Working out doesn’t have to take your entire day, unless you’re a professional athlete or bodybuilder. If you’re just like the rest of us, you want to be fit and look good in the least amount of time needed, which probably explains the popularity of late-night infomercials about the latest machine that will give you several workouts in one.
But no major purchase is required for a decades-old workout methodology that gives you a cardio and strength workout combined. I’m talking about circuit training, and how a simple series of exercise combinations can burn fat, tone muscle, and give you the health and strength you need.
Now that I’m in my offseason, I’m not actively training swim, bike, and run, but still need to stay fit. I also use this time to strengthen and move my body in ways it hasn’t been so that when it’s time to return to training, I am better able to take things on.
A circuit is a cluster of different exercises performed quickly over a short period of time with little rest between each. The exercises are designed to work different muscle groups at a time, so while one muscle group is working, the previous one is resting. This enables you to work out faster, with less idle recovery time needed. Doing short bursts of cardiovascular activity like rope-skipping or squat jumps between each exercise elevates the heart rate and gives the cardiovascular system the workout it needs, although doing each exercise at a moderately fast pace also keeps the heart rate elevated.
Usually there are 8 to 12 exercises per circuit, and each circuit is done 1 to 3 times with 2 to 3 minutes rest between circuits. Each exercise is executed as many times as possible during a time limit of 30 to 90 seconds. A break of 30 to 90 seconds is taken between exercises. A circuit workout can be made more challenging by performing reps faster with less rest time and a greater amount of resistance.
Here’s a sample circuit designed to work out your entire body. Have all the equipment needed at arm’s reach so you don’t lose time setting up for the next exercise. You will need a mat, a skipping rope, and a step bench.
- Skip rope. Stay light on your toes, trying to increase the speed of your skips. (If this takes too much coordination you can just bounce on your toes without using a skipping rope.)
- Push-ups. On your toes or on your knees, support your upper body over the floor with your arms. Bend elbows and release chest down, then push your body up to complete one rep.
- Squat jump. With feet slightly wider than hips, toes and knees pointing outward, inhale and bend knees. Exhale, quickly straighten legs, and leap into the air, reaching your arms up. As you land, bend knees, sink into your legs, and drop your arms down to your sides.
- Double crunch. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet planted, fingertips touching the sides of your head and elbows bent pointing outward. Pull chest and hips closer together, lifting shoulders and feet off the floor.
- Jumping jacks. Jump feet out wide, reaching arms overhead. Jump feet in and release arms out sideways so your body forms the letter T.
- Tricep dips. Sit with the step bench behind you and place the heel of your palms on the bench. (Your knuckles should be pointing forward.) Push your body up, straightening your arms. Slowly lower your body toward the floor as you bend elbows backward.
- Plyo lunges. Stand with feet hip-distance apart, then step one foot forward and bend your knees. Explode off the floor and switch legs so the back foot is now in front. As you land, bend knees, then lift off again, switching sides.
- Plank with pointer. Come to push-up position. Pull your navel in tightly to protect the lower back and keep it from sagging. Lift one leg up, then lift your opposite arm. If this is too much, drop to your knees and try again. Hold for half the duration of the exercise, then switch to the other side.
I also frequently use the Nike+ Training Club app to take the guesswork out of designing my own circuits. They have hundreds of workouts for general fitness, core development, and specific athletic goals. Each exercise has video to help you understand exactly how to move so you can execute with perfect technique. The NTC app also works with your preferred music player (yay I can use my Spotify power playlist!). All you need to do is get your equipment together, push play, and go.
Those who prefer to be guided in their circuit workouts need to get themselves to a 360 Fitness Club branch, where the certified strength and conditioning specialists design fresh workouts and guide you through them safely. Book your free trial now.
If you’re only just beginning to experience circuit training, take more time to rest between exercises and shorten the time limit per exercise. Gradually you will be able to build up your strength and endurance. Remember to warm up before your workout, and cool down after. For warm-up I usually do a ten-minute easy jog, while for cool-down I stretch.
(Check out my Stretches for Runners video for some ideas.)
An earlier version of this article appeared in Total Fitness Magazine May 2010.