What is Circuit Training?

The old adage “respect the classics” is especially true in music, fashion and fitness. It’s hard to argue with the timeless appeal of Ella Fitzgerald, the little black dress and circuit training. I can almost hear what you’re saying. “Circuit training? What is circuit training!?” For people who are just starting on their fitness journey or who are getting back into exercise after a long absence, circuit training is a great way to feel stronger and quickly see results.

The Circuit Training Definition You’ve Been Waiting For

By definition, circuit training is an exercise program that focuses on muscle and cardiovascular endurance training.

Your eyes just glazed over, right?

Let’s put it this way. If you do a circuit training exercise program, you do different exercises targeting different muscle groups one right after another in a carefully constructed circuit. Repeat the circuit three to five times and you have a total body workout without once stepping foot on a treadmill. Work with a personal trainer to construct a circuit that is right for you and this circuit training definition doesn’t even have to be done in the gym. More on that later…

A (very) Brief History on Circuit Training

Circuit training is actually older than most of the people you’ll find at a typical gym. In 1953 at the University of Leeds in England, researchers R.E. Morgan and G.T. Anderson developed a fitness routine that targeted both muscle strength and endurance while helping improve a person’s heart health. The original circuit was 9 to 12 stations where university students exercised for 8 weeks. Each participant worked for 15 to 45 seconds at each station and moved from one station to the next with little to no rest between. What they found was that each participant showed improvement in four important areas – muscle strength, muscle endurance, muscle power, and general endurance.

Strength, Endurance and Power (oh my!)

Consider this. Muscle burns more calories than fat ever will. Even when you are at rest, muscle has the ability to burn more calories. (10 pounds of muscle will burn about 50 calories in a day while completely at rest whereas 10 pounds of fat will burn about 20 calories a day while completely at rest.) This is especially important if your goal is to lose weight and be stronger and leaner. Having muscles does NOT mean being bulky. Don’t confuse the two!

Anyone who works out want to feel stronger and look better but women especially don’t want to look big and bulky. Fortunately, circuit training will give you strength, endurance and power that makes us feel and look better – not to mention just making our daily activities a little easier! But what’s the difference and why you would want an exercise program that improves all three?

Strength is the ability to exert force against resistance. Your muscle strength may limit you to 10 pound dumbbells today, and increases in that strength may enable you to lift 15 pound weights next week.

Endurance is the ability to do things frequently without causing too much strain on your muscles, heart and lungs. Gains in muscle endurance make it possible for you to do 10 pushups today, and 15 next week. Or run/jog/brisk walk for .25 miles to ½ mile before you know it.

Power is the ability to apply maximal amounts of force in a minimal amount of time. Power is what makes it possible to hoist a kid in the middle of a tantrum over your shoulder and haul them out of the store.

Why does it matter?

If you simply increase muscle strength, it won’t necessarily make carrying a 30 pound child around an amusement park all day easier. Whereas if you only focus on endurance, lifting a fully loaded suitcase into a car trunk will be no easy task. Neglect muscle power and you may be strong with lots of endurance but unable to sprint across the playground to reach your child in danger. Voila! That’s why circuit training, a workout that gives you all three, is so valuable!

Circuit Training vs HIIT: A philosophical question

Now that you have a circuit training definition, it is important to distinguish between circuit training and High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). HIIT is based on intense exercise followed by periods of either active or passive rest. Circuit training is based on moving from one exercise to another, each focusing on a different part of the body. Which begs the highly philosophical question – Is circuit training and high-intensity interval training the same thing? Sometimes.

Since circuit training is designed to work one targeted area of your body at a time, the area that isn’t being worked is already resting. This allows you to move from exercise to exercise through the circuit without a break between stations. Prescribed rest is an integral part of HIIT’s effectiveness. Of course, a workout can be both. If you have ever done a boot camp class with a personal trainer, you likely rotated through a circuit of different moves at a certain work to rest ratio.

Why Circuit Training is Right For You

Now that we have answered the question, “What is circuit training?” we need to dive into why it is appealing.

A study conducted by the University of New Mexico found that moderate intensity circuit training workouts were just as effective at enhancing cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength as higher intensity programs. For people who are just starting out, or who are worried about injury, circuit training is an ideal way to build strength.

You don’t have to already be fit to do circuit training. You know how there are some workouts that you feel you need to “work up to”? Circuit training isn’t like that. Remember our circuit training definition? Moving from station to station at a moderate pace without any rest in between. Those stations can be tailored to your current ability and strength.

Circuit training does not have to be done at the gym. With the addition of a few pieces of fitness equipment, you can get a total body circuit training workout in the comfort of your own home.

That’s not to say you should go it alone. A personal trainer will create a circuit training program geared toward your fitness level, personal goals and available equipment. They will also be able to coach you on proper form to avoid injury while holding you accountable and motivating you through plateaus to help you reach your goals sooner than you thought.

In the end, circuit training is an ideal workout for every person at every fitness level. With proper personal training and a little persistence, you will be in the best shape of your life in no time.