Circuit Training: A Great Idea! (For Other People)

Sure, Sunshine, I Bet It's Really Really Fun!

I was thinking that since we're still in New Years resolution season, it might be a good idea to write about How To Get Started With Strength Training. But then I remembered: Whoops, I wrote that post already. So instead I thought: how about discussing circuit training? Circuit training is a clever and efficient way to do cardio and strength training all at the same time!

Then I remembered: I hate circuit training. I'd much rather do my cardio and weights separately, and be half as miserable for twice as long.

But of course I'm Crabby by nature, and I hate a lot of things that are good for you. And many of these healthy things I avoid (like celery and exercise bikes) are much beloved by others. So just because I don't actually do circuit training myself, that shouldn't keep me from encouraging other people to try it. So let's just pretend I'm Kirstie Alley telling you how to lose weight, or John Edwards giving you marital advice. Because "Do as I say, not as I do" is a time-honored didactic strategy, right?

So what is Circuit Training?

Circuit training is basically a series of resistance exercises done one after the other with a minimum of rest in between. The idea is to try to get a full-body strength training routine in, but to keep rest periods short enough (30-90 seconds) so that your heart rate stays in your aerobic range the whole time. That way, you get double credit--two workouts in the time it usually takes to do one.

The best circuit routines are designed so that consecutive exercises use different muscle groups. That way, you can go quickly from one exercise to the next without screaming in pain. Or, if you do end up screaming in in pain, you're at least screaming about different body parts. "Oh my god, I'm dying, my thighs! My thighs! My thighs!" gets boring after a while. Whereas "Please just shoot me now! My thighs! My back! My shoulders! My ass!" is a slightly more interesting sort of misery to experience or observe.

Why is it called "circuit" training?

"Circuit training" may sound like some sort of punitive regimen in which you are administered powerful electric shocks if you don't move quickly enough. But that's not true! It's a punitive regimen involving no electricity whatsoever.

Sometime "circuit training" does actually involve a formal circuit of exercise stations arranged in a circle. That's how the whole thing started back in the fifties. But there are lots of ways of approaching it now. Many people do circuit training on their own, with minimal equipment, customizing their own programs. And they don't have to run around in circles unless they enjoy getting dizzy.

What are some ways to get started with circuit training?

1. You can take a class or join a circuit-type gym.

Many gyms have circuit training classes, and this is a popular way to get started. Also, whole franchises like Curves use a circuit approach. This way, you can let some perky, motivated instructor handle the "thinking" and "planning" parts of the workout, and you can just show up and do what you're told and suffer whatever torture they dish up.

The downside of classes or circuit-gyms? If you, like me, are opinionated about what sort of muscles you want to work, how hard you want to work them, and how long you want to do it for--well, that's just too bad. Get over yourself. If these classes involve people moving from station to station, you can't dawdle or skip things or you'll mess everyone else up.

2. Get a Circuit Training DVD.

This way, you get all the perk pre-packaged, and you don't have to design your own program. Plus, the instructor can't see you, and you don't have any actual classmates. This means you can be as slow, klutzy, or half-assed as you want, and no one has to know but you!

3. Design your own circuit training routine.

If you already do strength training, you've got the building blocks for your own customized circuit training routine. But you may need to adjust a little and modify your usual exercises.

If you work out at a gym, one of the cool things about it is the variety of different strength training options you have. However, without prior planning, it can be a bit of a challenge to do circuit training there. Unfortunately, you can't just toss people off your favorite equipment when you need it, shouting "Sorry dude, I only have 7 seconds left before I need that roman chair!"

Well, you can try, but you won't be very popular.

Another issue is that circuit training works best with exercises that get you breathing hard, as opposed to the kind that exercise only one small muscle group at at time. So, for example, if one of your normal strength training exercises is a bicep curl, you may be better off ditching that for a combo move like pull-ups (or assisted pull-ups). Likewise, if you do an exercise just for your triceps, you may want to substitute some push-ups instead.

And because of the need to go quickly from one exercise to the next, it's best not to count too much on equipment that could be in use or that needs a lot of adjustment before each new user. So it helps to have a number of alternative exercises in mind that use your own body-weight, elastic bands, kettle bells, stability balls, free weights etc. Plus, the minimal-equipment approach is great for home exercisers who don't want to spend a fortune on fancy home gym set-ups.

Another thing to keep in mind is that circuit training works best with moderate resistance done with higher repetitions. If you're toning; that's great. But if you're used to doing high-weight/low rep body-building stuff, with substantial rests between sets, your regular routine may not work as well in a circuit.

4. Sample Circuit Training Routines:

So, want some ideas on good exercises to use to build your own circuit training workout? Here are a few ideas to get started with:

SparkPeople has some general instructions and some great 30 minute circuits for beginners, intermediate, and advanced exercisers; each exercise has a link with further instructions.

At Girl Get Strong, they've got a "hot body" circuit workout you can check out.

At Weight for Deb, you can get circuit workout emphasizing balance and stability.

And Go Workout Mom has some at-home bodyweight exercises that are a very handy option for your circuit training routine; and in addition, at Truth 2 Being Fit, there are 10 more At-Home strength training exercises you can incorporate into your circuit training.

Do any of you have any advice about circuit training? Or do you prefer to do your cardio and strength training as separate activities?

[Note: This is also being posted at Blogher's 10x Club. Join us there for daily challenges, rewards, encouragement, and of course, plenty o' whining.]

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