Circuit training allows athletes to increase their endurance, build muscle, and improve sport-specific skills in one convenient workout.
Whether your sport of choice takes place on the court or in a swimming pool, circuit training can be an excellent addition to your training regimen.
This guide explains the value of circuit training for workouts for athletes and the different types of circuit workouts you can do to achieve your fitness goals. It also provides some sample workouts to inspire your next session.
Circuit Training for Athletes: The Basics
During circuit training workouts, the participant performs multiple exercises back-to-back with little-to-no rest in between.
These workouts often combine strength exercises (performed with bodyweight, dumbbells, or barbells) and cardiovascular exercises (sprinting, swimming, jumping rope, etc.). However, they can also feature strength or cardio exercises exclusively.
A strength and cardio-focused circuit workout could look something like this:
- 20 squats
- 10 single-leg hops (on each leg)
- 20 burpees
- 10 bicycle crunches (each side)
- Run 800 meters at a steady pace
After finishing their 800-meter run, the athlete might rest for two minutes and then repeat the circuit two more times.
Ways to Use Circuit Training Workouts
Circuits can serve as a warm-up, the primary workout, or as a finisher (a short burst of high-intensity exercise to finish a training session on a strong note).
Athletes can also combine several circuits into one longer workout.
Someone might start with a simple warm-up circuit. Afterward, they’ll move on to lower and upper body circuits, then rest for a few minutes and end with a cardio-based finisher.
Your specific goals, preferences, and coach’s recommendations should determine how you incorporate circuit workouts into your routine and how frequently you do them.
Get our fitness newsletter
Stay on track with your fitness goals and get inspired! Sign up for the GymBird newsletter for twice-monthly expert fitness and nutrition tips.
Benefits of Circuit Training for Athletes
Athletes use circuit training for several reasons, including increased endurance, muscle strength, and cardiorespiratory fitness.
Circuit training workouts—even those that exclusively include strength training exercises—increase your heart rate and keep it high throughout the workout (thanks to the short rest periods).
Most athletes can benefit from increased cardiovascular endurance, whether they play volleyball or water polo. The need for more stamina makes circuit training an obvious choice to add to their routines.
Improve Muscle Strength and Endurance
Circuit workouts often include resistance exercises like squats, push-ups, etc. Performing these exercises during your circuits allows you to build muscle and increase your strength.
When you perform circuit workouts consistently, you’ll also notice that, over time, you get tired less quickly and can perform more repetitions during a set period. This result occurs because your muscular endurance is increasing.
Address Weaknesses or Imbalances
Some athletes may use circuit workouts to address weaknesses or muscle imbalances that they might not have time to focus on during their regular training sessions.
Say a cross-country runner has weak ankles that often hurt during long runs. Outside their regular practice sessions, they might perform circuit workouts with exercises like calf raises or single-leg balancing to strengthen their ankles.
Improve Sport-Specific Skills
Although they’re not meant to replace regular training sessions, circuit workouts can complement an athlete’s training regimen and help them improve in specific areas.
Think of an athlete who needs to work on their vertical jump. They might add a few extra circuit workouts into their weekly routine. These workouts will give them more time for lower body exercises that strengthen the quads, calves, and other muscles used when jumping.
Circuit training workouts are favored by many athletes (and general fitness enthusiasts) because they’re efficient.
Circuit workouts are a perfect choice for an athlete who already has a packed schedule but still wants to improve in certain areas.
These workouts don’t require them to set aside hours of their time for additional training. Many sessions can be wrapped up in under 30 minutes if they’re adequately planned.
Which Athletes Should Use Circuit Training?
Virtually any athlete can do circuit training workouts and experience benefits like increased endurance or reduced muscle imbalances.
However, certain types of athletes may gain more from regular circuit workouts, including the following:
- Cross-country runners
- Marathon runners
These athletes can benefit from circuit training because many circuit workouts train the slow-twitch muscle fibers.
Slow-Twitch vs. Fast-Twitch Fibers
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), slow-twitch muscle fibers are smaller, slow to tire, and surrounded by more capillaries. They support aerobic metabolism and fatigue resistance.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are fast-twitch muscle fibers. Fast-twitch fibers are larger, fatigue faster, and are surrounded by fewer capillaries. They’re trained during activities like sprinting, jumping, and powerlifting.
Regularly training the slow-twitch muscle fibers can increase muscular endurance and help you perform exercises for longer periods before you get tired.
If you’re a marathon runner or a distance swimmer, it makes sense that you’d want to maximize muscular endurance and increase the amount of time you can perform an activity before you need a break. To achieve these results, activities like circuit workouts that train the slow-twitch muscle fibers can come in handy.
At a Glance: Types of Circuit Training
- Timed Circuit: Performing specific movements for set time periods
- Staged/Repetition Circuit: Doing a certain number of reps of an exercise before moving on
- Competition Circuit: Performing as many repetitions as possible in a set period
- Sport-Specific Circuit: Circuits designed to improve athletic performance
Types of Circuit Training
Athletes can benefit from all types of circuit training, but some are more beneficial than others. Below is an explanation of the four main styles.
During a timed circuit, you perform a specific exercise for a set time period, then rest for a set time period. You might do push-ups for 30 seconds, for example, and then rest for 30 seconds.
This type of circuit can be helpful for athletes who want to increase muscular or cardiovascular endurance and get their workouts done as quickly as possible. Because everything is timed during these circuits (hence the name), they’re often completed faster than other types.
A staged or repetition circuit workout involves performing a certain number of repetitions of an exercise before moving on to the next one. For example, they might do 15 push-ups, then move on and perform 20 squats.
Staged or repetition circuits are helpful for athletes who want to build strength or increase endurance. However, they can take longer than timed circuits because they require the athlete to perform a specific number of reps before they can move on.
Depending on their skill level and endurance level, it could take quite a bit longer for the athlete to finish their workout (which isn’t ideal for those interested in circuit training because of its efficiency).
A competition circuit is similar to a timed circuit. The main difference is that this workout has a more—you guessed it—competitive bent to it.
In a competition circuit workout, the athlete performs as many repetitions as they can in a set time period. They also try to beat the previous number they performed with each subsequent set.
For example, if you did 10 push-ups during the first set, you might try to do 12 during the next one and 14 during the next.
Competition circuits are excellent for athletes who want to challenge themselves. By tracking their reps over time, they can also use these workouts to monitor their progress more closely.
Sport-specific circuit training workouts focus on exercises that help an athlete improve in their sport of choice.
A basketball player’s circuit workout might include several activities meant to improve their vertical jump. On the other hand, a runner with weak adductors might include movements like clamshells to help them improve their hip alignment.
Sport-specific circuits can be designed based on any of the other models mentioned above—timed circuit, repetition circuit, or competition circuit.
Many circuit training workouts for athletes use the timed circuit or repetition circuit model.
During a group training session, though, it might make more sense to use competition circuits. This approach can boost athletes’ motivation and improve morale.
Circuit Training Workouts for Athletes
If you want to incorporate circuit training workouts into your training regimen but don’t know where to start, use these sample workouts for inspiration.
Workout 1: Timed Circuit
|Dumbbell Squats||45 Seconds||4||15 Seconds|
|Dumbbell Chest Press||45 Seconds||4||15 Seconds|
|Bicycle Crunches||45 Seconds||4||15 Seconds|
|Sprint||30 Seconds||4||3 Minutes|
Workout 2: Repetition Circuit
|Step-Ups||20 (each leg)||4||0 Seconds|
|30 Seconds Jump Rope||N/A||4||2 minutes|
Workout 3: Competition Circuit
|Dumbbell Squat to Overhead Press||60 Seconds||3||0 Seconds|
|Dumbbell Walking Lunges||60 Seconds||3||0 Seconds|
|Push-Ups||60 Seconds||3||0 Seconds|
|Mountain Climbers||60 Seconds||3||3 Minutes|
Workout 4: Sport-Specific Circuit (Speed Training)
|Stiff-Ankle Hops||15||3||0 Seconds|
|Scissor Bounds||30-Meters||3||5 Minutes|
Tips for a More Effective Circuit Workout
If you want to design your own circuit workouts, these tips can help you plan them appropriately and see the best results:
Set Specific Goals
Start by clarifying what you want to accomplish with circuit training. Do you want to strengthen or correct muscle imbalances in your upper body? Do you want to spend more time on cardio to increase your endurance?
Decide on your goals first. That way, you can choose exercises and workout formats that help you accomplish them.
Consider Compound Exercises
When choosing strength training exercises for circuit workouts, it’s generally best to focus on compound exercises.
Compound exercises target multiple muscles at once. A squat, for instance, targets the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and hip flexors.
These exercises allow you to get the most out of your workout and strengthen many muscles simultaneously. They also elevate your heart rate more than isolation exercises (like bicep curls), meaning you’ll increase your cardiovascular endurance while performing them.
Use Isolation Exercises Wisely
Despite the information shared in the previous tip, you can still include isolation exercises in your circuit workouts. However, you should use them wisely. For example, you might use calf raises to address weak ankles or rear delt flyers to address shoulder imbalances.
Monitor Rest Times
In general, it’s best to keep rest periods short during circuit training workouts.
Don’t skip rest altogether. It allows you to catch your breath and avoid getting so fatigued that your form suffers.
On the other hand, if you spend too much time resting between sets, you may miss out on some of the endurance-boosting benefits of circuit workouts. It’ll also take longer for you to finish training.
Remember That More Isn’t Always Better
When planning your workouts, remember that doing more exercises or ratcheting up the intensity won’t always yield better results.
Perhaps you’re doing lots of activities but performing them with poor form. If this is the case, you won’t progress as quickly as you’d like. You may also increase your risk of getting injured (which will further hinder your progress).
Circuit training workouts for athletes can increase endurance, build strength, and help athletes save time while also improving sport-specific skills. To see these results, though, you have to plan and perform them properly.
Use the tips and sample workouts featured in this guide so you can design effective training sessions and get closer to achieving your fitness goals.