How Circuit Training Works

By: Victoria Vogt
Person exercising indoors for a healthy lifestyle.
Break up your boring workout with different types of exercises, such as running on the treadmill, then lifting weights.
TRBFoto/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Does it seem that the training exercises you did in the past just don't work so well for you anymore? If so, whether you run marathons for a living or you do the 100-meter dash for your school's track team, circuit training may be able to give you an edge. Not to be confused with interval training -- which we'll take a look at shortly -- circuit training simply structures your workout to incorporate bursts of resistance exercises targeting several specific muscle groups, with alternating layers of sprints or laps between each exercise set.

Think of each circuit training set as a 15-story office building where you start on the first floor and work your way up to the top. Your warm-up jog or run is the first floor. Once you get your heart rate elevated and your muscles primed, you move to the second floor where you'll do several sets of one resistance exercise. Then you stride to the third floor where you'll sprint or run again, and so on. The odd-numbered floors are your running intervals and the even-numbered floors represent your weight-bearing exercise stations. In a circuit training workout, you'll advance to different groups of resistance exercises, separated by sets of laps, to build strength.


Some of the benefits you'll find with circuit training include preventing injuries and improving balance, because the resistance part of the training keeps the muscles, ligaments and tendons in shape and in harmony, which we'll learn more about later in this article. Another plus is that, if you tend to get bored with the same old regimen, circuit training can put spice back into your exercise life, because you're constantly mixing up your combinations of exercises to challenge your body.

With circuit training specifically for runners, you tailor your exercise regimen for your event or conditioning goal, whether that means increasing speed, losing weight or elevating endurance. Properly preparing for a race by using circuit training may even improve your race-day performance rather than simply maintaining your personal record.

Up first, we'll take a look at some examples of workouts you can use at the gym.




Circuit Training Workouts

The beauty of circuit training workouts is that they're all about you -- meaning you can customize them to your specific sport, event or skill level. You also have the freedom to use free weights, weight machines, resistance bands, body-weight exercises or a combination. This may be one reason why circuit training is popular with athletes as well as ordinary people looking to keep up their general fitness. In this section, we'll explore workouts your coach or personal trainer may design for runners to use at a gym or fitness center -- you'll use weight machines and benches for some of the exercises and a treadmill for the running drills. Later, we'll see how to improvise them to work out at home or anywhere you may not have access to fancy equipment.

If you're a short-distance runner you'll want to focus on your speed. Your circuit training workout will be a vigorous collection of laps combined with muscle strength exercises.


Here's an example of a workout to build speed for a 5K race:

  1. Run 400 meters at 5K pace.
  2. Do 20 bench step-ups on each leg.
  3. Run 800 meters at 5K max pace.
  4. Do 20 one-leg squats on each leg. (Step backward with one leg and bend the front leg).
  5. Run 1400 meters at 5K pace, and then speed up to sprint pace for 300 meters.
  6. Do 20 stride step-ups on each leg (Take one backward step down from bench, then push back up with elevated leg).
  7. Run 800 meters at 5K pace.
  8. Perform 25 meters of double-leg forward hops.
  9. Run 400 meters at 5K pace.
  10. Perform 25 meters of single-leg forward hops.
  11. Run 600 meters at 5K pace and then speed up to sprint pace for 300 meters.

[source: Morris]

Alternatively, you can create a full-body workout by doing the following exercises on machines between layers of cardio: deadlift (picking a weight up off the floor), bench press, abdominals, squats, bent-over row (picking a weight up off the floor while bending over), leg press, dumbbell running arms (while holding weights, move arms like you're running), cable bicep press and calf raises. Use no heavier than 35 percent of the maximum that you can lift [source: O'Kelley].

You probably know that decreasing your body weight can increase your race speed. Here's one of many combinations of circuit training workouts geared toward shedding pounds:

  1. Run 800 meters at 5K pace.
  2. Do 20 push-ups.
  3. Run 400 meters at mile pace.
  4. Do 20 one-leg squats on each leg.
  5. Run 1600 meters at 10K pace.
  6. Do 20 stride step-ups on each leg.
  7. Run 8 x 100 meter acceleration strides. Recover for 15 seconds between each repeat.
  8. Perform 25 meters of double-leg forward hops.
  9. Run for 1600 meters, alternating between sprinting the corners and running easy on the straights.
  10. Perform a walking lunge for 25 meters.
  11. Run 1 mile or 1600 meters at an easy pace.
  12. Perform 25 meters of single-leg forward hops.
  13. Run 4 x 200 meter repeats at 800-meter pace. Recover for 30 seconds between each repeat.
  14. Perform 20 decline push-ups by placing your feet on the first row of bleachers or on a 12- to 18-inch step.
  15. Run 3200 meters at tempo pace (comfortable but still hard).
  16. Perform one basic core strength routine.
  17. Run 400 meters at an easy pace to cool down.

[source: Morris]

On the next page, we'll look at examples of circuit training workouts you can do at home.


Circuit Training at Home

You may be the type who prefers the freedom of outdoor running over the monotony of a treadmill. Or perhaps the idea of fighting to grab a spot at the weight machines in between laps before your heart rate slows is a bit overwhelming. If this sounds like you, then circuit training at home may be a better option.

Let's go back to the two sample workouts we looked at in the previous section. Though it may help to go to a location where the distances are already measured out, you can still do the running part on a jogging trail, sidewalk, track, the beach or wherever there's a safe surface. With a little creativity, you can improvise various strengthening exercises with minimal equipment. Resistance bands like those used in pilates offer unlimited possibilities. They're lightweight and can fit into your pocket or a waist pack. You can adjust them for more or less intensity. Then there's playground equipment like the parallel bar or the top beam on a swing set that you can use to do pull-ups, dips and chin-ups. You can do lower-body exercises like squats, lunges, leg lifts and hops with no equipment at all, but small dumbbells, wrist weights, weighted vests, or even plastic bottles filled with water or sand make for a challenging workout. Then there are bodyweight exercises like planks, crunches and push-ups that require no equipment, either.


Here's a sample workout for a 10K that you can do without equipment. Whether you run indoors or outside, the key here is that you're not tethered to a set of weight machines.

  1. Run 1600 meters at 10K pace.
  2. Do 20 bench step-ups on each leg.
  3. Run 800 meters at 5K max pace.
  4. Do 20 one-leg squats on each leg.
  5. Run 400 meters at 3K or vVO2 max (100-percent VO2 max) pace.
  6. Do 20 stride step-ups on each leg.
  7. Run 800 meters at 5K pace.
  8. Perform 25 meters of double-leg forward hops.
  9. Run 1600 meters at 10K pace.
  10. Perform 25 meters of single-leg forward hops.
  11. Run 1600 meters at 10K pace, and then speed up to 3K or vVO2 max pace for 400 meters.
  12. Perform one basic core strength routine.
  13. Run 1200 meters at 10K pace, 800 meters at 5K pace and 400 meters at 3K or vVO2 max pace with no recovery between the three paces.

[source: Morris]

Whether you're a sprinter or a marathon runner, you can create a circuit training workout to achieve your goal. Keep in mind that circuit training won't replace the intervals you need to run to work on endurance, but will complement them to improve power and speed. In fact, each of the sample workouts we just reviewed may remind you of interval training, but they're not exactly the same. Stride on over to the next page to learn the difference.


Circuit Training versus Interval Training

It's easy to mistake circuit training for interval training. You may hear people use the terms interchangeably. Also, circuit training for runners involves sets and repetition of sprints, jogs or both -- another reason why it's easy to confuse the two workout structures. But as we mentioned in the previous section, each has its own distinct purposes in a runner's toolkit, and one doesn't necessarily replace the other.

An easy way to distinguish the two is that in interval training, you do only one aerobic activity, such as running or cycling or swimming -- and none of the weight-training drills or body-weight exercises. If running to train for a race, an interval training workout breaks up your total race distance into segments or repetitions. You'll warm up first, then run each rep a little faster than your race pace. Advanced runners will recover between laps by jogging, whereas more novice runners will walk between laps. Typically, you'll add reps to each training session. Using interval training to condition for any event that's 10 kilometers (6 miles) or less, you'll wind up running approximately the length of your race when you add the total distance of all the reps you do in the session. For example, if you're a 5K runner, each time you do an interval workout session, all of your sets together that day generally add up to 5 kilometers (3 miles).


Interval training allows you to set and gauge your pace, because you predetermine the length of your laps and time them. Circuit training, as we saw earlier, focuses more on building strength, which is why you do sets of resistance exercises and weightlifting drills separated by jogging or running. One of the biggest complaints people make about interval training is that they can eventually become bored with it. On the other hand, circuit training offers unlimited variety, which is a surefire way to prevent a "blah" workout.

Although circuit training is popular among serious runners for off-season strength conditioning, interval training is the rigorous cardiovascular workout that you need to build aerobic stamina necessary for race day.

When you do speed work with interval training, it's suggested that you allow your body to rest for a day or two between sessions. With circuit training, you can do exercises targeting the lower body one day, then do drills focusing on the upper body the very next day, giving specific muscle groups 24 to 48 hours rest between workouts. If you do total body resistance circuit training, give yourself 48 hours between weight-training workouts. You can read more about interval training in How Interval Training Works.

Now that we know what circuit training is -- and what it's not -- read on to learn more about some of its pros and cons.


Benefits of Circuit Training

Woman exercising in park
Resistance exercises can strengthen those muscles.
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Now it's time to examine the benefits of circuit training and also look at potential downsides. As we touched on earlier, you can build your workout to achieve a specific goal, like increasing strength and power or shedding pounds. But each of these objectives also has additional perks, such as improving stability and preventing injuries that sideline even the most experienced runners.

In general, circuit training boosts stability and improves balance. The weight or resistance training aspect is helpful because it's known for strengthening muscle and bone tissue [source: NOF]. Also, the strength drills you use in a circuit training workout, like squats and push-ups, require the use of more than one set of joints. When this happens, your body has to work harder, burning additional calories and also increasing musculoskeletal fitness. The moderate weight training as well as range-of-motion exercises that you do with circuit training keep tendons and ligaments pliable and strong, reducing the risk of classic runner's injuries like ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) or Achilles' tendon tears.


Short but powerful bursts of these resistance exercises coupled with alternating sets of running or jogging also accelerate weight loss because your body doesn't have time to get used to the variation circuit training offers. By moving quickly from one set to the next, layered between sets of running reps, your heart and lungs must also continue working, which promotes your aerobic fitness.

What also makes this dynamic workout structure a favorite is that it can help people stay interested in and excited about training, since some people may find repeating the same aerobic or resistance routine to be boring.

But any workout is only as good as you make it. Because you move quickly through each station in a circuit training workout, it can be difficult to know whether you're slacking on proper form.

Some people may need a trainer took help them do their drills correctly or to vary their circuit training routine to keep it challenging. Others may find that a workout partner brings healthy competition to stay motivated.

Another potential drawback of circuit training for runners is that it doesn't replace interval training. Although circuit training will serve you well during the off season or help you even out potential muscle imbalance that comes from specializing in one event, there's just no getting around the classic, back-to-back running sets that runners do to prepare for road races and track meets.

To learn more about circuit training and other techniques for runners, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Dwyer, Kelly Pate. "Circuit Training: With Video." Runner's World. June 19, 2007. (June 30, 2010).,7124,s6-238-263-266-11953-0,00.html
  • Eyestone, Ed. "How to Improve Your VO2 Max." Runner's World. Jan. 9, 2008. (July 15, 2010),7120,s6-238-244--12408-0,00.html
  • Hunt, Nicole. "Running-Specific Circuit Drills." Running Times. March 2009. (June 30, 2010).
  • Kopf, Samantha. "Circuit Training Basics and Benefits." (June 30, 2010).
  • Mayo Clinic. "Interval training: Can it boost your calorie-burning power?" Feb 6, 2010. (June 30, 2010).
  • Morris, Rick. "10K Circuit Training Workout." 2010. (June 30, 2010).
  • Morris, Rick. "5K Circuit Training." 2010. (June 30, 2010).
  • Morris, Rick. "Weight Loss Circuit Training Workout." 2010. (June 30, 2010).
  • National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF). "Prevention: Exercise for Healthy Bones." (July 15, 2010)
  • O'Kelley, Ellakisha, Head Coach, Men's and Women's Track and Cross Country, Fort Valley State University, Fort Valley, Ga. Personal Interview Conducted on July 13, 2010.
  • Smith, Stew. "20 Minute Circuit Workout." (June 30, 2010).
  • Sorgen, Carol. "Take a Shortcut to Fitness With Circuit Training." WebMD. (June 30, 2010).
  • Stillwell, William. "The Elite Forces Manual of Mental & Physical Endurance." 2006. (June 30, 2010).
  • Williamson, Norrie. "Everyone's Guide to Distance Running." 2004. (June 30, 2010).