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How to Create Your Own Fat-Burning, Muscle-Sculpting, Circuit Training Workout

man and woman doing deadliftsCircuit training is one of the best ways to build muscle and burn fat at the same time, creating the perfect metabolic environment. If you’ve never circuit trained before, get ready for a killer workout that will leave your muscles burning and your heart pumping.

What is Circuit Training?

Circuit training is a method of working out that combines strength training reps with short bursts of cardio. You quickly move from exercise to exercise, with little to no rest in between. There are a thousand different ways to do a circuit training workout, and this method is just one way that I have personally found success with.

The Blueprint for a Great Circuit Training Workout

You can break up the circuit training to do upper body only on one day, lower body the next, or do full body all in one session (just make sure you fully rest your muscles between workouts so they can recover – read more here about why recovery is so important).

Here is my formula for my full body circuit training workout:

Set 1

  • upper body movement – 12 reps
  • upper body movement, same muscle group– 12 reps
  • 2 min cardio

Set 2

  • lower body movement – 12 reps
  • lower body movement, same muscle group– 12 reps
  • 2 min cardio

Set 3

  • upper body movement, different muscle group from set 1 – 12 reps
  • upper body movement, same muscle group – 12 reps
  • 2 min cardio

2 minute rest, then repeat entire routine 2-3x.

How to Choose Your Exercises

The possibilities are endless. I like to use compound exercises to be more efficient with my time and to keep my heart rate up (read all about compound exercises here). Examples are pushups, pullups, squats, bench press, rows, overhead press, lunges, good mornings, deadlifts, and dips – exercises that use multiple muscle groups at once.

You can incorporate weight training, or you can use bodyweight exercises only. A GREAT tool for choosing exercises can be found here at Click on the muscle group you are working on, then filter your results based on your needs.

  • For set 1, choose your upper body muscle group – Chest/Shoulders/Triceps/Biceps/Back. Find two exercises that work this muscle group.
  • Choose your cardio. This can be the same cardio after each set, or you can vary it.  I like jump rope because it is convenient, but I would also sometimes run down my alley and back, perform burpees, box jumps, step ups, any sort of steady state cardio. If you are circuit training at a gym, you can hop on any of their cardio machines like the elliptical, stationary bike, etc.
  • For set 2, choose your lower body muscle group – Quads/Hamstrings/Glutes/Calves/Core. Again, find two exercises that work the muscle group you choose.
  • For set 3, choose a DIFFERENT upper body muscle group from set 1. If you did chest, you might choose shoulders for this one. Again, 2 exercises of the same muscle group.
  • Choose your weights if you are using them. Make sure the weight is challenging enough to make your heart pump but will allow you to perform the exercise all the way through. You’ll have to experiment with what works for you.

Important note: Alternate your workouts so that next time, you hit the muscle groups that you missed this time. This will allow your muscles to recover while you get in another workout, and ensure that you stay balanced in your strength training.

Are you trying to get ripped? Here’s how to get from average to ripped in 12 weeks.

Get Ready

Because you’ll be moving immediately from exercise to exercise, set up your area ahead of time. Get the free weights you need, load the bar, and have any other equipment (like a jump rope) near you.

It is absolutely essential to your success that you write down what you do, both before and after the workout. Write down the plan, and keep it next to you as you exercise. Make notes when you finish. Was the weight too easy or too hard? Are you ready to add a third circuit? How long did it take to complete?

And, Go!

So you’ve chosen your movements, cardio, weights, and your plan is written down, equipment is ready. Time to work out! Make note of your starting time, have a 2 minute timer ready to hit “start” for your cardio, and begin set 1.

Remember, do not rest until you have completed all three sets. This will be like a supercharge to your metabolic furnace. Take a 2 minute rest after you complete all three sets, get some water, and start the next round.

Each circuit (3 sets) should take about 15-20 minutes each, so 2-3 times through should be plenty. Record your finish time. If it took too long, the weights or movements may have been a bit too challenging. If you flew through it, they may not have been challenging enough.

And that’s it! Have fun with it and watch your body become the sculpted god/goddess of your dreams!

  • Jen

    Very cool. Never tried this before and appreciate the clear instructions! For a goal of fat burning, how many times a week do you suggest circuit training vs. an endurance session (e.g., long run). Thanks!

    • Deanna Schober

      For fat burning, I typically do this type of workout 2-3x a week with one endurance workout. My goal is always muscle building too so you might factor that in to your choice, as circuit training will build strength and muscle. Glad you enjoyed the article!

      • Jen

        Thanks guys!!

    • Coach Calorie

      I always prioritize strength training. I rarely do long runs, as I prefer sprints and high-intensity exercise. However, when I do, it’s maybe once or twice a week at most.

  • Stef

    Hi Deanna,

    Something that I’ve been wondering is, does gender effect how we should train? Is the circuit training you describe the same for men and women?

    Also, what’s your opinion on intermittent fasting? I’ve read all the CC articles on it and they are awesome! Recently though, I read that IF isn’t great for women specifically because it messes with hormone levels and actually can cause negative effects on insulin sensitivity (decreased insulin sensitivity and higher blood glucose levels).

    Thoughts? Do you have any experience with IF?


    • Deanna Schober

      Hi Stef-
      I would recommend circuit training just like this for both men and women. Just scale it to your ability level and it’s perfect for everyone! I personally did IF for awhile and while it’s the leanest I ever got, I had some side effects like anxiety and depression that felt hormonal: I’m not *sure* they were related, but the timing was suspicious enough that I stopped. Hope that helps.

  • Tammy Runion

    You mention alternating your workouts, how often should you alternate them? Weekly? Since you say below that once or twice a week at most. Should I do a completely circuit the second day of the week or repeat this and rotate in another one the following week?

    Thank you!

  • Chanel

    I love this idea. Right now Im doing strength training on M W F and HIIT on T TH S. Could this circuit training replace all? Or just my strength training days. PS you guys are awesome

  • Deanna Schober

    If you broke it up so you’re not working the same muscles each day and allowing them time to recover, it could absolutely replace them all. PS-You’re awesome too!

  • Deanna Schober

    Hi Tammy, it’s really a matter of listening to your body. I do a full body circuit training workout on Mondays, then the next week do full body again using the muscle groups I didn’t use the last week. So one week I’m doing pullups and overhead presses, the next I’m doing bench press and pushups. So in one week’s time, I’ve worked every muscle.
    You could do nothing but legs on Monday, then all upper body on Wednesday, then back to legs again on Friday as long as they have recovered. Then the next week, upper body Monday, legs Wednesday, upper body Friday, and so on and so on. The possibilities are truly endless.

  • Chris Grano

    Deanna, would you recommend doing this routine 5x a week? and then maybe something lighter like Yoga on the 6th day and rest on 7th? For the 2mins of cardio in between, do you just go full-out like a HIIT burst?

    • Deanna Schober

      Hi Chris, everyone is different but 5x seems like a lot especially at first, you want to give yourself time for muscle recovery. I’d start at 3 and work up to more if you aren’t sore. Yes the cardio can be either steady or it can be intense intervals, again you can start with the steady as a beginner and work up to more intensity as you progress.

  • Ian Smith
    • Deanna Schober

      Looks like a killer workout, mixes strength training and cardio, perfect!

  • Brenda

    I’m relatively new to interval and circuit training, but I have been doing what is called the 30 min Hit. It consists of 13 circuit stations where you work hard for 2 min with a 20 sec rest in between. It’s all boxing/kickboxing exercises with a few focusing on skipping, mountain climbers, push ups and abs. They are constantly changing up the exercises and the difficulty (as you get stronger) to keep it challenging. I realize that there is no weights involved but what is your opinion on this type of interval/circuit training for fat loss? I really do enjoy it, so none the less it’s worth sticking with. Thanks!!

    • Deanna Schober

      You’re building muscle using your own body weight with these exercises. I love the circuits because they’re so much more fun. You should see great results. Enjoy!

      • Brenda

        That’s awesome, thank you!! :)

  • Karola

    Thank u so much:))) very helpful and clear. Im a big fun of CC <3