Life's activities compete for time, and when push comes to shove, a workout is often the first thing to slide. When time is limited or you want to offer something different, yet effective, to group fitness, circuit training might be the solution. Circuit training is defined as "a method of dynamic resistance training designed to increase strength, muscular endurance and cardiorespiratory endurance" (Heyward, 2002). All three of the main components of most workouts are all condensed into one quick, simple and time-efficient workout with a multitude of benefits, such as:

  • Balanced workout
  • Combines fitness components
  • Easy setup
  • Little to no equipment required
  • Opportunity for variety
  • Challenges all fitness levels, physically and mentally
  • Diversity, fun and change from the normal routine

Doesn't Circuit Training Only Address Muscular Endurance?
This misconception is often conveyed by clients, but research proves differently. In a 12-week study of men and women in the U.S. Air Force, circuit training was shown to significantly beat out traditional programs for individuals who previously failed to achieve passing points (Westcott, Annesi, Skaggs, Gibson, and Reynolds, 2007). Significantly more of the circuit-trained group (26%) passed the 1.5-mile run, abdominal circumference, one-minute push-up test and one-minute sit-up test, compared to the traditional group (19%). Other studies show similar results and confirm muscular strength can be increased.

Many circuit training programs produce relatively small strength gains as a result of using relatively low loads for a high number of reps. But if the loads are increased to a heavier resistance (6RM) while maintaining proper form, circuit training was shown to allow similar results as traditional strength training while attaining the added benefit of cardio training (Alcarez, Sanchez-Lorente and Blazevich, 2008).

Putting It All Together
Circuit training can be beneficial for a wide number of individuals, but to determine if circuit training is right for your group, first establish your goal and major purpose. If your goal involves some form of strength and cardiorespiratory function, then circuit training is the right track to follow. After creating an overall goal, narrow the goal down to what you are working on in the single workout session you are creating - upper body, lower body or full-body? The type of circuit should be determined (e.g. super, calisthenics, station, unison, floor/class, time, combination, aquatic, stretch, etc.).

In the timed circuit, a ratio of cardio to strength is recommended at either 2:1 or 3:1, such as 60 or 90 seconds of cardio followed by 30 seconds of strength exercise. Once you establish your time ratio, determine the workout length, minding goal and time restrictions. Based on the overall time, decide on the number of exercises in the circuit or number of times to go through the routine, but don't forget to allot time for a thorough warm-up, transition time, cool-down and stretch.

No Special Equipment Required 
Circuit training can be done with inexpensive, little or even no equipment; oftentimes, one's own body weight can provide enough resistance. Other usable apparatuses include a Bosu, stability ball, Body Bar and even dumbbells. Using a variety of equipment can help generate enthusiasm, positive energy, new interest and challenge to someone accustomed to a traditional workout.
An example of a few exercises for a full-body circuit with different apparatuses and progressions are listed in Table 1. (click here to view>>)
While circuit training can be beneficial to most individuals, some will not find circuit training beneficial, such as those on medications, those with high coronary risk factors, low strength levels, etc. Thus, medical screening is very important. Furthermore, exercises within a circuit should be related to the overall goal and skill or strength levels of the group with appropriate exercise order and progressions.
Michael Harper, M.Ed, is an associate director in the Division of Professional Education at the Cooper Institute ( in Dallas, where he provides instruction in health and wellness areas for fitness professionals. Contact Michael at