and fit, the reason most people join health and fitness clubs in the first place.

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