Yuri Elkaim, BPHE, CK, RHN

Nowadays, most people don’t have time for lengthy, grueling 2-hour workouts, be it with work and family demands or simply the search of free time. Well, what if there was a way to be in and out of the gym in less than 1 hour and still feel absolutely worked? What if you could combine your cardio and weights so that you wouldn’t have to spend hours on either? Well, I’m going to let you in on a little secret – it’s called Circuit Training – and it is the most effective and time efficient means of exercise for those looking to lose weight and tone.


Circuit Training involves completing several resistance exercises in a continual sequence. For instance, a circuit may be comprised of 8 exercises (push-ups, plank, lunges, etc…) with each one being performed for any length of time (30 sec, 45 sec, etc…) or number of repetitions. Between each exercise is a rest period of a certain length. Note that circuits that have lower rest periods will be more challenging and provide more aerobic benefit. An example of a typical circuit is 8 exercises each 30 seconds in length with 30 seconds to recover between each. This is only one example of 1000s of possible circuit combinations. There are many factors involved in determining the effectiveness of a given circuit including: number and types of exercises, load, tempo, duration of work bout, duration of rest bout. Basically, the more intense you make the circuit, the more challenging, yet effective, it becomes.


Studies have found that aerobic benefits related to circuit training are mainly determined by the duration of the exercise (work bout) and by the amount and type of rest given between exercises. For instance, a meta-analysis done on circuits showed that a 10-exercise circuit (using weights) using a 30 seconds for both work and recovery, performed 3 times per week over 8-12 weeks improved VO2max (measure of aerobic capacity) by 5%. Compare that to continuous running, cycling or rowing at around 75% of max heart rate for 20-30 minutes, three times a week for 8-12 weeks which boosts V02max by around 20%. Obviously, this 30s work: 30s rest protocol is not optimal for yielding staggering aerobic improvements. However, other studies have shown that by shortening the rest period to 15 seconds or jogging during a 30 second recovery bout improved VO2max by 12% and 18%, respectively.

Further, some research has even shown that Circuit Training can be just as effective at maintaining previous aerobic gains as following a strictly aerobic conditioning regime.

Incorporating more compound movements (several different muscle groups involved) into your circuits will make it more challenging for both your muscles and aerobic system. This is because as you use more muscle mass, more oxygen is required to supply the working muscles. As a result, you begin breather heavier and your heart rate increases to provide the muscles with the oxygen they need. This technique makes circuits much more challenging and effective. As an example, perform lunge walks with a shoulder press, instead of either one separately.

Here is an example of a 7.5-minute aerobic based circuit:

1. Lunge Walks with Biceps Curls- 30 sec

2. Jogging on spot – 1 min

3. Stability Ball Chest Press – 30 sec

4. Jogging on spot – 1 min

5. Plank – 30 sec

6. Jogging on spot – 1 min

7. Back Rows – 30 sec

8. Jogging on spot – 1 min

9. Squat Presses – 30 sec

10. Jogging on spot – 1 min


Circuit Training has been shown to decrease body fat by 3%. Research also shows that lean body mass is either maintained or increased alongside the decrease in body fat. This is a major benefit for those who want to get in better shape, lose weight, and tone. With traditional aerobic training, a decrease in relative fat mass leads to a decrease in total weight with little change in lean body mass. The resistance work involved in the circuits encourages muscle-mass development, and thus any fat loss is replaced equally by muscle gain. This makes it easier to maintain the lower body fat or reduce body fat even further because the increase in lean body mass pushes up basal metabolic rate and overall calorie expenditure.

It has also been estimated that calorie expenditure during a bout of circuit training is approximately 5 – 6 kcal per minute for women and 8 – 9 kcal per minute for men (this may vary depending on body weight). Thus, if a man were to perform 30 of circuit training he would burn upwards of 180 calories.


Because of the duration of each exercise many people claim that strength may be compromised as a result of working at a lower percent of 1RM (maximum weight you can lift once). This is definitely true in most cases and thus, I would not recommend circuit training for those looking to improve strength. However, some studies have shown that circuit training increases muscular strength anywhere from 7% to 32%.1 Achieving such strength gains requires working at a much higher percent of 1RM (>80%) and thus the duration of the work bouts would need to be much lower (<20 sec) in view of sustaining the heavier load.

Circuit Training is also beneficial for the development of the anaerobic system. Anaerobic conditioning occurs when exercising at a higher intensity for upwards of 20 seconds. This is the zone when you begin to feel the burn in the muscles as a result of lactic acid production. As such, your body’s ability to tolerate and buffer elevated lactate levels will be improved, allowing you to sustain higher intensities for a longer period of time.


Circuit Training is an excellent means of training the body if you are looking to lose body fat and maintain lean body mass. Depending on the protocol followed you will experience any number of the aforementioned benefits. Overall, it is great if you are short on time and are looking for a short workout that will leave you feeling great and more energetic.


Gettman, L. R., & Pollock, M. L. (1981). Circuit weight training: A critical review of its physiological benefits. The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 9, 44-60.

Mosher et al. (1994). Effects of 12 weeks of aerobic circuit training on aerobic capacity, muscular strength, and body composition in college-aged women. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 8 (3), 144-148.

About the Author

Yuri Elkaim is a world-renowned fitness, nutrition, and weight loss expert. He is the creator Fitter U and Treadmill Trainer, author of Eating for Energy, and the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for men’s soccer program at the University of Toronto. His trademarked 12-week Fitter U iPod workout program has been helping thousands of people around the world get in shape and lose weight fast without the cost and inconvenience of hiring a trainer. Go to www.myFitterU.com now to get your FREE Fitter U workout and “How to Get Fit and Lose Weight Fast” report!

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