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Circuit Training vs. HIIT for Strength and Endurance

Circuit Training is versatile, suitable for all fitness levels, while HIIT is time-efficient, high-intensity workouts. HIIT is very popular due to its effectiveness in burning calories and improving cardiovascular health.

8 min readAugust 3rd, 2023

If you're looking to get in shape or want to shake up your exercise routine, you may have encountered circuit or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) training in your research.

But if you are like most people, you aren’t sure which exercises to try or how to get started. After all, we all exercise for different reasons, and with the countless workouts available on the internet, picking the best exercise program routine can seem daunting.

Both circuits and HIIT can increase cardiovascular fitness, burn more calories than other cardio workouts, improve heart and lung health, and increase muscular endurance. Yet there are some essential differences, chiefly the intensity at which you work.

Both training styles are helpful tools to add to your exercise program. However, to decide which exercise is right for you, we must first understand what they are and how they differ.

Defining Circuit Training vs HIIT

Both circuit training and HIIT are great for cardiovascular health and involve doing several different kinds of exercises as part of a workout, with periods of rest in between some exercises. The main difference is that HIIT is meant to be completed with maximum effort, and the time that it takes to complete the workout and periods of rest between HIIT and circuit training may vary.

Circuit training is an excellent modality that allows maximum flexibility and creativity. A circuit is a series of exercises (usually 8-12) that you move through with minimum rest between stations at moderate intensity.

The best part of circuit training is the freedom and efficiency it affords you. It’s possible to hit all major muscle groups AND improve your cardiovascular fitness in a shorter workout than other types of strength training. Circuit training is, therefore, excellent for general fitness and can be easily modified for any age or physical ability.

Conversely, HIIT training is true to its name and is all about intensity. This training style is best suited for cardiovascular exercise as it involves short periods of near-maximum effort, followed by a short rest, alternating for the duration of the training session. A few great HIIT exercises include sprinting, rowing, biking, and battle ropes.

Circuit Training vs HIIT: Which One is Right For Me?

If you consider incorporating circuit training or HIIT  into your exercise regimen, there are some essential questions to ask yourself first:

  • What are my goals? General health/fitness? Cardiovascular health? Changing the way my body looks? Mental health? Something else entirely?
  • What exercises do I enjoy?
  • Do I like cardio, or tolerate it when necessary?
  • What level of intensity can I handle?
  • Do I have any injuries or medical limitations?

It is crucial for your health to incorporate strength training and cardiovascular exercise, but did you know you can do both simultaneously?

If you like maximum efficiency, circuit training may be an excellent option. Similarly, if you want to challenge your heart health and push to your limits, HIIT training is one to consider.

Both circuit and HIIT training offer shorter workouts due to reduced rest times and will improve your heart health.

However, there are some significant differences and considerations. Because HIIT requires you to work at nearly 100% of your capability, you are more likely to injure yourself during the workout and from cumulative overtraining.

As a personal trainer for almost a decade, the concern I have with HIIT training is its benefits are often over-hyped, and therefore it is overused.

Let me explain.

HIIT training has recently been all the rage due to its metabolic effects. Most notably, HIIT burns more calories in half the time of other traditional steady-state cardio workouts and increases the calories you burn post-workout – called Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption or EPOC.

Burn twice the calories in half the time? Sign me up!

However, this creates a trap I have seen many clients fall into. If HIIT training is excellent for your heart and burns more calories, doing it every day must be even better!


HIIT training is highly taxing on your body, and non-athletes should stick to 2-3 HIIT workouts per week at most. It will undoubtedly challenge your heart and help with fat loss and fitness, but it's not magic or without risk.

When it comes to your health, finding your minimum effective dose is critical. That is, the minimum amount of exercise you need to hit your goals and minimize the risk of burnout and injury.

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Types of Circuit Training

When structuring your circuit, your options are endless. How you organize your routine will depend on your primary fitness goals. Here are a few ideas:


This can be great for muscle strength, endurance, and cardiovascular health. Decide the number of reps you want to hit at each station and the duration of your rest period.


Another circuit training option that primarily develops your cardiovascular health is to complete as many repetitions of the exercise as possible in the time allotted.

As many rounds as possible (AMRAP)

Similar to a timed circuit, this setup puts you in competition with yourself. First, complete your repetitions in the allotted time and achieve as many rounds as possible. Then, in your next workout, you try to get more rounds than before. This is a fun way to push yourself and measure your progress from week to week.

The best thing about circuit training is the complete control you have to scale the workout to your ability and preferences.

Need more rest between sets? No problem, double it.

Need to exercise, but you’re pressed for time? Then, a quick circuit is both practical and efficient.

Pros & Cons of Circuit Training

Circuit training can be completed anywhere, with or without equipment, and be tailored to any ability and taste. It is also easily modified to keep your workouts fun.

Circuits are excellent for anyone with a busy schedule who wants to avoid spending hours in the gym to see results. Great for general fitness, improving cardiovascular health, and muscular endurance, circuits have a place in most exercise programs.

Circuits are not ideal for those seeking maximum muscle size or strength gains as those require more time under tension and longer rest periods between sets.

  • Flexible
  • Modifiable
  • Faster than other strength workouts
  • Improves cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance
  • It does not require equipment
  • It can be completed anywhere
  • Not best for hypertrophy
  • Poor choice for strength

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Sample Circuit Workout

Always perform a proper warm-up before any workout. A good rule of thumb to prepare for exercise is 5-10 minutes of easy cardio to raise your body temperature and get the blood flowing, followed by myofascial release (rolling out), dynamic stretches, or targeted movements using light resistance.

Sample Circuit


5 minutes walking

Roll out

20 air squats

20 glute bridges

20 rows with light resistance band

10 push-ups

20 walking lunges

[Repeat as needed]

Squats30 seconds30 seconds
Mountain Climbers30 seconds30 seconds
Push-ups30 seconds30 seconds
Inverted row30 seconds30 seconds
Glute bridge30 seconds30 seconds
Jumping jacks30 seconds30 seconds
Pull-ups30 seconds30 seconds
Butterfly sit-ups30 seconds30 seconds

Increase or decrease your working or rest time, depending on your fitness level and capabilities. That is the beauty of circuits; they're fully customizable to your needs. Beginners usually do well starting with 30 seconds of work followed by 30 seconds of rest, while athletes can get up to 2 minutes of work and 20 seconds of rest. You can also add weight to these exercises for additional strength gains.

Types of HIIT Training

HIIT training is an intense workout option with significant health and fitness benefits. While not for everyone, those who enjoy these amped-up training sessions experience notable gains in cardiovascular health, muscular endurance, and increased calorie burn for up to 24 hours after the workout.

Like circuit training, HIIT has different varieties you can try, each with distinct advantages. However, no matter which one you choose, it is crucial that you perform a thorough warm-up before any high-intensity exercise. Inadequate warm-up or improper form performed at high intensity is a recipe for injury.

Warming up for max effort exercise requires a warm-up such as the one listed for circuit training and a few plyometric movements targeting the muscles you will use during your workout.

Cardio HIIT

HIIT training is utilized mainly as a cardio training tool as it works well for running, rowing, and battle ropes. This type of HIIT is straightforward and comprises a short period of work followed by a short period of recovery, repeated for multiple rounds. Your entire workout, including the warm-up and cool-down, should be 30-60 minutes.


This is a trendy HIIT method created by the Japanese exercise scientist Dr. Izumi Tabata that is just 20 minutes long but packs a punch. A Tabata workout is 20 seconds of 100% effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest for four minutes. Then, after one minute of recovery – you do it again for four total rounds.

Every Minute on the Minute (EMOM)

Another mouthful acronym but a fantastic workout is the EMOM. Popularized in Crossfit, an EMOM involves performing an exercise for a certain number of reps every minute on the minute and then resting for the remainder of your minute. The faster you complete the reps, the more rest you get. While there is no set time, most EMOM circuits are 10-20 minutes long.

Pros & Cons of HIIT

HIIT training has become extremely popular due to its effectiveness in burning calories and improving cardiovascular health and general fitness. It is also an excellent choice for anyone who wants the most effective and shortest workout possible.

This training style is best for those with a strong fitness foundation, minimal injury history, and, ideally, access to equipment like a rowing machine, battle ropes, kettlebells, a treadmill, or a track. However, a HIIT running session can also be performed on the open road.

A complete workout with warm-up and cool down can be done in just 30-60 minutes and done consistently with proper recovery can yield incredible results.

While this training style has many benefits, it also has significant downsides. Because of its intensity, HIIT requires a strong foundation of fitness before you should even attempt to incorporate it into your routine.

The intensity required for HIIT also increases your chance of injury during your workout and often increases muscle soreness. Severe muscle soreness can impede sticking with an exercise routine, and therefore HIIT can be counterproductive without adequate rest and recovery.

Another well-documented effect of high-intensity movement that can work against you is a significant increase in appetite.

Due to these reasons, high-intensity training is best used sparingly, and you should always strive to find the minimal effective dose for your body.

  • 30-60 minute workouts
  • Burns the most calories
  • Improves muscular endurance and power
  • Improves heart and lung capacity
  • Does not require equipment but benefits from it
  • Higher risk for injury
  • Requires a fitness foundation
  • More muscle soreness
  • Stimulates increased hunger

Sample HIIT Workouts


10 minutes jogging 20 yards high knees march

Roll out                                                      20 glute bridges

20 air squats 20 alternate side lunges

[Repeat as needed]

Option A

Sprint30 seconds30 seconds8 minutes

Option B

 Row 20 seconds 10 seconds4 minutes per round1-minute rest4 rounds

Option C

Kettlebell swings45 seconds15 secondsRepeat for 4-5 rounds,  2-3 minutes rest between rounds
Push-ups45 seconds15 seconds
Med Ball slams45 seconds15 seconds


Circuit and HIIT training are effective workouts that maximize your training time and provide ample health benefits. The most significant difference between the two is the working intensity, with HIIT training being the most intense and circuits offering much more scalable options that easily accommodate all fitness levels and physical abilities.

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