Is circuit training all it’s cracked up to be, or are straight sets the way to go? Personally, I rarely use straight sets. They have their time and place, such as when performing a very high-skilled movement (like a snatch, for example), or when you’re lifting heavy. Otherwise, circuits are the most valuable training tool, and can be used effectively in a variety of training programs, whether you’re new to training, returning after an injury, or a seasoned gym goer.  

So, what exactly is a circuit? Circuit training, interval training, and supersets are all closely related and can often overlap. Traditional circuits consist of five or more different exercises, but technically can be any number of exercises combined (such as 2-3 in a superset) and performed together back to back with minimal to no rest. 

People tend to associate circuits with cardio and fat-burning workouts, but there are endless ways to arrange the exercises in order to meet your specific fitness goals. Whether your objective is to build strength, burn fat, or improve endurance, circuit training is an invaluable tool in your arsenal. 

There are a couple of primary ways I implement circuits for strength training. One way is to combine 2-4 movements that each focus on a different muscle group. For example, I might combine pull-ups, dips, and shoulder shrugs into a circuit that allows for continuous movement while still giving each muscle group time to recover while working another. Depending on how fast you work through the movements or the specific rest time between movements or rounds of the circuit, the conditioning and cardio elements come into play.

If you want to focus more on developing strength, go with a lower intensity workout by taking a longer rest after each exercise or between rounds. For a cardio-focused workout, utilize longer circuits of anywhere up to 12 exercises performed continuously, only resting after completing the full set to keep your heart rate elevated. 

Circuits were a big part of my training when I was preparing to compete in the CrossFit Games, not just to develop cardiovascular conditioning, but to build strength and muscle endurance as well. Tempo and continuous movement in circuits are antidotes to boredom that can come with a straight set program, and are extremely useful for getting the most out of your time. Whether your goals include building muscle, strengthening your cardiovascular health, or you're just plain fed up with your usual routine in the gym, circuit training could be just the thing you're looking for to take your workouts to the next level.

In Strength,

Elisabeth Akinwale
Elisabeth Akinwale is a mother, athlete, and trainer based in Chicago, IL. Connect with her at @eakinwale