Circuit training benefits are just as real as the time-tested effects of lifting weights, but comparing the two types of exercise is far from cut and dry. The comparison, instead, calls for a look at how each type of exercise excels in a broad sense, and their particular perks on a more macro level.
Lifting weights might include anything from curls to squats — exercises with drastically different targets — while circuit training is so flexible that it may or may not even incorporate weights at all. This huge range of variance makes a direct comparison difficult, but you can be certain of at least one thing: Both types of exercise offer plenty of on-the-record benefits, which is likely why they've both stood the test of time as countless fitness fads come and go.
The comparison between weight lifting and circuit training isn't really a one-to-one battle; both are broad categories and each excels in different ways.
What Is Circuit Training?
Whether you practice a more aerobic-focused circuit routine or do circuit weight training, one crucial fact about circuit training is that it's extremely flexible. As Jacqueline Crockford, MS, CSCS, of the American Council on Exercise writes, "There are countless exercises that could be a part of a great circuit, and several different ways in which those exercises could be programmed."
At its core, circuit training is a type of high-intensity workout that challenges you to perform a variety of different individual exercises in rapid succession, with little or no rest in between them. Sets of each exercise last for as little as about 20 seconds to as long as about 5 minutes, with anywhere from 10 seconds to 5 minutes of rest between sets, roughly speaking.
While traditional workout routines often focus on one muscle group at a time — like a "leg day" packed full of squats, lunges and leg presses, for instance — circuit training is able to target a variety of different muscle groups in a single session. Depending on your circuit routine it can also mix exercises from different categories, such as strength training and cardiovascular training. Typically, the group of exercises in the circuit all work together toward your specific performance goals.
These perks make circuit training a time saver, giving this type of workout big points for efficiency. It's often used to lose weight, increase cardio health or boost your maximal oxygen uptake (a.k.a. your VO2 max), but that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to potential benefits.
"There are countless exercises that could be part of a great circuit." — Jacqueline Crockford, MS, CSCS, American Council on Exercise
Big-Picture Circuit Training Benefits
Keep in mind that circuit training benefits can vary more widely than the benefits of weight lifting, thanks to the huge variety of exercises that you might choose to include in your circuit. A circuit of Tabata training and all aerobic exercise caters to a different set of goals than one that incorporates weight lifting or resistance training machines, for example.
That said, some common benefits of circuit training — in the big picture, at least — include weight loss and improved muscle definition, according to the American Council on Exercise. As the American College of Sports Medicine's Health and Fitness Journal puts it, in a meta-analysis published in their May/June, 2013, issue, high-intensity circuit training, even with body weight alone, "can be a fast and efficient way to lose excess body weight and body fat." Or, as they say, "maximum results with minimal investment."
Speaking specifically of circuit training that incorporates both aerobic and resistance exercise, the journal notes both cardiovascular and metabolic benefits, the latter of which can persist for up to 72 hours after circuit training. In a 2013 study of 96 people, the Global Journal of Human Social Science, Arts, Humanities & Psychology concurs on the cardio front, reporting "significant improvement" in the cardiovascular endurance of those practicing a regular circuit training regimen. With resistance exercise incorporated as part of the circuit, the researchers reported gains in muscular strength, too.
Read More: Full-Body Circuit Workout for Women
General Benefits of Weight Lifting
Lifting weights (yes, even lifting light weights) offers a range of body benefits. At first glance, you'll notice a fair amount of overlap between the health benefits offered by weight lifting and those offered by circuit training. No one will be surprised to learn that strength training with weights, of course, increases your strength, especially in relation to the targeted muscles.
More than that, though, the Cleveland Clinic states that strength training also bolsters your overall endurance and energy levels, while improving your basal metabolic rate. Though this is not a cardio exercise, a higher BMR can help your body burn calories more efficiently. Lifting can also increase your lean body mass and enhance your muscle mass and definition.
While lifting weights can potentially help out with glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, it's also a particularly reliable way to boost your bone density — and that's a benefit that can hardly be overstated. With increased bone density comes a decreased instance of bone disorders and a lessened risk of bone fractures, especially in the elderly.
Compared: Circuit Training Victories
On a strictly logistical level, circuit training can maximize your exercise time, as shorter rest periods and shorter sets naturally make for a more-condensed workout. Given that a 2018 National Health Statistics Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that only 23 percent of Americans adults get enough exercise — and that the Heart Foundation lists lack of time as one of the top 10 excuses for not exercising — this is far from insignificant.
On a similar utilitarian note, many types of circuit training don't require the equipment investment of weight lifting. As Health and Fitness Journal's study explores, circuit training with body weight alone is still plenty effective, not to mention absolutely free. Even incorporating gear such as resistance bands or dumbbells, circuit training is often more accessible than investing in a full set of weights, in terms of both budget and space constraints. So time and convenience is clearly important, but what about the finer details in the battle of circuit training versus weight lifting?
According to that aforementioned [Health and Fitness Journal](https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/Fulltext/2013/05000/HIGH_INTENSITY_CIRCUIT_TRAINING_USING_BODY_WEIGHT.5.aspx)_ meta-analysis, there "may be a greater impact on subcutaneous fat loss" from circuit training as compared to traditional resistance training. The same can be said for circuit training versus sustained, steady-state aerobic workouts. These results, it's important to note, refer to high-intensity intermittent circuit-style resistance training.
This difference is likely due to an increased level of catecholamines, a type of adrenal hormone produced as a result of the high-intensity exercise paired with short rest periods. Subcutaneous fat, as a reminder, is the soft, jiggly fat found just below the skin — very often the target of weight loss-oriented exercise programs that aim to cut back on love handles and beer bellies.
Perhaps the clearest big-picture takeaway in circuit training's favor is its general focus on cardio. Despite the many variations present in circuit workouts, circuit training generally offers greater energy expenditure when compared to more slowly paced exercise, often making it the stronger choice when cardiovascular endurance or weight loss are the goals.
Compared: Wins for Weight Training
But what about circuit training disadvantages? In contrast to circuit training's common focus on cardio and weight loss (even when some forms of strength training or resistance are incorporated in the circuit), old-school, regular-paced, set-rest-set weight lifting keeps the focus squarely on building strength and growing muscle mass.
Don't forget the bones, either. While improvements in bone density are a key advantage of weight lifting, a small August 2014 study of 28 people published in The Sport Journal found that while 12 weeks of circuit training does indeed exert a positive effect on both body composition and bone status, the increases in bone density aren't very significant. Considering that this study focused on circuit resistance training, that's a pretty big check mark for classic weight lifting.
Circuit Training vs. HIIT
"Both exercise protocols do have positive impacts on body composition, muscular strength, and muscular endurance." — Matthew Monaco, Western Michigan University
As circuit training has seen a resurgence in recent years, you may find a more subtle comparison between it and another form of contemporary high-intensity exercise: high-intensity interval training (or HIIT). Research on this very specific comparison is scarce — perhaps due to some similarity in formats among HIIT and high-intensity circuit training, not to mention the fact that they're often used in tandem — but a few recent, though smaller, studies have shed some interesting light on the HIIT and circuit training's relationship.
Rather than pit the two against each other, some researchers offer insight on how applying a circuit format to HIIT can affect your results. A November 2017 study of 26 participants published in the International Journal of Exercise Science compares speed-based high-intensity training with circuit-based high-intensity impact training. The study finds no difference between speedier HIIT and circuit-based HIIT in regards to VO2 results post-exercise. However, caloric expenditure was found to be greater during the speedier HIIT training than during the circuit-based HIIT.
Smaller still, a thesis study of 5 exercisers and a meta-analysis of data from seven existing studies conducted by Western Michigan University's ScholarWorks program and published in April of 2018 pits high-intensity interval training against resistance-based circuit training, looking at various metrics along the way. The study concludes that HIIT seems to have a greater effect on reducing overall body fat percentage, while circuit training exhibits better results in improving muscular strength and endurance.
Notably, the WMU research makes this point clear: "Based on the data that has been gathered from this study thus far, the results support the fact that both exercise protocols do have positive impacts on body composition, muscular strength, and muscular endurance."
In exploring HIIT and circuit training, WMU arrives at the conclusion that both workouts are a net positive for physical fitness, just as both circuit training and weight lifting have their own unique sets of proven, on-the-record benefits. Which begs the question: Why not both?
- American Council on Exercise: "How to Create a Circuit Workout"
- American Council on Exercise: "The Benefits of Machine-based Circuit Training"
- ACSM's Health and Fitness Journal: "High-Intensity Circuit Training Using Body Weight: Maximum Results with Minimal Investment"
- Global Journal of Human Social Science, Arts, Humanities & Psychology: "The Effect of Circuit Training on Cardiovascular Endurance of High School Boys"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Strength Training: Exercise Program"
- The Sport Journal: "Effects of Circuit Resistance Training on Body Composition and Bone Status in Young Males"
- International Journal of Exercise Science: "Speed- and Circuit-Based High-Intensity Interval Training on Recovery Oxygen Consumption"
- Western Michigan University: ScholarWorks at WMU: "The Effect of High Intensity Interval Training vs. Resistance-Based Circuit Training"
- The Heart Foundation: "The Top 10 Excuses for Not Exercising (and Solutions!)"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Health Statistics Report, Number 112, June 28, 2018"