Lorna Malcolm

Circuit Training Exercises - Creative Circuits

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Lorna Malcolm


General Group Exercise

Posted On

21 November 2013

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Circuit classes have been around for some time and are nothing new, appearing on most exercise class timetables worldwide. Whilst it's difficult to pinpoint their origin, they are said to have been developed by R.E. Morgan and G.T. Anderson in 1953 at the University of Leeds.

Although well established, the physiological benefits of circuit training exercise classes does depend on the type of circuit taught and the content of each session. Circuits have the versatility to address cardiovascular (CV) and/or muscular strength and endurance (MSE) objectives.

Research indicates that circuit training exercises can provide significant improvements in MSE, cardiovascular endurance, body composition and body image, (1,2,3,4,5). A study conducted at The Cooper Clinic Study (1982) found that participants gained up to a 22% increase in muscular strength, depending on the type of circuit performed, the specific resistance exercises, and the amount of resistance used at each station, (6). It is also noted that resistance focused circuits that follow the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines will result in muscular strength and endurance gains and, circuits when done at appropriate levels of intensity, meet the ASCM guidelines for developing and maintaining cardiovascular fitness (5).

More general benefits include:

the assertion that circuits can be challenging, but fun to do they contain a variety of different exercises which can circumvent boredom individuals can still work at their own pace but may be motivated by people they work with to try a little harder partner and small group work can inject some participant interaction, promoting stimulation and a social element there is an instructor to facilitate and motivate.

A circuit can be defined as 'a series of chosen exercises, performed one after the other, for a given length of time until all the exercises have been completed'. The series of exercises may be completed more than once and each exercise is designed or chosen to address some specific component of fitness.

Although the impression is that a circuit has to involve moving from station to station, if you are tight on space you can design what is called a 'unison' circuit where participants stay in the same location to complete the series of exercises.

The traditional set up is that one or more people work at each station as individuals. Some circuits will bring the participants together at various stages, to do some cardiovascular work. Circuit training exercises are also excellent for having participants work in small groups of 8-10 and this structure can serve you well if you have larger numbers.

Rather than sticking with the usual 'stations around the wall' scenario, using lines and rows can be another mode of delivery. Each line or row of participants can be doing a different exercise. Cardiovascular exercises can still be alternated with resistance exercises. On changeover, line 1 moves to line 2, line 2 to line 3 and so on. The last line will come around and take the position of line 1.

Social interaction can still be used in lines. For example; in line 1, partners face each other. One person holds their hands out at waist level (or higher) and person 2 has to lift their knees to touch the hands of person 1. After 30-45 seconds they swap. Line 2 could then be tricep dips where participants work as individuals. Line 3 could be partner work and line 4 individual, etc.

You could also have an inner and outer circle and stagger the stations from one to the other. For example, have station 1 on the outer circle, station 2 on the inner circle, station 3 outer, station 4 inner, etc. Simple set up changes, if done well and organised and managed properly, can change the feel of a circuit without too much additional effort.

How else can you get more creative but still have an effective circuit?

1. Update your exercise choice

Ensure you are incorporating compound and integrated exercises. For example, an overhead press or bicep curl could be done with a lunge, squat, single leg balance, heel raise, standing on a core board, BOSU or wobble board. Also consider including exercises done in less traditional positions, like side-lying or in a bridge position. Use functional exercises such as standing hip hinge, or cross chop rotational patterns. In this way the upper body and lower body work together creating better synergy and body balance. Trunk stabilisation, posture and alignment, proprioception and kinaesthetic awareness can be targeted, as well as strengthening the musculature involved in the movement/position.

Think about exercises that work through at least two, if not all three planes of movement. An example would be a squat, holding tubing. The left hand and right hand rest on the left hip as the squat is done. Hips are square to the front and the shoulders and shoulder blades are back and down, even though the right arm is across the body. The right arm is lifted up and across to the right wall and ceiling as the participant stands from the squat. The slight rotation should be thoracic rather than pelvic, so the chest will open and back extension will occur (whilst the hips remain to the front).

2. Use different equipment

What type of equipment have you got that you can incorporate? What else can you do that requires a little imagination but no equipment? You might work in a sports hall that has a basketball hoop or netball posts. This could be one station. Rebounders, Reebok core boards, BOSUs, fitness ladders and small hurdles, stability balls and small medicine balls are all pieces of equipment that could help to put a little excitement back into a circuit class.

3. Use equipment differently

Think of what you can do differently with your staple pieces of equipment. For example, you can interlink two lengths of tubing and have both participants on BOSUs or core boards about a metre apart. One holds still while the other pulls the tubing across their body and then eccentrically releases. Both are working on core stabilisation and balance, but one is also working on moving strength, relative to this particular movement pattern. It is like integrating a pulley machine in to your circuit.

Smaller medicine balls often allow greater movement and in different ways. Two participants can stand on core boards and throw to each other. They not only have to catch the ball but continue the momentum of movement through its full range (rotation) and then rotate back to throw.

Place five steps in a line, each about 2-3 feet apart. Have the first at 6 inches, second at 8 inches, third at 10 inches, fourth at 8 inches and the last at 6 inches. The participants have to jump over them in a bounding fashion (plyometrics), run back to the start and go again. This achieves work on moving strength of the legs, power, coordination and kinaesthetic awareness. It also works in a cardiovascular manner, quickly creating fatigue.

4. Minimal Equipment and a little imagination

If you don't have a lot of equipment get some chalk or easily removable tape and cast your mind back to childhood! You can draw, for example, four circles in a square (like the circles on a Ludo game board) and have participants jump from one to another. Have them jump in a clockwise direction to begin and then anti-clockwise.

Try also drawing a front and back line about 2-3 metres apart. Have members run from the back line to the front line, jump and place an imaginary basketball in an imaginary hoop and then shuffle back to the back line to start again. You can do the same with most racquet sports. The class can run in between the same two lines playing forehand and backhand tennis shots. If it is safe and space allows, have them do this holding a racquet to get the feel of the action, even if they are not actually hitting a ball.

Circuit training exercises are likely to remain a staple part of exercise programming for many years to come, but the structure and content should evolve as fitness knowledge increases and becomes more in-depth. Circuit classes can be one of the most challenging and motivating class formats while still remaining safe and effective.


  1. Effect of concurrent endurance and circuit resistance training sequence on muscular strength and power development. (2008) Chtara M, Chaouachi A, Levin GT, Chaouachi M, Chamari K, Amri M, Laursen PB. J Strength Cond Res. Jul;22(4):1037-45
  2. Gotshalk, L.A., Berger, R.A., and Kraemer, W.J. (2004). Cardiovascular responses to a high-volume continuous circuit resistance training protocol. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 18(4), 760-764
  3. Kravitz, L. (1996) "The fitness professional's complete guide to circuits and intervals". IDEA Today, 14(1), 32-43
  4. Effects of aerobic and circuit training on fitness and body image in women. Anshel, M.A, Henry, R.N, Michael, T. (2006) Journal of Sport Behaviour, 29, 281-303
  5. Pollock, M.L., Gaesser, G.A., Butcher, J.D., Despres, J-P, Dishman, R.K., Franklin, B.A., & Ewing Garber, C. (1998). "The recommended quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, and flexibility in healthy adults". Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 30(6): 975-991
  6. The Cooper Clinic www.cooperinstitute.org

If you would like to know more about creating your own circuit training classes, please get in touch or view our circuit instructor training course page for more information.

Creative Circuit Training Exercises
Creative Circuit Training Exercises
Creative Circuit Training Exercises

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