Circuit training has become a popular method of training that has the advantage of enabling you to do a lot of work in a short period of time. Many training centers, such as the Nautilus gyms in the 70s and 80s and later the popular Curves Fitness, focus on circuit training protocols to appeal to busy clients. But there are many other benefits to circuit training than simply efficiency, one being that it’s a great way to melt off fat – fast!
Let’s start with some definitions. When all the sets for one exercise are performed before moving on to another exercise, this method is referred to as station training. Here is an example of how a workout using both upper and lower body exercises could be designed with station training:
A. Leg Press, 3 x 10, 4010, rest 180 seconds
B. Lying Leg Curl, 3 x 10, 4010, rest 180 seconds
C. Incline Dumbbell Press, 3 x 10, 3010, rest 180 seconds
D. Seated Cable Row: 3 x 10, 3010, rest 180 seconds
Using this format, you are working a total of 9 minutes and resting 36 minutes – 45 minutes from start to finish. With circuit training you perform the exercises in sequence so that two or more sets of a single exercise are not performed in a row. Using the exercises in the previous example, here is the same workout performed in a circuit fashion:
A1. Leg Press, 3 x 10, 4010, rest 30 seconds
A2. Lying Leg Curl, 3 x 10, 4010, rest 30 seconds
A3. Incline Dumbbell Press, 3 x 10, 3010, rest 30 seconds
A4. Seated Cable Row: 3 x 10, 3010, rest 30 seconds
Here you still have the same amount of work time, 9 minutes, but your rest time has been reduced to 6 minutes – 15 minutes from start to finish. If you reduced the rest time to just 15 seconds between sets, you are done in just 12 minutes! With such efficiency, a busy person who works near a gym could get in their daily workout during a lunch hour, leaving the evening free for other activities (and avoiding the busiest hours of most commercial gyms).
One of the keys to designing effective circuit training workouts is to avoid performing two exercises for the same muscle group in a row. For example, you could follow a bench press with a seated cable row…followed by an incline bench press followed by a lat pulldown. You wouldn’t follow a bench press with an incline bench press, because the fatigue created in the first exercise would force you to use considerably less weight in the second exercise, thus reducing the strength training stimulus.
As the popularity of weight training increased, more research was conducted to determine the specific effects of circuit training. One such study was published in the Sep 25, 2011 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. This study investigated the effects of eight weeks of two types of heavy weight training workouts, one involving circuit training protocols and another using station training protocols.
Both lifting groups performed the same exercises with two types of workouts, one involving 3 sets per exercise and one involving 6 sets. When performing three sets per exercise, the circuit training group needed only 55 minutes to complete their workouts, versus 105 minutes for the traditional training group. When performing six sets, the circuit training group needed just 78 minutes to complete their workouts compared to 125 minutes for the traditional training group.
The authors noted that there were no significant differences in improvements in strength or muscle gain between the two groups. However, significant decreases in bodyfat occurred only in the circuit training group, a difference that may be attributed to the theory that using shorter rest intervals increases the production of growth hormone. We can look at it this way: The circuit training workout enabled the subjects to achieve nearly identical results as station training in approximately half the training time, plus the circuit training workouts produced greater fat loss.
A note of caution. One problem that those new to circuit training make is using especially short rest intervals from the start. Using our circuit training example, a beginner or detrained individual could easily become nauseated or be forced to use especially light weights trying to complete this workout with only 15 seconds rest between sets, even 30 seconds. There are several ways to resolve this problem.
First, you can limit your first workout to just one set of each exercise and use the shorter rest intervals. After a few workouts you can increase to two sets, and then after a few more to three sets. That works, but during these first few training sessions you are not getting much work done. A better way is to simply give yourself more rest time between sets for the first workout, perhaps 120 seconds, and then reduce the rest time by 10-15 seconds each workout (or every other workout) until you are down to 30 seconds, or even 15 seconds. Often it only takes 2-3 workouts to get used to the shorter rest intervals, especially if you have already been training.
If you’re pressed for time and you want to gain some muscle and lose a lot of fat quickly, circuit training may be just the type of workout you need.