Whether you’re sweating in your basement or your favorite fitness class, all-in-one circuit workouts are a surefire way to fire up all of your muscles and leave your heart pounding. Use this guide to create your own.
What Makes A Circuit A Circuit?
In basic terms, a circuit is a workout in which you perform a series of exercises with little (or no) rest in between. Then you rest and repeat.
“Circuits are fun and flexible because the options for creating them are limitless,” says strength and conditioning coach Keita Minakawa, C.S.C.S. You could string bodyweight moves together to give your cardio training a boost, or go with weighted moves to build strength.
All you have to do is choose the exercises, weight, reps, and rest that fit your goals and fitness level and voila, you’ve got a perfectly personalized workout.
Building A Circuit Workout
To make sure your DIY circuit workout is as effective—and safe—as possible, follow these five steps when creating it.
1. Choose Your Workout Goal
The exercises you include, amount of weight you use, and amount of rest you take in a circuit workout all depend on what you want that workout to accomplish.
Generally, Joe Rodonis, C.P.T., recommends choosing one specific focus—like lower-body, upper-body, core work, or conditioning (a.k.a. cardio). If you’re homing in on specific muscle groups, consider whether you want to emphasize building strength, building muscle, or a combination of the two.
Once you’ve got that down, planning out the rest of your circuit is a whole lot easier.
2. Pick Your Exercises
Next, choose anywhere from three to eight moves that reflect your goals to include in your circuit.
For a well-rounded lower-body workout, for example, you might choose:
- reverse lunges
- jump squats
- glute bridges
- high knees
To keep your circuit interesting and challenging, try to incorporate exercises that get you moving in all planes of motion—backwards, forwards, side-to-side, and rotationally. “Regardless of your specific goals, moving in all planes of motion is beneficial because it trains your muscles at different angles and improves overall movement,” says Minakawa. In the lower-body circuit above, for example, you could swap the reverse lunges for lateral or curtsy lunges.
Then, put your exercises in order.
Consider alternating between moves that focus on different muscles so you can keep moving while giving just-worked muscles some rest. In an upper-body circuit, for example, you might alternate between ‘pushing’ exercises (like pushups) and ‘pulling’ exercises (like pullups).
Or, if you’re going to incorporate plyometric moves (like jump squats), put them after strength exercises, says Minakawa. The strength moves will prime your central nervous system and muscle fibers for the jumping.
3. Determine Weight, Reps, And Rest
Now that you’ve picked out your exercises, you’ll decide how much weight you’ll use, how many reps you’ll perform, and how long you’ll rest for. Again, all depend on that initial goal!
If you’re focusing on building strength, use a heavy weight for fewer reps and give yourself longer rest periods. Stick to five to eight reps of each move and take several minutes of rest at the end of each round, says Mike Luongo, USAW Level 1 sports performance coach and assistant general manager of Evolve Athletic Club. This way, you’ll push your body to failure (when you can’t do another rep) and allow plenty of time to fully recover.
If you want to build muscle and size, use weight you can lift for 10 to 12 reps at a time and rest for about a minute after each round.
And, if you want to shed fat, opt for lighter weights, higher reps, and limited rest. Use weights light enough that you can perform each exercise for 30 to 60 seconds and rest for just 20 to 30 seconds between rounds. The faster pace will keep your heart rate up and train your body’s endurance.
Whatever your particular circuit looks like, try to cycle through about four or five rounds. Or, set a timer for anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour.
4. Start With A Warm-Up
Now that you’ve created the meat of your circuit, remember to take the time to warm up and prep your body to perform first.
Before jumping in, start with 10 to 15 minutes of light cardio, like incline walking, jogging, cycling, or rowing, says Rodonis.
You might also run through a few exercises to warm up the muscles you’ll be using in the workout, adds Luongo. For a lower-body circuit, that might include glute bridges and hip circles. Spend about 10 to 12 reps—or 20 to 30 seconds—on each move.
5. Don’t Forget To Regenerate
Finally, follow up your circuit with a cool-down that includes foam rolling, dynamic stretching, breathing exercises, and/or yoga, says Luongo. This helps your muscles relax while your heart rate safely drops.
From there, give your body ample time to recover between circuit sessions. Minakawa recommends alternating between high-intensity and low-intensity workout days, so sprinkle in something less-demanding—like a walk outside, some yoga, or a mobility class—in between circuit days.
How To Take Your Circuit To The Next Level
As you progress in your circuit mastery, a few simple tweaks to the workout can keep it fresh and challenging. “This is where you get creative, says Rodonis. “Every component of a circuit can be adjusted, so have fun with it and try to challenge yourself in a new way each time.”
Mix things up by increasing your weight or reps—or decreasing your rest time.
You can also turn up the heat by turning your circuit into an AMRAP. In an AMRAP, which stands for ‘as many reps as possible,’ you’ll do as many rounds of your circuit as possible in a set amount of time. It’s a great option if you only have 10, 15, or 20 minutes to work out.