How Effective Is Circuit Training Vs. Lifting Weights?

A circuit-training routine can be an effective and time-efficient way to fit in cardio and weight training, but it's not for everyone. Circuit training usually involves a set of nine to 12 exercises that you move through consecutively, leaving little to no rest between them. Circuits can comprise strength-training exercises, cardio exercises or a mixture of the two. While circuit training is better at keeping your heart rate elevated and at burning calories when compared to traditional set-and-rest weightlifting, it isn't always a superior exercise program.

Traditional weightlifting enables you to use heavier weights than you might for circuit training. (Image: Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images)


Beginners who are just starting a strength-training routine may not find circuit training particularly effective. Because you are expected to move quickly between exercises, little time exists to learn proper form. As a result, you may use too light of weights or improper technique that fails to build muscle, or worse, leads to injury. If the circuit moves too quickly, you may tire easily and become frustrated. A beginner is better off taking time to learn basic exercises and executing them slowly in a traditional weight-training program.

Strength and Size

If your intention is to build strength and size, traditional weight training is the way to go. A traditional strength-building protocol calls for you to lift five to six repetitions of a weight equal to between 80 and 88 percent of your one-repetition maximum for three to six sets. Leave three to five minutes between each set so your muscles can recover enough that you don't have to decrease the amount of weight you heave for each set. If you are looking to build size, you need to lift heavy weights for three to six sets of eight to 12 repetitions. The rest time between sets is just 30 to 60 seconds, but this is generally more than offered in most circuit-training programs. Building size and sculpting shape usually requires you to target each muscle group with multiple exercises. In a circuit, you generally hit each muscle group just once or twice. Because you are doing eight or more repetitions of each exercise at each station, you can't lift as heavily as you would if you had longer rests.

General Fitness

Regularly participating in high-intensity circuit training can improve your cardiopulmonary health, asserts the American College of Sports Medicine, or ACSM. Moving from station to station keeps your heart rate elevated, especially if you incorporate cardiovascular activities such as a minute of treadmill running, jumping jacks or jumping rope, as part of the circuit. In 2008, the "Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness" published a study showing that circuit-training classes that combine cardio and weight exercises produced cardiovascular improvements for men and women and that circuit weight-training classes help improve the cardiovascular function in unfit women. While traditional weight-training programs can make you stronger and are important for bone density and muscular health, they do not generally contribute to improvements in your aerobic fitness levels.

Efficiency and Boredom

When you have limited time at the gym, circuit training may be more efficient than traditional weight training. You can fit in a greater number of exercises than you can when you rest between each set like you do during traditional weight training. If you include cardio moves in your circuit, you don't have to find time for a separate cardio session. Moving from station to station in a circuit alleviates some of the monotony of traditional set-and-rest weight training. Time flies by faster, which makes exercise more enjoyable.

Calorie Blasting

Circuit training may be a quicker ticket to weight loss. It burns 30 percent more calories than traditional weight-training protocols, writes "Fitness." Most circuits involve strength-training exercises, which makes the workout effective for burning fat too, especially if the circuit is of a vigorous intensity. If the circuit alternates high-intensity and lower-intensity bouts, it also counts as interval training, which may keep your metabolism elevated for up to 72 hours after you put down the weights, notes ACSM.

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