Circuit training has been traditionally been used as an effective way to develop both strength and cardiovascular fitness simultaneously. Circuit classes are popular in gyms and with non-athletes because of the variety they offer over continuous exercise such as running and cycling.
However, circuit training is not a form of exercise per se, but relates to how an exercise session is structured (3). A circuit session consists of a series of exercises or stations performed in succession with minimal rest intervals in between.
This article outlines how to design an effective circuit training program for either general fitness or to improve sport-specific performance. You will also find sample programs, routines and workouts for different performance outcomes.
Circuit training can be completed 2-4 times per week. As with resistance training at least 48 hours should be left between sessions that work the same muscle groups.
For general fitness a resistance should be chosen that allows the station to be completed for the prescribed period of time (1-2 minutes for example). Resistance may also be governed by bodyweight and the weight of the implements used, such as medicine balls.
Circuit training classes consist of about 8-12 stations. These are usually completed for 30-90 seconds with 30-90 seconds rest between each station. Progression can come through either increasing the station time or decreasing the rest intervals. Choose only one at a time however. A total of 1-3 circuits is typical with 2-3 minutes rest between each circuit (2).
This type of circuit can also be used by athletes during closed or off season training. Two or three circuit resistance training sessions can be interspersed with 2-3 cross-training cardiovascular workouts.
Sports such as soccer and field hockey benefit consist of repetitive bouts of high intensity work. Circuit training, with stations lasting 30-60 seconds, is an ideal way to develop specific strength endurance for these events. The number of exercises in a circuit should be lower than that found in most general fitness circuits and exercise selection should ideally mirror those movements found in competition.
Continuous endurance events such as distance cycling, running and rowing require a different program design. While exercises are still completed in sequence, the length of each station and rest periods bear little resemblance to that of classical circuit training. Very light loads are used so that each exercise can be completed for prolonged period of time. Progression gradually reduces the rest periods between stations to zero, so that in effect each station is completed back-to-back.
Its important to note that while circuit training can improve VO2max, particularly in untrained individuals, it is not as effective as aerobic endurance training for improving aerobic power (4). It goes without saying that circuit training is complimentary to endurance training and cannot take its place.