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How to Build the Perfect Circuit Training Workout

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Photo: Kzenon/Shuttstock

Imagine a turbocharged workout routine that mixes cardio and strength training and has you in and out of the gym in 30 minutes. Plus, it's infinitely and easily customized to help you reach your goals faster. Sound too good to be true? It's not! It's called circuit training.

Circuit training is a style of workout where you cycle through several exercises (usually five to 10) targeting different muscle groups with minimal rest in between. The result is a workout that taxes your muscular strength and endurance and your cardiorespiratory system. You've likely done circuit training in boot camp-style classes and didn't even realize it. (See: What's the Difference Between Circuit Training and Interval Training?)

While circuit training has a ton of benefits, figuring out how to set up an effective circuit workout on your own can be intimidating at first. That's why we pulled together six easy steps to help you build your perfect circuit workout. (Don't want to DIY? Here are plenty of pre-designed circuit workouts.)

Step 1: Select your time limit.

Circuit training is simply a workout based around a set number of "stations" that you repeat until your time runs out. So knowing how much time you have can help you determine how many circuits you'll need to complete and how hard you'll need to work. (The shorter the workout, the harder you should be pushing.) Anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes is ideal for circuit training. 

Since you're alternating which body part you're working during each move, there's no need to rest between exercises. (Ex: your arms get a break during squats, and your legs get a break during push-ups.)

Example: Five stations of 1-minute each repeated for six circuits adds up to a 30-minute workout.

Step 2: Pick an upper-body exercise.

The trick with circuit training is to use whatever you have handy. If you're at the gym, you have a wide range of options—but all you really need is your body. (Here's a bodyweight circuit workout you can steal.) You can choose a different upper-body move each round or simply repeat the same exercise every time if you want to keep things simple.

Example:
Circuit 1: Shoulder press
Circuit 2: Bent-over row
Circuit 3: Standing dumbbell curl
Circuit 4: Triceps dip
Circuit 5: Push-up
Circuit 6: Russian twist

Step 3: Pick a lower-body exercise.

Just like you did with the upper body, choose exercises that will work each part of your lower body. You can change up the moves each round or keep them the same.

Example:
Circuit 1: Forward lunge or walking lunge
Circuit 2: Sumo squat
Circuit 3: Calf raise
Circuit 4: Hamstring curl on a Swiss ball
Circuit 5: Deadlift
Circuit 6: Superman

Step 4: Pick a compound exercise.

Weight training is an excellent workout, but you'll really get your heart rate up by adding in some total-body movements.

Example:
Circuit 1: Jumping lunge
Circuit 2: Mountain climbers
Circuit 3: Thruster (squat to shoulder press)
Circuit 4: Clean
Circuit 5: Bench hop-over
Circuit 6: Single-arm kettlebell swing

Step 5: Choose a sprint for 1 minute.

Research shows that short, fast sprints are the most effective way to torch fat—especially around your midsection. Pick any type of cardio you like and go all out for 1 minute.

Example:
Circuit 1: Running
Circuit 2: Jumping rope
Circuit 3: Rowing
Circuit 4: Cycling
Circuit 5: Up-hill jogging
Circuit 6: Stair climbing

Step 6: Rest for 1 minute.

You've earned it. Let your heart rate come down and then go back through the circuit as many times as you'd like for a complete workout. 

Example: Get a drink and make sure your music is all set for the next round. 

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