Is Circuit Training Better for Cardiovascular Fitness and Fat Burning?
Yuri Elkaim, BPHE, CK, RHN
Circuit training is one of my favourite forms of exercise because it allows you to train your entire body in less time compared to conventional strength training. For beginners, circuit training can consist of bodyweight exercises (ie. push-ups, plank, lunges, etc...) and provide a tremendous improvement in their fitness level and fat burning potential.
Circuit training is also a great form of fitness training to improve your cardiovascular fitness and burn fat. We'll see why in just a little bit.
If bodyweight circuit workouts are a conerstone of your training regime, then, after several weeks, you must increase your training intensity to prevent your body from adapting to using its own weight all the time. As such, it is important, as you get fitter and stronger, to start using heavier weights in your circuit workouts and vary the rest and recovery periods.
A lot of research has been conducted on this subject and numerous different circuit training protocols have been tested to establish the "best one" for fat burning and fitness gains. But, truth be told, there is no "magic" workout. Rather, a healthy variety of progressively challenging circuit training strength workouts is the key to long lasting improvements.
Circuit Training for Cardiovascular Fitness
Since circuit training involves performing several exercises back-to-back with little rest in between each, it tends to promote a greater cardiovascular response than traditional strength training where several minutes of rest are allowed between sets.
For instance, a typical circuit could consist of 6 exercises lasting 30 seconds each, while allowing 30 seconds of rest in between each exercise. This "pace" forces your heart rate to remain elevated for the entirety of the workout and, as such, can lead to tremendous cardio fitness improvements - in some cases as good or greater than traditional cardio exercise.
But it should remembered that most people do circuit training with light loads and high reps, leading to minimal strength gains or cardio fitness improvements. Instead, the key is to use heavier weights (yes, you too ladies!) with fewer reps while performing full body exercises. The result is that your body will not only improve its strength but this type of intensity will also elicit an even greater cardiovascular response than low weight, high repetition workouts.
On this matter, a study, published in the May 2008 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, compared physical performance parameters and cardiovascular load during heavy-resistance circuit training to the responses during a traditional strength training set . Ten healthy subjects were tested was once weekly for 3 weeks. On day 1, subjects were familiarized with the test and training exercises. On the subsequent 2 test days, subjects performed 1 of 2 strength training programs:
1. Heavy-resistance circuit training (5 sets x (bench press + leg extensions + ankle extensions); 35-second rest between each; with weights that would allow only 6 repetitions [6RM]), OR...
2. Traditional strength training (5 sets x bench press; 3-minute interset rest, 6RM loads).
The results confirmed that the maximum and average power and the number of repetitions performed of the bench press in the 2 groups was the same; however, the average heart rate was significantly greater in the heavy-resistrance circuit training group (approximately 71% maximum heart rate) compared to the traditional strength training condition (approximately 62% maximum heart rate).
These findings show us that heavy-resistance circuit training can provide similar strength gains to traditional strength training sets, while stimulating a far greater cardiovascular fitness response.
If you have a tough time believing this, then I encourage to wear a heart rate monitor or manually track your pulse the next time you engage in a challenging circuit training workout. You'll be amazed to see just how high your heart rate will get - but you'll know because you'll be huffing and puffing throughout the workout!
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