The Ultimate Guide to 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:
- Goblet Squat
- Forward Lunge
- 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
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
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“.
- Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Circuit training. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circuit_training. Accessed April 15, 2013 ↩
- Kraviz, Len (1996-00-00). “New Insights into Circuit Training“. University of New Mexico. Retrieved 2006-11-16. ↩
- Kravitz, L. (1996). “The fitness professional’s complete guide to circuits and intervals“. IDEA Today, 14(1), 32–43. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩