Circuit Training Workouts Explained

Woman in gym performs box squat holding weight plate, man trains using a kettlebell next to her
(Image credit: Getty Images / Christopher Robbins)

Whatever your fitness goals are, circuit training can help. That’s because it’s such a simple, open-ended concept that it can be applied to most types of sessions, whether it’s a high-intensity fat-burning bodyweight blast or a strength workout that includes several rounds of heavyweight moves.

To learn more about circuit training and how it can help you get fit and lose weight, we spoke to Jenni Tardiff, master trainer at gym chain The Gym Group.

What is circuit training?

Circuit training is when you perform a series of different exercises back to back with minimal rest in between. You could perform them as a set of stations that you set up, and it works really well in a group exercise format. 

You’d maybe do six or 10 different exercises, usually targeting different body parts, and you would do them for either an amount of time or number of reps. For example, one minute of the exercise, minimal rest, and then move on to the next exercise. You can perform as many rounds of the circuit as you want.

How is circuit training different from HIIT?

HIIT is high-intensity interval training and it’s designed to be a short workout. If you're doing HIIT properly, it would be 20, maybe 30 minutes at a push. It’s timed as well, so you’d be working for a short, really intense burst, then you’ll have minimal recovery, and then go again.

With circuit training it’s really versatile and adaptable. You could be doing a strength-based circuit, you could do a circuit for one hour. You might be doing it for reps, or you could do it for time. Whereas with HIIT training it’s really specific—short bursts for a time period. But you could definitely incorporate HIIT-style exercises into your circuit training.

What are the benefits of circuit training?

The benefits are endless. You can change your body composition. You’re going to improve your cardiovascular fitness. It’s also good for keeping your workouts from getting boring, because it can be really versatile. There are endless workouts that you can do. You could do a flexibility circuit, or a strength-based one, or one that’s more endurance-based.

One of the biggest benefits for me is that you can do it anywhere. Just now I travel quite a lot and if I’m staying in a hotel when I’ve got little or no equipment, I can do a quick circuit using the chair that’s there, or if I’ve brought a resistance band I use that. I can get a short, sharp workout done in 20 minutes with a circuit format. It’s a really flexible approach to working out.

Are there different benefits to short and long circuit training workouts?

If better endurance is one of your goals, then you would want to do a longer circuit. But it also depends on lifestyle. Sometimes that short, sharp 20 to 30 minutes is perfect for me because that’s all that I can get in. But if I’m looking at building more strength and endurance and want to add a little bit of cardiovascular fitness, then I would want to get an hour or even 90 minutes in.

It’s down to the individual, their fitness goals and fitness level. If they’re just starting off, then I would definitely do a shorter circuit before they move on to the more endurance-based ones.

Is circuit training good for weight loss?

Circuit training is really beneficial for helping with changing body composition and weight loss. If that’s your aim I would do compound exercises to work larger muscles. Compound exercises work a lot of muscles at one time, rather than doing an isolation exercise. So things like squats, deadlifts, a chest press, press-ups, burpees—all the things that are going to work a lot of muscles at one time. They’re going to burn more calories.

So put together a circuit that’s going to work all those major muscle groups. That would be the best for fat loss. And have minimal rest as well, if you’re doing it for weight loss. Shorter rest periods are going to help with that, just to increase the intensity even more.

Obviously it also comes down to lifestyle as well. Making sure you’re eating a balanced diet and you’re well hydrated, and you need to be consistent with your circuit training, doing at least two or three circuit-style training sessions [a week].

What’s the best way to get into circuit training as a beginner?

I would always start with bodyweight movements. And start with a shorter circuit—I would create a circuit with five or six exercises to begin with.

Do compound exercises, fundamental moves like squats, lunges, press-ups. Everything can be adaptable for all levels. Master the basics with bodyweight, and then start to add in heavier weights and more plyometric moves to progress. 

I also recommend taking longer rest periods if you’re a beginner. Listen to your body and make sure you feel ready so that when you move on to the next exercise you’ve got the correct form.

How many times a week should you do it as a beginner?

I would say two to three times a week. You could do more than that, depending on what’s involved in your circuit. You just need to make sure that you’re not doing the same exercise back to back, so you’re giving your body enough time to recover. You could structure it so you’ve got a lower-body circuit, then an upper-body circuit. Then you might do a more cardio-based one. Then you could do a hybrid style where you’ve got upper and lower.

But if you’re just beginning, two to three times a week would be perfect.

What are the benefits of joining a group circuit training workout?

In a group setting you’ve got someone there to coach you, so you know that your technique and your form is right. Also it’s good having someone there to bounce energy off. In a circuit, if there’s 10 exercises, it can be hard to remember what’s coming next. In that group format it’s all set out for you.

Also if you’re doing your circuit in the gym, you might have left your machine, want to go back to it and then find someone’s sitting on it. Whereas in the class, everything’s set up ready for you to go.

There’s also the sense of community—meeting other people feeling the same way as you. Also I’m quite competitive, so I enjoy having a bit of friendly competition as well!

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.