The Ultimate Guide to Strength Circuits™

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strength-circuits

In the last several years, our BuiltLean team has created and refined a workout method, which we call strength circuits™ to burn fat without losing muscle while spending much less time working out. Given that our clients are busy professionals in NYC and are discerning, we need to get them results, and get them results fast. At the same time, we wanted to create an exercise method that is sustainable for the long haul.

In this guide, I’m going to teach you about our strength circuits™ method, which we use every day in our NYC training practice and in our BuiltLean Program, which is used by thousands of customers in over 75 countries.

What Are Strength Circuits™?

We define strength circuits™ as circuits of two, or more, strength training exercises where the targeted number repetitions are challenging to complete (typically between 65-75% of one rep max, or 10-15 reps).

A strength circuit may look like this:

  1. Goblet Squat
  2. Forward Lunge
  3. Bird Dog

There are a handful of parameters we use to create strength circuits™:

Rest – We recommend 30 seconds, or less, of rest in between each exercise in a circuit. After one round of a circuit is complete, we recommend 1 minute, or less, of rest before doing the circuit again. For beginners and those over 50 years old, we strongly recommend wearing a heart rate monitor. The better cardiovascular shape you are in, typically the less rest you will need between exercises and circuits.

# of Reps – The number of reps varies based on the exercise and fitness goal, but most strength circuits we use are in the 10-15 rep range. We also use a unit of time (such as 30 seconds) as a proxy for rep range, which we use more commonly in our group training workouts.

# of Rounds – We recommend completing each strength circuit for 3-5 rounds.

# of Exercises – We typically use between 2 and 5 exercises in each circuit.

Types of Exercises – we choose exercises based on movement patterns.

Tempo – Each repetition is completed with a 1-2 seconds on the negative phase, and forcefully pushing, or pulling on the positive phase, which takes 1 second, or less.

How To Structure A Strength Circuit

strength-circuits-1

The most difficult part of creating effective strength circuits is choosing effective exercises. If you randomly choose exercises and put them in a circuit, it may be ineffective, the circuit may be exceedingly difficult to complete, or worse, you may injure yourself.

As I discussed in more depth in an article about movement patterns, it’s better to think of exercises in terms of movement patterns vs. muscle groups. Of course, you can consider both, but a well rounded exercise program always includes the different types of basic movement patterns (1) squat, (2) lunge, (3) push, (4) pull, and (5) twist, (6) bend, and (7) gait.

1) Use More Reps When Combining Upper & Lower Body Exercises

Combining upper and lower body exercises in the same circuit can be very challenging, especially if you’re using low reps and heavy weight. For example, heavy squats followed immediately by heavy bench press may wipe you out after one set. If you do combine upper body and lower body, relatively higher reps are ideal to make the workout less metabolically challenging and allow you to breathe better as you lift. You should also have a good cardio base before really pushing it.

Strength Circuit Example:

  • Walking Lunges
  • DB Shoulder Press
  • Planks

2) Complete Combination Exercises at the End of the Circuit

Combination exercises, which combine upper & lower body movements like a kettlebell swing require more coordination, balance, and overall effort. Adding relatively easier exercises like core (abs/lower back), or single joint exercises to a strength circuit with a combination exercise can work well. Also consider doing the combination exercise last in the circuit, so you have a more time to rest in between rounds.

Strength Circuit Example:

  • Trap Bar Deadlift (or Kettlebell)
  • Incline Dumbbell Bench
  • Kettlebell Swings

3) Alternate Push & Pull Exercises

If you complete a dumbbell chest press and then immediately try to do shoulder press, you may not have enough energy and strength to press even 5lb over your head. That’s why it’s ideal to alternate between push and pull exercises, and more generally, between the different movement patterns. For example, doing DB incline chest press combined with pull ups makes a lot more sense. As one muscle group is working, the other is resting.

Strength Circuit Example:

  • DB Bench Press
  • Pull Ups

4) Give Your Forearms a Break

If you go from pull ups, to hang cleans, to dumbbell rows, you may not be able to do a second round because your forearms will be shot. If you do a second round, your ability to complete the exercises may be severely limited by your forearm strength. As you create circuits, be mindful of your grip.

Bad Example of a Strength Circuit:

  • Pull Ups
  • Hang Cleans
  • Dumbbell Rows

5) Be Mindful of Strength & Equipment As You Add More Exercises

The exercises that give you the best results are going to be the basic, multi-joint exercises like squats, or lunges, that challenge you. The difficulty is the more exercises you add to a circuit, the more you can comprise your strength levels. That’s one reason why I personally love circuits of only 2-3 exercises when maximizing strength while still making the workout efficient.

With that said, you can still get excellent strength and cardio benefits by going up to 5 exercises, it’s just that your strength levels may not be as high as doing just 2 exercises. Finally, you will need to take into consideration the equipment you have access to and the practicality of doing several different exercises if you workout at a gym.

Strength Circuit Example:

  • TRX Push Ups
  • TRX Body Rows
  • Standing Shoulder Press
  • Bulgarian Split Squat
  • Jump Squats

While these tips are just scratching the surface, I hope they are a good starting point for you to start creating your own effect strength circuits.

Strength Circuits™ FAQ

What’s the difference between strength circuits™ and circuit training?

Circuit training is defined in Wikipedia as “a form of body conditioning or resistance training using high-intensity aerobics.”1. The last word “aerobics” is the crux of the difference. Circuit training was first conceived by R.E. Morgan and G.T. Anderson in 1953 at the University of Leeds in England whereby circuits of 8 to 10 exercises typically on machines were completed at 40-60% one rep max (around 15-25 reps).

Circuit training has since morphed into an aerobic workout with little strength training benefit. Picking up 10lb dumbbells and throwing them around for an hour while going from exercise, to exercise, to exercise can be considered circuit training. With strength circuits, we are choosing strength training exercises that are completed near maximal effort (65%-75% of one rep max), as opposed to very sub-maximal effort (30% of one rep max) typical of circuit training classes. Strength circuits can be considered a more focused, strength-based form of circuit training.

Why are strength circuits™ so effective?

There are several reasons strength circuits are so effective at helping you burn fat and build muscle including (1) you get strength benefits, (2) you get cardio benefits, (3) it takes much less time than a normal strength workout, (4) you burn more calories for the amount of work you do because it’s higher intensity, and (5) focusing on the entire body in one workout maximizes calorie burn and movement function.2 3 4 5

Can I add more than 5 exercises in a strength circuit?

You certainly can – we’ve even created circuits of as many as 10 exercises with our training clients, but the limiting factor is typically space and equipment. If you have access to a studio with a variety of equipment, creating larger circuits can work. If we do choose 10 exercises, we would only complete the circuit 2x. But 80% of the time, our strength circuits are 2-3 exercises, and about 20% of the time 4 or more. This also depends on the type of workout format: group training vs personal training vs. prescribing a workout for you to do at the gym, or at home.

How many strength circuits™ should be in each workout?

We use 1-3 rounds of strength circuits™ in each workout, with 1 in around 50% of all workouts we design, 2 in around 30% of workouts, and 3 in about 20%. It doesn’t take many strength circuits™ if they are properly constructed to yield impressive results and give you a great workout. In addition, the number of strength circuits™ depends on the number of rounds you complete for each circuit. So doing 5 rounds of 1 circuit can be plenty for one workout.

Can strength circuits™ be used by both men and women?

Absolutely! Men and women can both benefit from this type of training method. After many years of trial and error, we believe strength circuits™ are among the best ways to lose fat without losing muscle, and even build muscle as well. For a more basic guide, check out our free “Get Lean Guide“.

References

  1. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Circuit training. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circuit_training. Accessed April 15, 2013
  2. Kraviz, Len (1996-00-00). “New Insights into Circuit Training“. University of New Mexico. Retrieved 2006-11-16.
  3. Kravitz, L. (1996). “The fitness professional’s complete guide to circuits and intervals“. IDEA Today, 14(1), 32–43.
  4. Heinrich KM, Spencer V, Fehl N, Poston WS. Mission essential fitness: comparison of functional circuit training to traditional Army physical training for active duty military. Mil Med. 2012;177(10):1125-30.
  5. Giné-garriga M, Guerra M, Pagès E, Manini TM, Jiménez R, Unnithan VB. The effect of functional circuit training on physical frailty in frail older adults: a randomized controlled trial. J Aging Phys Act. 2010;18(4):401-24.
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35 Comments on “The Ultimate Guide to Strength Circuits™

  1. Marco
    April 22, 2013 #

    I was wondering, if I want to design pull workout, how should I choose exercises?
    I thought to put 3 pull-up variations, and stuff like that, but in the article says that, this isn’t good.
    Thank’s!
    Cheers!

    1. April 22, 2013 #

      @Marco – If you do a workout that emphasizes pulling, you can choose 2 pulling exercises and complete them in 2 different circuits, or choose a vertical pull and a horizontal pull and complete them in the same circuit, but it will be more difficult. Hope that’s helpful! The cool thing about creating strength circuits is that you can experiment and see what works for you. They are very dynamic and also a very efficient way to train.

  2. Steve Brown
    April 22, 2013 #

    One of your best articles Marc! Pretty much sums up my approach in the gym (which has been heavily influenced by this site) while adding some additional tips & tricks. I’d never even considered 2 circuits in the same session!

    Only thing that didn’t make sense is #2. I’ve been starting my circuits with the Combination exercises because I feet that they require the best form and most strength to do without hurting myself. I’ve noticed I’m sucking wind throughout the entire circuit this way, but I just figured that means I’m doing it right haha.

    For reference I was doing 5-6 exercises for 3 rounds. Excited to try fewer exercises with more rounds

    1. April 22, 2013 #

      @Steve – Thanks Steve. We’ve wrestled how to name our exercise method for years, and we are happy to synthesize everything into the strength circuits concept. I think the combo exercise is really a preference and it depends on the circuit. For example, I would probably do DB clean and press first, then do other exercises, but I would not do kettlebell swings first because I think I would be too winded after to complete the rest of the circuits. So it’s something you should experiment with, that’s the fun part. Thanks for participating and keep us posted!

  3. David
    April 23, 2013 #

    I know that you created these workouts to lose fat without losing muscle,but could this style of training be used to build muscle?Personally I have learned a lot from BuiltLean and that’s why i am proud now for my lean physique.I want to gain a few pounds of muscle without gaining fat and i am trying to figure out what workouts would work best.Could you give some suggestions?Of course I know that nutrition plays a big role.So my question is what workouts would you choose for your clients if they wanted to build muscle?I would like to thank you and excuse me for the lengthy comment. P.S. I know that i am not your client.

    1. April 23, 2013 #

      @David – That’s a great question and absolutely you can! I personally use strength circuits for muscle building. Beginners can still build muscle with basic strength circuits workouts and many people who have completed our 8-week fitness program have lost fat and built muscle to reshape their bodies.

      There are different schools of thought when it comes to exercise programs for building muscle. My philosophy is to stimulate a muscle sufficiently with enough volume (exercise x weight x reps), while adding progressively more weight over time. Of course, you need to add a calorie surplus.

      For a given muscle group like back, I would consider doing two pulling motions in one workout, vertical and horizontal. So a given muscle group you hit for 5+ sets. I would also consider hitting your legs harder by doing circuits of only leg exercises, which can really help you build muscle in your legs. I think training legs hard is absolutely key for building muscle on your whole body.

      Here’s an example of one I do:

      1) Squat
      2) Reverse Lunges
      3) DB stiff Legged Deadlift (single leg, or double leg, be careful with your lower back)

      If you do this for a few rounds and add the weight over time and eat more protein/calories, your body will definitely get more muscular!

  4. Tracey
    April 24, 2013 #

    Are you on Pinterest? Would love to Pin this article!

    1. April 24, 2013 #

      Yes! Here’s the link => BuiltLean on Pinterest. We literally just started adding boards to Pinterest. We hope to develop it and use it every day. Thanks for asking and we would love for you to pin it.

  5. James
    April 25, 2013 #

    I just discovered the BuiltLean website and am really learning a ton about all aspects of fitness. Am wondering if what I am currently doing falls under stength circuits or is it better characterized as Interval Training? A friend of mine introduced me to a workout he refers to as the Century. There are 5 categories of exercises; an Olympic lift, chest, legs, back shoulders. You determine the exercise and weight for each exercise but you cant go over 15 for each set. You pick a goal (100,200,300) and try to achieve that number (sets are determined by exercise and weights) with little to no rest between exercises and 1:00 min or so between circuits. It is a very challenging workout but the weights I use are relatively low so I am wondering if i will be able to build muscle with this workout?

    1. April 26, 2013 #

      @James – Happy to hear you are learning a lot by searching around the site. Whether or not you will be able to build muscle likely depends on your ability to make the workouts progressively harder and more challenging, while over time adding more volume. It is possible to even build muscle with bodyweight exercises. It may sound confusing, but you don’t necessarily have to lift heavy weight to build muscle, but it can be helpful. The name of the game is progression and eating a calorie surplus and ample protein. I’m a HUGE fan of lifting legs and focusing on them to help build muscle on your whole body. And your exercise routine does sound like it’s a strength circuit type of workout.

  6. Corey
    April 25, 2013 #

    When creating strength circuits is it best to start off by creating a strength circuit based on exercises from one specific movement pattern or should I be combining different movement patterns into one strength circuit that covers a full body workout?

    1. April 26, 2013 #

      Hi Corey, generally yes. You can choose different exercises and movement patterns which work different muscle groups. An example would be

      Lunge
      Incline Press
      Plank

      Which combines upper and lower body movement. You could try doing two pulling exercises (one vertical, one horizontal) in a circuit, but you will have to choose slightly lighter weight and it’s definitely more advanced to choose two similar movement patterns or exercises that work the same, or similar muscle groups and do them back to back.

      An example, which I literally did yesterday would be:

      Vertical Pull – Lat pull down / pull ups
      Horizontal Pull – DB row

      -Marc

  7. April 26, 2013 #

    Hi, im finding your articles of real interest, I am obsessed with kettlebells, and for a short time was a member of the girevoy sports team, but due to a previous hip injury I found that practising just two lifts for up to 2 hours was too much on my hip, I now own a good collection of cast iron kettlebells which I use 4 days a week for 30 mins per session, doing snatches, cleans, 2 hand and 1hand swings, and also double snatches, presses etc, I used to swim x5 weekly, 2000metres per set, but became bored, I’ve been told that overdoing kettlebell swings can be bad for you, is this true? Also how often should I train and for how long? I was doing 47 mins HIIT 4 times a week, but have reduced it to 30 mins non stop, using weights 2x6kilo, 8,10,12 and 14 kilo bells
    My aim is weight loss and definition, your advice would be really appreciated, cheers Rosemary

    1. April 26, 2013 #

      @Rosemary – I think 3 solid weight training workouts per week for 30 minutes is sufficient to help you get leaner and stronger. Of course, as I’ve said 100 times, losing fat is primarily a nutritional challenge, so the kettlebell training will help, but it’s the eating that’s key. It’s hard to answer your question about what amount of exercise is too much, or too little because it depends on a lot of factors. Ultimately, you must listen to your body. Also, keep in mind sleep will help your body recover. So if you are feeding your body with nutrients, staying hydrated, and getting enough sleep, your body should be able to handle some very challenging workouts. Good luck!

      1. April 26, 2013 #

        Hi Mark,many thanks for your reply, yes I am watching my diet, eliminating processed foods and too much sugar etc, I don’t eat red meat, but use protein powder with my cereal, and mainly eat fresh vegetables, eggs, beans etc.
        I’d ideally like to train for more than 3 x 30 mins weekly, which would you suggest would be better, 4 x 30 per week, or 3 x 50? I also do sets of 16kg kettlebell suitcase deadlifts at the end of each set to give my glutes a blasting, good or bad?
        Cheers Rosemary

      2. April 26, 2013 #

        @Rosemary – Ideally, for the most part, the more exercise the better. I do think short and intense can extremely effective, but if you have the extra time, fitting in some extra stretching, conditioning, etc. should only be helpful to your body. The key in my mind is to find a routine that you can stick to for the long haul. Whether that’s 3 x 30, or 3 x 50, that’s really your call. Curtailing sugar intake and eliminating processed foods is a very smart idea. In terms of the glute blasting, it depends on how many sets. But 5 sets or less should be fine. Keep up the good work!

  8. Nick
    April 26, 2013 #

    I love doing circuits but find I am often limited to machines. I need to improve my push-ups am sit-ups for the military reasons. Any suggestion on a circuit or separate circuits for each? I do have dip and pull up bars, trx ropes, and kettle balls to use also. Thank you

    1. April 26, 2013 #

      @Nick – Alternating between push ups and pullups is an awesome circuit. So you can do something like this:

      A1) Wide grip pull ups
      A2) Wide grip push ups
      B1) Chin up
      B2) medium grip push ups
      C1) Cliff Hangers
      C2) Close grip push ups

      For variations of push up and pull up exercises, check out these two posts:

      1) 10 Push Up Variations
      2) 10 Pull Up Variations
      3) Push Up / Abs circuits

      1. Nick
        April 26, 2013 #

        Thank you very much!!!

  9. Susan
    April 27, 2013 #

    This is great. Your articles are right on the money and are so informational. I appreciate you sharing these important, and helpful points. You rock!

    1. April 27, 2013 #

      Thanks Susan! Really appreciate the kind words. Takes me a a lot of time to write these articles. Super happy you are enjoying them.

  10. April 27, 2013 #

    Cheers Mark, I reckon I’m gonna alternative between 3 x50 one week, 4 x30 2nd week, and so on, I do a lot of walking too ( I have two massive poodles )
    Cheers Mark, you are the best !

  11. YS
    April 27, 2013 #

    Hi mark,
    i’m actually doing something similar at my exercise. (alternating between 2 exercises without rest and then rest 1-2 minutes until the next pair)

    is it a circuit?

    3×5 pullups and 3×8 dips

    3×8 bench press and 3×10 DB row

    3×8 press and 3×8 squat

    thank you!

    1. April 28, 2013 #

      Definitely. I think doing circuits of 2 exercises can work very well. I would say most of the circuits I do are 2-3 exercises. If I want more conditioning, I’ll add on more exercises to each circuit.

      1. YS
        April 28, 2013 #

        thank you for your answer.

        is what i wrote above is sufficient for a full body workout or more exercises are needed?

  12. mohamad
    April 28, 2013 #

    hi marc

    thanx a lot for this site and your video on youtube and for the tips and advise, the barbell complex and dumbbell complex i like the most, i live in Iraq it is so difficult for me to go to the gym, and i like to exercise in the house , thats why i appreciate your video and your advise too much, i have question i would be happy if u could answer it , i know from ur articles, to do circuit training three days in week is for better result , my question is can i change the routine sometimes or stick to one repeat it all the time ? .second question i dont work out on my abs in these days i do the circuit can i do it between ?
    last one :) if i feel progressive and im fit and want to make my train harder , what ur advise add more time or harder exercise ?

    thank u very much again and excuse me im not very good in English
    my workout
    jumping rope 20 sec x 2 rest between 10 sec
    squat with shoulder press
    lunge
    push up

    1. April 30, 2013 #

      I unfortunately can’t offer my opinion on your workout routine because I’ve never really done a fitness assessment with you and it opens up a can of worms, but to answer your question in general terms, I think yes, yes, and yes as answers to your questions. Good luck!

      1. mohamad
        April 30, 2013 #

        thanx marc for your answer i really appreciate

  13. Guilherme Queiroz
    April 29, 2013 #

    Marc,

    Do you think CROSSFIT WODs can be considered strength circuits?

    1. April 30, 2013 #

      @Guilherme – Thanks for the question. I think some of the WOD’s can be considered strength circuits, but our method is quite different. Our strength circuits method is more controlled and I think less risky. So crossfit is a very extreme type of fitness routine that requires difficult exercises including olympic lifts, which are among the toughest to learn. None of our workouts require olympic lifts, but they are sometimes recommended for more advanced trainees. Our goal is to try to help people get as lean, strong, and fit as possible with a few short workouts per week while decreasing risk of injury.

  14. Mike
    May 4, 2013 #

    Mark, good article. Just wondering if you could opine on this strength circuit I’ve been using for a couple of weeks. DB Pushup Rows; Thrusters; Pull-ups; Side Lats; DB Curls. I am using as heavy weights as I can manage for 12 reps each (pull-ups are body weight vest). I run the circuit 3x, with 30-45 secs between exercises, and 90 secs between circuits. I add weight to the exercises once I hit the 12 reps on that exercise for each of the 3 circuits. The entire 3 circuits takes me about 17 min to complete. I am assuming that this circuit, done 3 days a week, will begin to transform my body? I am currently at 16% bodyfat and am aiming to get to around 12%. I currently weight 165. On non-circuit days, I am doing sprint interval work. Thoughts if I am on the right track to meeting my goal? Strength circuits seem to be an effective way to get there.

    1. May 8, 2013 #

      @Mike – It sounds like you are definitely on the right track. Strength circuits combined with interval training is debatably the most efficient and effective way to get lean. With that said, the workouts will only help you burn fat so much, the key is controlling calorie intake and creating a calorie deficit. The truth is you can get lean using many different types of workout, but the nutrition is the main differentiator. For more info, check out How Many Calories Should I Eat to Lose Weight.

      And regarding your circuit, the one thing I would reconsider is the biceps curls. Those are going to effect the strength of your back exercises. I would consider separating them out into a separate arms circuit, where maybe you choose 2 arms exercises (db curls and lying french press).

  15. Brandon
    May 8, 2013 #

    Just a quick question. So if you did a Strength Circuit 3X a week each day would be an entirely different circuit correct? For example a Monday Circuit and Wednesday Circuit and a Friday Circuit.

    1. May 8, 2013 #

      Brandon – not necessarily. I would recommend at least 2 per week. So you can do a Workout A and Workout B and alternate between them (which I do sometimes), or do Workout A, Workout B, Workout C. It really depends on how much variety you want and how many workouts you are willing to create. With 3 workouts, it’s usually a bit easier to complete all movement patterns in a given week. Regarding Workout A & B type of routine, you can choose a lower body emphasis day and an upper body emphasis, or even emphasize certain movement patterns over others.

  16. James
    May 10, 2013 #

    I have been doing strength circuits for a few weeks and am happy with the results. I find the key is the rest period. If you keep it at one minute or less fatigue really sets in. Do you ever do one exercise in a circuit a little heavier (80% or so for 1 max rep) for fewer reps and the other a bit lighter if you wanted to focus on a certain body part? Also, do you reccomend waiting a certain amount of time before having body fat tested. I started at 18% and am down to 14% or so. I would like to get to 10% by the end of June. Is this a reasonable goal? Keep up the great work. Love the site.

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