Making the Rounds

By Matt Fitzgerald |

If you’re looking for a workout that provides all-over fitness benefits, look no further than circuit training. A circuit workout is just a resistance workout with little to no rest between exercises. But the absence of extended rest periods makes circuit training as effective as a cardio-based high-intensity interval workout (HIIT), which raises your heart rate and metabolism and burns lots of calories — not just during the workout, but for hours afterward. (See “HIIT It!” in the December 2008 archives.) And because you’re using resistance, you also build muscle. “Circuit training combines the benefits of cardio exercise and resistance exercise better than any other activity,” says Jason C. Brown, CSCS, owner of Kettlebell Athletics in Philadelphia, Pa.

Need proof? A 2000 study conducted by researchers at the University of Oulu in Finland and published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found that 90 sedentary adults who completed a 12-week circuit-training program improved their cardiovascular fitness as much as participants who walked, jogged, cycled and cross-country skied. They also improved their strength — something the other group failed to do.

“A properly designed circuit workout provides a challenge for anyone,” says Juan Carlos Santana, MEd, CSCS, CEO of the Institute of Human Performance in Boca Raton, Fla. Athletes have been using circuit training for decades, and sport-conditioning coaches favor it because it provides an effective team workout with minimal equipment. (For a minimal-equipment strength circuit, see “The Squeeze-It-In Strength Workout” in the March 2009 archives.)

Guidelines for Effective Circuit Training

The key to a properly designed circuit workout is exercise selection. “Emphasize multijoint movements that use a lot of muscle mass,” says Santana. Why? Your heart rate and metabolic rate are a function of the total volume of muscle mass you activate. Therefore, a circuit made up of multijoint, whole-body movements burns more calories and teaches better movement skills. Exercises should be fairly simple, he adds, so they can be performed safely and effectively — especially toward the end of the workout when you start to get tired. (For exercise ideas, check out Santana’s DVD series The Essence of Dumbbell Training.)

Avoid exercises that require a lot of setup, and keep the equipment to a minimum so you don’t waste time transitioning from one workout to the next, advises Brown. “In circuit training,” he explains, “minimizing rest time between exercises is as important as the exercises themselves.” The more downtime you have between movements, the more your heart rate and metabolic rate decrease.

Within these parameters, you can perform a variety of circuit workouts. You may choose to perform exercises by repetitions or by time. You may also choose to do strength-focused circuits, cardio-focused circuits or a combination of both. Read on for an example of a circuit that emphasizes strength.

Santana created this circuit to provide a total-body workout with just four moves and dumbbells of various sizes. Begin by doing the following three-step warm-up:

Dumbbell-Circuit Warm-Up

Dumbbell Circuit

After completing your warm-up, do the following circuit. Perform each exercise, repeating as necessary for a total of 30 seconds, rest 10 to 30 seconds and then move on to the next exercise. Repeat the circuit four to six times.

Continue for 30 seconds on the right foot and then switch sides for another 30 seconds.

Variety is important in any fitness program. If you choose to make circuit workouts a staple of your regimen, vary the exercises and structure to stimulate ongoing progress in your strength, endurance and body composition.

Then, with the time you save by combining your strength and cardio workout, you can take up a new sport — or just kick back and bask in your newfound power.

Circuit-Training Basics

Here’s how to create your own strength circuit:

  1. Warm up and then complete the full circuit one to four times, depending on your fitness level.

For a do-anywhere body-weight circuit designed by Jason C. Brown, CSCS, owner of Kettlebell Athletics in Philadelphia, Pa., see the Web Extra!.

A do-anywhere body-weight circuit designed by Jason C. Brown, CSCS, owner of Kettlebell Athletics in Philadelphia, Pa.There’s no rule that says a circuit workout has to take place under a roof. This body-weight circuit, designed by Jason C. Brown, CSCS, owner of Kettlebell Athletics in Philadelphia, Pa., can be done on a grass playing field, at the beach and just about anywhere else with room to run.Begin with a five- to 10-minute warm-up that includes light jogging, followed by skipping (just like you did on the playground many years ago) and a few mobility exercises, like “Toy Soldiers”: Walk forward with both arms extended straight ahead. Kick your leg up and try to touch your toe to your hand with each step. Complete 10 steps per leg.After completing your warm-up, complete the following circuit of alternating calisthenics exercises and high-intensity running intervals. Complete the full circuit just once if you’re a beginner and twice if you’re advanced.Stand normally. Lower your butt toward the ground as if you were about to sit on a chair, and at the same time extend your arms straight in front of you for counterbalance. Stop when your thighs are parallel to the ground and return to the starting position. Repeat for one minute.Sprint half a lap around a standard running track or equivalent distance. To modify this workout for confined spaces, do 45 seconds of skipping rope instead of the 200-meter runs.Assume a pushup position, only with your hands and feet placed slightly closer together than they would normally be and your butt high in the air (like you’re going a downward dog yoga pose). Your arms and legs should be extended. Next, imagine your hands are positioned beneath a low wire that you need to sneak under. Swoop down and forward, nose first, until your chin passes between your hands and within an inch of the floor, and then straighten your elbows so that your back arches and your head comes up. Return to the start position by performing the same swooping motion in reverse. Continue for one minute.Stand normally with your arms hanging at your sides. Take a long step backward with your right leg while keeping the majority of your weight on your left heel and maintaining an upright torso posture. Use the left leg to decelerate your descent. Propel your body back up to the starting position. Now lunge back with the left leg. Continue for one minute. Start in a pushup position. Bend your right knee and bring your right foot up to the floor beneath your chest. Press off the floor with both feet and reverse the position of your legs in midair, landing with your left foot under your chest and your right leg extended. Continue jumping and reversing your legs continuously for one minute.After completing your last 200-meter run at 90 percent effort, cool down with five minutes of easy jogging.

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