11 min read

My Beef with Circuit Training

You've probably done or are doing circuit training at home or a commercial gym. Well, you could be doing that circuit training a lot better than you are!
My Beef with Circuit Training

Like Hammer Pants and the Crew Cut, I hope to see circuit training, the way it is currently done, become a part of 90’s popular culture, that we all laugh and snicker at.

Remember when? …

…Sadly, I still see the widespread use of circuit training rampant at most every commercial gym I step foot in, particularly so-called ‘fitness classes,‘ which is just a bit of an oxymoron.

Even more sad, is that the way most people circuit train might be one of the least effective ways to lose weight and enhance your quality of life. There is a better way and I'll teach it to you!

A Quick History

Circuit training was devised by British innovators, Morgan and Adamson, circa 1953!

The goal was to create a single system to produce ‘all-round fitness,‘ but specifically a balance of cardiovascular endurance and muscle strength.

However, research since that time has shown that mixing cardiovascular and resistance training modalities in the form of circuit training produces inferior results to simply doing one or the other – depending on what fitness quality you wanted to improve.

Furthermore, there is a long list of research showing that aerobic training tends to interfere with neuromuscular development when done to excess – anything more than about 20-30 minutes at a time, more than 1-3x a week.

Actually while we’re on the subject, aerobic training done immediately before — think about how you typically warm up, right now and how you probably should warm up — neuromuscular training will reduce improvements in the latter.

This shouldn't be surprising really, whatever you do first will impede your performance in what comes next due to fatigue. This is why conventional wisdom remains to do the thing that matters most first.

  • If that's cardiovascular fitness, then you might want to lift after.
  • If it's strength or growth, then you'd do your cardiovascular endurance training after (and you'd probably stick to less technical versions done on machines)

Makes perfect sense, it’s hard to tax your nervous system when you’re already fatigued.

To see my most simplistic model read this article on Neuromuscular System Development and Energy System Development, and you’ll see that you can easily train up to 6 different qualities on six different days in a given week.

There is no need to mix modalities in a circuit, but this hasn't stopped a huge percentage of the gym-going population from doing this all the same.

There are Two Major Types of Circuit Training

Most people don't know this, but there are two completely different types of circuit training, and majority will only focus on one; The Worse One.

  1. Continuous Circuit Training (CCT) this is the less ideal one ...
  2. Interval Circuit Training (ICT)

It's how the names sound. One is continuous (no breaks/rest) the other is intermittent with rest and breaks.

1) Continuous Circuit Training (CCT)

This is the one I have beef with. Typically there is a mix of lifting and cardiovascular machinery used together and you go station-to-station on a timer.

Ever walk into a commercial gym and see the circuit area with the little red light?

Every minute or 45 seconds, the light flashes, a buzzer goes and you’re expected to move on to the next station. Maybe you do two or three rounds of ten stations or something like that. Some gyms like to mix the equipment up a bit more.

A machine based example:

Order Exercise Time
1 Leg Press 60s
2 Chest Press 60s
3 Hamstring Curl 60s
4 Row Machine 60s
5 Ab Machine 60s
6 Calf Raises 60s
7 Overhead Press 60s
8 Lat Pulldown 60s
9 Arm Extension 60s
10 Arm Curl 60s

Repeat 2x

**For the record, I'm not suggesting this as a circuit.

You see it at the Y or F45, even a lot of Crossfit gyms. You see it in small bougie studios. You see it at a lot of commercial gyms. It's seemingly everywhere!

The so-called 'functional gyms' just make it look a bit different by keeping you off machines. Something like:

Order Exercise Time
1 Jump Squats 60s
2 Push Ups 60s
3 Kettlebell Swings 60s
4 Suspension Trainer Rows 60s
5 Burpees 60s
6 Left Side Plank 60s
7 Right Side Plank 60s
8 Battle Ropes 60s
9 GHD Situps 60s
10 Wall Balls 60s

Repeat 2x

And there is no kind way to say this, anyway you slice it, it's meh.

It feels hard, but it's meh.

I kid you not, I have watched trainers pull exercises at random from a shuffled deck of photos and that's the workout for today! Meh.

It's better than nothing, sure, but don't you want to know if you're getting better at it? Other than how it 'feels.'???!?

You can't go off feel really or perceived exertion alone because that's subject to change on a daily basis.

Are you taking notes of how it feels on a scale of 1-10? Because I doubt it. Which means you aren't quantifying your workouts at all.

Why make something feel harder than it needs to be? If you could get a significantly better result in less time with something that doesn't feel nearly as hard, wouldn't that be smarter? Wouldn't that be better?

Yes you feel like you're working hard, but it's basically impossible to measure your progress in this chaos and the focus is really just on making the training feel hard. Hopefully overtime you want it to feel a little less hard, but not too easy, amirite?

These gym "classes" – I use that term loosely because I thought the point of a class was to learn something? – really cater to a specific demographic of people who either:

  1. Crave continuous variety because they 'get bored' otherwise
  2. Just want to show up somewhere and feel like they are working hard.

And that's fine I suppose if you fit that demographic of person who wants to train a lot and maybe get somewhere but I'm far more pragmatic and deliberate I guess. I want to know if I'm improving and I want to practice and get good at exercises.

What do you do when showing up simply isn't enough?

There is no process you can really focus on making better in this system, and the process is a key factor for change.

The Problems

Go to a typical ‘aerobics’ group fitness class and you’re also bound to find CCT in action. As an instructor takes you from jumps to pushups, to step-ups, to side planks, to tricep kickbacks, running on the spot and a slew of other exercises that keep you engaged but also make you feel tired.

Are you tracking the weights you're using? Who has the time when you have to jump to the next exercise pronto?

Are you tracking the reps? Hard to think of all that when you're tired and need to jump to the next exercise.

Are you tracking heart rate? Maybe, but if the routine is always different, then your heart rate likely isn't improving relative to the workload.

What do you track then?

Answer: Not much.

This is the dominant problem with this approach. Nobody tracks something worth tracking to gauge progress.

Making yourself tired is not hard. Pick a bunch of random exercises off the internet. Throw them together, don't let people rest, make the work intervals longish (~1 minute), make it new, so they have no previous training to prepare them for it and viola! You have an exercise routine that feels hard to do!

Tired doesn’t mean good, actually, this typically leads to the opposite because excessive fatigue is generally what leads to:

  • Injury
  • Motor Dysfunction
  • Muscle Imbalance
  • Pain
  • Stagnant Progress

Anyone can make you tired but it takes skill to make you better. And I want to make you better.

One Dimensional

They are trying to be the swiss army knife of fitness but the method falls flat. When you try to do too much at once, you end up not doing anything particularly well. It's called goal dilution.

These circuits tend to increase muscular endurance a little, provide some very basic strength improvements as a result but also develop less cardiovascular fitness than you might think. Certainly less than high intensity interval training or just basic aerobic training would.

You don't build much (if any) muscle with this approach and overall the results are a little lackluster. Great for a beginner trying to establish a routine maybe like the 7 minute scientific workout, but there are better methods at your disposal.

Namely just lift (or do the next type of circuit training with lifting exclusively) and do aerobic or cardiovascular work separately.

There is no time benefit of combining everything together into a circuit and not providing rest intervals.

You're better off keeping methods (energy system and neuromuscular) separated and providing rest so that you can manage fatigue and the perception of difficulty.

2) Interval Circuit Training

Not without its faults, don't get me wrong.  In its purest sense it would look a lot like this:

Order Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Squat 3 30s 30s
A2 Angled Suspension Trainer Row 3 30s 30s
A2 Spin Bike 3 30s 60s

**I'm keeping this examples short from now on so you get the idea and it takes up less space in this article.

Not necessarily a dramatic improvement per se, but will still feel less difficult and be just as effective as CCT.

Unlike CCT this includes purposeful rest to keep fatigue levels lower. This allows you to work harder during your work intervals. The same way HIIT allows you to work harder than aerobic training can. Intensity is what makes training more time efficient, so that's one excellent reason to do this instead.

This also makes it easier to track the things that matter. Namely the weight you use and the number of of reps completed with that weight. You can note this kind of thing during your rest intervals. It's very hard to remember what weight you did 10 exercises ago with CCT, and that's assuming you rest after 10 exercises.

A simple motto for fitness:

Work + Rest = Success    Tweet This…

If you're going to circuit train; This is the kind of circuit training everybody should be doing. Sadly it’s the kind of circuit training you only find in niche clubs. To put it plainly: It yields better results.

Because you get to rest, this means that you can maintain a higher level of quality in your movement which leads to less injury, less pain, more progress and a decrease in motor dysfunction or muscle imbalance.

How to Make This Better

Remove any cardiovascular modalities from the mix and keep things separated.

If I'm being honest, I wouldn't really try to mix a bunch of cardiovascular exercises into a circuit either but you could I guess. Really that leaves us applying it to resistance training focused exercises.

Yes, I'm talking about battle ropes, burpees, swings, jump squats, and those kind things. These are low resistance exercises done at higher speeds and they get your heart rate up more than anything else.

These exercises are actually better for building muscular power when the reps are low and the rest is rather high (3-5 minutes). It's not really conditioning.

Yes I know that people try to turn into conditioning exercises. But if I'm being honest that purpose just isn't what these exercises are best for. Yes they are more fun to do than traditional cardio and you can certainly do them that way from time to time, but I wouldn't make it a focal part of my routine.

i.e. high rep, low resistance, high speed exercises are better for power training (something I haven't really talked about much on SBF) the majority of the time, and only the occasional high intensity conditioning circuit.

For example:

Order Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Squat 3 30s 30s
A2 Angled Suspension Trainer Row 3 30s 30s
A2 Up and Down Front Plank 3 30s 60s

You do the squat, rest 30 seconds, do the row, rest 30 seconds, do the plank, rest 30 seconds and repeat that 3 times. Now I still don't think this is 'ideal' necessarily but it's a step in the right direction.

And the reason is; I don't think timed sets are particularly effective. But the good news is, you don't have to do this type of circuit training that way. You can do it like this instead:

Order Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Squat 3 8 30s
A2 Angled Suspension Trainer Row 3 8 30s
A2 Up and Down Front Plank 3 8/side 60s

Why use reps instead of time?

Well because it's easier to gauge an appropriate weight. When the sets are timed, you tend to overshoot the weight (and not be able to finish the time anyway) or undershoot the weight (and not have to stop or be anywhere near failure before the time is up).

With resistance training, you generally want to finish your sets pretty close to failure – although not necessarily to absolute failure.

If you can do more reps than the target rep range with the weight you have, then it's too light. If you can't hit the target rep range with the weight you have, then the weight is too heavy. This approach lets you adjust the weights accordingly for the goal. I usually tell people if it's within 1-2 reps on either side of the target, they are probably fine and don't need to change the weight for the next set.

Rest allows you to operate at a higher level of intensity, which as interval training research has proven in the last 20 years is more time efficient as a training model, especially if you consider time invested.

This is the why HIIT is so much more time efficient than steady state cardiovascular training. The potential issue being that it also requires more recovery.

And this may very well be while you don't see many gyms encouraging you to do what I'm encouraging you to do. They want to be able to provide something to their members daily without worrying too much about their recovery.

When you mix in cardiovascular exercises and lower the workout quality by timing the sets so that people don't reach failure on any of the lifting parts of the circuits, you lower recovery demands.

Meaning, you can probably come into the gym and do this kind of training every day. If you're paying per class or a higher rate for unlimited classes (as many do) then it's a tradeoff for the business. They get to provide you with more regular workouts and generate more revenue, but sadly at the expense of your results.

By using this modality, they make the training far more like aerobic training and far less like resistance training. Which preserves and builds muscle tissue better, a key ingredient in the 'toning' that people want to do.

Honestly, this is how the first exercises in some of my resistance training programs look anyway. Realistically speaking, I'm just telling you to combine resistance training into circuits in a more time efficient manner.

Similarly the high intensity energy system work I typically recommend falls into work and rest recommendations too.

In Closing

Circuit training as a whole isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It's certainly better than nothing.

My beef isn’t with one training mentality or another actually, it’s the latching on to one method and sticking to one method when a multi-centric method is most effective. CCT is just overdone and I've had too many conversations with frustrated people trying to use it.

It just shouldn’t become a staple in your program, or the only thing you do, like I see so many people at the gym still doing.

Doing CCT from time to time won’t make you fat, scrawny or a dull person, but you’ll get better training results using ICT and it’s a lot easier to measure progress in.

Hopefully this article gave you some insights into how to apply it better.

  1. Keep resistance training methods and cardiovascular training methods separated (gyms can easily do this to provide high quality classes daily)
  2. Use rest intervals to keep work quality high.
  3. Go to rep-based sets, instead of time-based (unless you're doing cardiovascular HIIT, then time-based is fine)
  4. Track the weights/reps you use (they should be going up over time → AKA progressive overload)

And although I gave you some ways I think you can improve upon it, there are times when the traditional types (mentioned above) can be cycled in from time to time. You can use it to mix things up, to promote active recovery or if you want to train muscular endurance more. I'll get around to writing an article on that someday too.

You stay classy San Diego.