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Categories: Strength Training

The Ultimate Guide to Strength Circuits™

By Marc Perry / November 27, 2017

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

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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.2345

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“.

Show 5 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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39 Comments

  • Rosemary says:

    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 !

  • YS says:

    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?

    3x5 pullups and 3x8 dips

    3x8 bench press and 3x10 DB row

    3x8 press and 3x8 squat

    thank you!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      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.

      • YS says:

        thank you for your answer.

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

  • mohamad says:

    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

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      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!

      • mohamad says:

        thanx marc for your answer i really appreciate

  • Guilherme Queiroz says:

    Marc,

    Do you think CROSSFIT WODs can be considered strength circuits?

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @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.

  • Mike says:

    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.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @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).

  • Brandon says:

    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.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      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.

  • James says:

    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.

  • charles wahrmund says:

    I do strength circuits three days a week. 8 exercies, 10-12 reps for 3 sets. now that I'm doing heaviest weights, should I cut back to 2 times a week or fewer exercises?

  • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

    Hey Charles, thanks for the comment! We are about to update this article as we've developed a more specific workout structure that has been working very well. Here it is:

    Warm Up

    Strength Circuits (30 seconds on, 30 seconds off, rest 1-minute between rounds, approx 10-12 reps per exercise)
    Exercise 1
    Exercise 2
    Exercise 3
    Exercise 4
    Exercise 5

    Finisher
    Choose one last exercise to push hard for 3-minutes (3 sets of 50 reps jump rope).

    The volume for this workout is less than yours but it takes 30-minutes on the dot. I think doing this style of workout will be a bit more manageable 3x per week than what you were doing. I don't think volume is necessary if you have the intensity. My dad currently trains 2x per week and he really loves it, so I think the first step is to really think how many times do you want to train per week, then fit the workouts to that decision / schedule.

  • Darroq says:

    How often should I change circuit routines? If I workout 3x per week using circuits, can you give a sample that incorporates all movement patterns?

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Hey Darroq, I like changing them up a little bit once per month, but I also have fall back workouts I do all the time. Check out the PDF at the bottom of this page (you need to opt-in) for our latest thoughts and strength circuits workout structure. You can add in exercises and create nearly a limitless variety => https://www.builtlean.com/newsletter/

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