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Categories: Strength Training

BuiltLean® Strength Circuits Workout Method – Ultimate Guide

By Marc Perry / August 2, 2018

Have you ever wondered how to get better results in less time?

When most guys think of exercise, they think of long and boring workouts. They think of spending hours in the gym lifting weights and doing tons of cardio.

The truth – which has been verified by research – is that the shorter and more intense workouts actually can help you get better results.

Over the last 15 years, I’ve refined a workout method that I call BuiltLean® strength circuits.

If you want to get a lean, healthy, and athletic body without the bulk, this method can be a total game changer.

OLD Approach To Get Lean = Bodybuilding + Cardio

When I first started my finance career, I gained 30+ pounds of fat. I went from a lean 170 pound college athlete to a soft 200 pound office creature in only few months.

When I saw 200 pounds on the scale, I knew I had to make a change.

I decided to follow a bodybuilding approach of targeting 1-2 muscle groups each workout 3-4x a week and do long and boring cardio sessions 3x a week.

What happened?

I was tired and sore all the time, super stiff, my low back hurt, and my workouts took forever. I also had trouble keeping up with my demanding job.

Even worse, I got almost no results! I had to figure out another way.

I applied my research skills I honed as a finance analyst to learn more about how I can get a leaner body in less time.

I discovered that there is a MUCH smarter and more efficient way to get the lean, strong, athletic body I want without spending hours in the gym.

NEW Approach To Get Lean = BuiltLean® Strength Circuits

After a lot of experimentation and research, I asked myself an empowering question that changed my life forever.

“How can I create a workout that helps me get much better results in less time?”

Well first, I would combine the best strength training exercises into a circuit.

So instead of doing bench press while resting 2-3 minutes in between each set, I could create a timed circuit of exercises and rest just 30-seconds between each.

I would make sure these exercises trained my entire body – as in all my muscle groups – in every workout instead of just 1-2 muscle groups.

I would burn a lot more calories and fat, right?

I would also improve my strength even faster because I’m hitting all muscle groups 3x a week instead of just once. I wouldn’t be sore all the time and I would feel limber and more athletic.

I would get cardiovascular benefits because I’m going from exercise to exercise quickly.

I did strength circuits just 3x a week for 30-minutes each workout, which combined with smarter eating and lifestyle habits dramatically transform my body.

Fast forward 10 years, and I’ve refined and improved this strength circuits method so I now have it down to a science.

Strength Circuits vs. Bodybuilding vs. Cardio Only

Here’s a quick visual of the difference between the BuiltLean strength circuits method, bodybuilding, and a cardio only approach.

Strength Circuits Workout Structure

The typical BuiltLean strength circuits workout starts with a warm up, then you do a strength circuit of 5 exercises 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off for 3 rounds resting 1-minute in between each round, then ends you complete an interval style “finisher” where you push yourself as hard as you can for just a few minutes, then a cool down with stretching.

This entire workout takes just 30-minutes. Here’s a quick visual representation of the workout structure:

Strength Circuits Workout Example

You may be wondering, “How do I create a strength circuits workout? Do you have any examples?”

Here’s a quick snapshot of how a strength circuits workout looks like. Keep in mind this workout must be timed, which is a critical reason why it’s so effective:

The key when creating a strength circuit workout is thinking in terms of movement patterns, not muscle groups. Most people in the gym target muscle groups and create strange muscle imbalances. We all have seen the guy with the huge upper body and skinny legs.

A strength circuit should challenge your entire body to maximize your time.

Strength Circuits FAQ

What are strength circuits?
Timed circuits of two or more strength training exercises where the targeted number repetitions are challenging to complete. 1

At BuiltLean, we’ve created a strength circuits workout structure we’ve refined over 10 years. We recommend choosing 5 exercises and completing them as a circuit for 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off for 3 rounds resting 1-minute in between each round. Simple, effective, and it gets results. We used to use complicated structures, but we round simple is best.

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) you are not sore all the time, (6) you develop a more balanced, athletic body. 2345

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.”6 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 one exercise to the next 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.

Show 6 References

  1. Typically between 65-75% of one rep max, or 10-15 reps.
  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.
  6. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Circuit training. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circuit_training. Accessed April 15, 2013

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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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