There are literally thousands of potential circuit training exercises that can be used to develop a suitable routine.
Additionally, many exercises require little or no expensive equipment. With nothing more than a mat and a set of dumbbells, there is scope to develop dozens of routines, even one that is sport-specific.
The circuit training exercises below are useful for designing a classic circuit training routine i.e. the one that develops short-term muscular endurance. This type of strength endurance is important in many prolonged sports with intermittent bouts of activity, such as soccer and field hockey. See these sample circuit training programs that can be used by athletes who play multi-sprint sports.
These circuit training exercises can also be used by non-athletes to develop general fitness. In this respect, circuit training is very time efficient helping to develop strength and stamina in a single session. See these sample circuit training workouts for program ideas. Athletes can make use of these general workouts too in the off season for example.
Pure endurance athletes still require excellent strength endurance but the nature of their events requires a slightly different approach. See these sample circuit training routines for endurance athletes for more details.
Exercise selection is governed by the principle of specificity. The circuit training exercises selected must train movements that the athlete will perform during competition. A general circuit class you might expect to see in a gym will develop muscular endurance but it wont be specific to any particular sport.
The circuit training exercises below require only basic, inexpensive equipment – a set of relatively light dumbbells, skipping rope and an exercise mat for example.
Each of the circuit training exercises below has been grouped into one of four categories:
- Total Body
- Upper Body
- Lower Body
- Core Region
There is a reason for this. For details see the article How to Design a Circuit Training Program
Total Body Circuit Training Exercises
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, trunk flexed forward slightly with back straight in a neutral position.
- Arms should be in the ready position with elbows flexed at approximately 90.
- Lower body where thighs are parallel to ground. Explode vertically and drive arms up.
- Land on both feet and repeat.
- Prior to takeoff extend the ankles to their maximum range (full plantar flexion) to ensure proper mechanics.
- Start in a standing position and bend your knees and place your hands on the ground.
- Extend your legs back into a push up position. Bring your knees back in towards chest and stand back up.
- This should be a continuous motion and be fluid.
There are various types of skipping and they make excellent circuit training exercises – two feet off the ground, alternate feet, hop on one leg for 5 then swap and so on.
Dumbbell Squat and Swings
- Start position: Holding a dumbbell in each hand start in squatted position with dumbbells between legs.
- Start movement by standing up and keeping arms straight rotate shoulders and trunk towards the left.
- Return to the starting position and repeat to the other side.
- Repeat for the prescribed number of repetitions.
Standing on the spot, jump up with both and tuck both knees in towards your chest.
In a push-up position bring both knees in towards your chest and then explode out again so they are fully extended. Repeat in a smooth, rhythmical fashion.
Similar to squat thrusts only alternate your feet. In the push-up position with legs extended bring one knee into your chest, then quickly switch to bring the other knee into your chest. The action should be a smooth running motion as your arms stay fixed.
Running on the spot pick your knees up to waist height and pump your arms.
Fast Feet on Box
Use a sturdy box or aerobic step. Step on and off quickly making sure both feet come into contact with the box. Every 20 or 30 step-ups change your feet so the opposite leg leads.
Start with your legs side by side and your arms by your side. In one motion jump and spread your legs out to the side while your arms raise out and up over your head. Land in this position and then return to the starting position and repeat.
Alternating Split Squat
- Stand with feet hip width apart. Take left leg and step back approximately 2 feet standing on the ball of back foot.
- Feet should be positioned at a staggered stance with head and back erect and straight in a neutral position. Place hands on waist.
- Lower body by bending at right hip and knee until thigh is parallel to floor then immediately explode vertically.
- Switch feet in the air so that the back foot lands forward and vice versa.
- Prior to takeoff extend the ankles to their maximum range (full plantar flexion) ensure proper mechanics.
Squat to Presses
Holding a relatively light dumbbell in each hand by your side, squat down until your knees are bent just above 90 degrees. As you extend your legs push the dumbbells overhead and extend your arms fully. Lower the weights as you squat down again.
Stand with your feet together and arms by your sides. Keeping your feet together jump forward a foot or so. Jump back to the starting position. Jump to your left, back to the start, then the right and then behind you. Repeat this sequence by keeping ground contact time minimal and feet together.
If you’re lucky enough to own any cardiovascular equipment (treadmill, cross trainer, rowing machine) they make good circuit training exercises. Of course if you perform your routine at the gym you have an even greater range of choice.
Upper Body Circuit Training Exercises
There are dozens of upper body circuit training exercises you can do with dumbbells. Examples include biceps curls, lateral raises, alternating shoulder presses, triceps extensions, front raises, single arm rows.
To make regular push-ups easier (remember you need to sustain them for 30-60 seconds), keep your knees in contact with the ground.
Same as a regular push-up except spread your hands to wider than shoulder width.
Same as a regular push-up except place your hands together and make a diamond shape with your thumbs and forefingers.
Same as a regular push-up except as you extend your arms push up explosively so your hands leave the ground. Then allow your elbows to bend slightly to absorb the shock as you land. Lower and repeat. A variation of this exercise is to quickly clap your hands as they are in the air.
- Sit upright on the edge of a sturdy bench and place hands hip width apart, palms down, fingers pointing forward and gripping the edge of the bench. Place heels on another bench with legs out straight in front of you.
- Start position: Slide glutes off bench with elbows slightly bent.
- Lower body by bending at elbows until elbows are at 90 degree angle. Return to start position.
Lower Body Circuit Training Exercises
As with the upper body there are dozens of circuit training exercises for the lower body you can do with a simple set of dumbbells. Examples include, squat variations, lunges, calf raises, dead lifts
One Leg Squat
This is one of the more difficult lower body circuit training exercises – even with just your own bodyweight. Make sure you build gradually up to this one…
- Stand with feet hip width apart with knees slightly bent and toes pointing forward.
- Start position: Lift one foot off ground and extend leg forward. Extend arms forward at hip level.
- Lower body by flexing at the hips and standing leg knee. Upper body can flex forward at the hips slightly (~5) during movement. Be sure to “sit back” so that knees stay over the feet.
- For balance, hold on to a chair by your side. Once thigh is slightly above parallel return to start position.
- Remember to keep head and back straight in a neutral position – hyperextension or flexion may cause injury. Keep weight over the middle of foot and heel, not the toes. Keep abdominals tight throughout exercise by drawing stomach in toward spine.
Single Leg Kickbacks
- Start in a four point position with your hands and knees on the ground.
- Proceed to kick your leg back and up until you reach full extension.
- Squeeze your glute muscle while performing this movement. Repeat with the other leg
- Start by standing with your feet shoulder width apart.
- Step forward with one foot and bend your knees into a lunged position. Your back knee should come close to touching the ground and your front leg should be bent to about 90 degrees at the knee.
- Maintain your upright posture throughout the movement. Return to the starting position and repeat on the opposite leg. 4. If you have them, hold a light dumbbell in either hand.
Box Step with Knee Drive
- Stand behind box and place one foot on top of box, heel close to the closest edge. Hold a dumbbell in each hand.
- Push off the box and explode vertically and drive your other knee up towards your chest. 3. Repeat with other leg.
Core Region Circuit Training Exercises
Sit-Ups with a Twist
- Start position: Lie back onto floor or bench with knees bent and hands behind head. Keep elbows back and out of sight. Head should be in a neutral position with a space between chin and chest.
- Leading with the chin and chest towards the ceiling, contract the abdominal and raise shoulders off floor or bench. As you come up twist one shoulder towards the opposite knee.
- Return to start position and repeat with the other shoulder.
- Remember to keep head and back in a neutral position. Hyperextension or flexion of either may cause injury.
- Start position: Lie face down on floor with hands down at sides. You may place a rolled towel under forehead to clear face from floor.
- Raise chest and head off floor keeping feet in contact with floor. To increase resistance, extend arms out in front like superman.
- Do not raise head past 8-12 inches – excessive hyperextension may cause injury. To vary exercise raise feet while raising trunk.
- Lie back onto floor or bench with knees bent and hands behind head. Keep elbows back and out of sight. Head should be in a neutral position with a space between chin and chest.
- Start position: Hands behind head and knees bent at 90 degrees.
- Leading with the chin and chest towards the ceiling, contract the abdominals and raise shoulders off floor or bench. During the crunch, also bring knees towards chest.
- Return to the start position.
- Start position: Lie back onto floor or bench with knees bent and hands extended towards ceiling. Head should be in a neutral position with a space between chin and chest.
- Leading with the chin and chest towards the ceiling, contract the abdominal and raise shoulders off floor or bench. Also raise legs up towards ceiling and attempt to touch your hands to your feet.
- Return to start position.
- Start by placing your left foot over your right knee and place your hands behind your head.
- Lift your shoulders up off the ground and twist so that your right elbows tries to touch your left knee.
- Return to the starting position and repeat according to the required repetitions.
- Repeat with the other side.
- Lie on your back with your legs bent 90 degrees at the hip.
- Slowly lift your hips off the floor and towards the ceiling.
- Lower your hips to the floor and repeat for the prescribed number of repetitions.
Push-UP Superman With Alternating Arms
Starting Position: Start the movement in a plank position. Holding that position raise your right arm and left leg off of the ground. Return to the starting position and repeat with the other arm and leg. Hold each lift for 1-2 seconds.
- Lie on your back with your knees at chest level and your arms flat on the floor.
- Alternate extending your legs by extending one leg out straight and as you bring it in extend the other leg out.
- Continue to repeat this process like you are riding a bicycle until the required repetitions are completed.
- Make sure you keep your back flat during the movement. If you are unable to keep your back flat then reduce the extension of your legs.
Other Circuit Training Exercises
The circuit training exercises on this page really only scratch the surface. If you have access to resistance bands, a stability ball and/or medicine ball they can easily be incorporated into the session:
Jacky has a degree in Sports Science and is a Certified Sports and Conditioning Coach. He has also worked with clients around the world as a personal trainer.
He has been fortunate enough to work with a wide range of people from very different ends of the fitness spectrum. Through promoting positive health changes with diet and exercise, he has helped patients recover from aging-related and other otherwise debilitating diseases.
He spends most of his time these days writing fitness-related content of some form or another. He still likes to work with people on a one-to-one basis – he just doesn’t get up at 5am to see clients anymore.