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Full Body Workouts and Circuit Training – Beneficial at Any Fitness Level!

Circuit training and full-body workouts are probably the most under-utilized and underrated workout routines in the training arsenal.  They play a valuable role in fitness and training, however, and if utilized properly, can benefit just about anyone regardless of experience, fitness level, or training goals.  Training your entire body in a single workout can be a challenging and effective way to build strength and physical conditioning, and burn fat and tone up.  It’s a great approach for beginners, and even experienced bodybuilders can benefit from switching their training approach and mixing it up with some full-body workouts circuit-style training, especially if they have been training the same way for an extended period of time.

Circuit training is a type of interval training that combines strength exercises with aerobic exercises, allowing you to reap the benefits of both cardiovascular and strength training in one workout.  Circuit training usually consists of resistance exercises with moderate weights and relatively high repetitions, followed quickly by another exercise targeting a different muscle group or targeting an increase in your heart rate.  The workouts can be structured like full-body workouts involving all muscle groups, but separate upper and lower-body circuits can be another good approach.  The “circuit” element of the training involves moving from station to station and performing numerous exercises with little rest in between. The circuit can be structured so that it is one long circuit, or so that it can be repeated 2-4 times during the same workout, depending on the exercises and your goals.

Circuit training offers endless possibilities and variations, as the stations can consist of exercises involving resistance equipment (free weights/machines), push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, jump rope and other forms of aerobic-style training. Because the workout involves different muscle groups for each exercise, little to no rest is necessary between exercises. This helps maintain a higher heart rate than you may normally maintain during weight training and allows you to train with intervals.

Full-body and circuit training can be beneficial for many reasons. The workouts can be structured for people who are short on time and want to burn as many calories and work as many muscle groups as possible.  You can still work up a good sweat and have a great workout with much less time in the gym.  It’s not even necessary to get to a gym in order to get a good circuit-style/full body workout done. You can create a workout that doesn’t require equipment and adapt it for just about any location or space. 

Incorporating a lot of compound and aerobic exercises can increase your calorie expenditure not only during the workout, but afterwards as well (i.e., the after burn).  This can help boost your metabolism and contribute to overall general physical preparedness (GPP).  GPP represents the ability to tolerate stronger workloads and intensity over time, i.e., overall physical conditioning and stamina. Increasing GPP involves training for fitness, flexibility, strength, speed and endurance.  A circuit program can incorporate many exercises that contribute to GPP and improve performance in just about any physical or athletic endeavor. Exercises that involve balance and core strength training can be incorporated into the workouts, also contributing to overall conditioning. Core strength can also help reduce the risk of developing muscle imbalances, especially among smaller stabilizer muscles.

Perhaps most importantly, circuits can be structured for all ages and fitness levels, from beginners to advanced athletes. Full-body and circuit workouts are a great way for a beginner to get acquainted with the equipment in a gym and learn a multitude of exercises. These workouts also promote calorie burning by maintaining an increased heart rate and circulating blood to multiple muscle groups. Circuit training can be a great approach for a novice to get into the swing of training and start losing weight, toning up, and getting more fit/conditioned. 

General Structure

Full body workouts can be performed 2-4 times a week, depending on your training goals and time/budget. They can also be used when you are travelling or cannot access a gym and want/need to get a workout in just about anywhere. If you are training with weights and incorporating a lot of resistance exercises into your program, however, it is best to remember to allow your body adequate recovery time in between workouts, so you should aim for performing these workouts no more often than every other day. You may also want to walk or do some light cardio on a couple additional days, depending on your goals.

Full-body workouts can be structured to include at least one exercise in each workout targeting a muscle group (chest, back, shoulders, legs, arms, abs), using different exercises for each workout in a given week. That way, you work each muscle in different ways, which contributes to overall strength and development. Incorporate a lot of compound exercises (squats, walking lunges, push-ups, chin-ups) because they work multiple muscles at once and can improve results. Try to do 2-3 sets of each exercise (i.e., 2-3 circuits), and keep your reps around the 12-15 range.  For aerobic exercises (like jump rope), target specific time intervals (30-60 seconds, for example).  You should be working hard at the end of each set, and your heart rate should be elevated.  Intensity of training is important to achieve the best results with these types of workouts.  Plyometric exercises (exercises that target explosive reaction through rapid and powerful muscular contractions – jumping, for example) can be incorporated to increase intensity even more.  You can structure your workouts based on the desired duration of each exercise or training station (generally 45 to 90 seconds) and/or the desired amount of rest in between exercises.

You don’t always have to train your entire body in one workout to reap the benefits of this kind of training. Workouts can also be broken into two circuits that focus on the upper and lower body.  For upper body circuits, two exercises for back, shoulders, and chest, and one for biceps and one for triceps works pretty well, although you can switch this up a lot and mix things up as long as you hit each muscle group at least once during the workout.  Alternate exercises between major and minor muscle groups, and add aerobic exercises (jumping jacks, jump rope, etc.) to the circuit as you want.

Example Workouts

Always begin each workout with a brief warm-up (walking, jogging, or some other form of low/moderate cardio for a few minutes).

Full Body Circuit #1

  1. Push-Ups (wide or close grip)
  2. Tuck Jumps
  3. Dumbbell Shoulder Presses (overhead)
  4. Walking Lunges
  5. Barbell Bicep Curls
  6. Jump Rope (great aerobic exercise for the calves!)
  7. Chin-ups (wide or close grip, or perform them with a different grip every time you run through the circuit)
  8. Hanging Leg Raises (builds abdominal/core strength)
  9. Step-ups or Jump-ups (onto a box)
  10. Dips (can be performed off a chair/bench if you do not have the proper equipment)

Full Body Circuit #2

  1. Mountain Climbers (on the ground, in a push-up position, alternating legs)
  2. Walking Squats
  3. Bench Press (with dumbbell or barbell)
  4. Dumbbell hammer bicep curls/tricep kickbacks (one set of each, alternating arms)
  5. Wind Sprints (short bursts of fast running, for example 15 second intervals with 15 seconds rest in-between, for 2 minutes)
  6. Wide-grip Lateral Pull Downs
  7. Bicycle (abdominal crunches on the floor, alternating knees to elbows)
  8. Straight-Leg Deadlift (with barbell)
  9. Dumbbell lateral and front raises (for shoulders, one set of each to the side and the front with each arm)
  10. Side Lunges (with dumbbell)

Upper Body Circuit

(Example, to be alternated with a lower body circuit)
  1. Shoulder Press (overhead, with dumbbells, barbell, or using a machine)
  2. Cable Triceps Extension (using a rope or bar)
  3. Wide-Grip Lateral Pull Downs (can be alternated with close-grip when repeating the circuit)
  4. Dumbbell Bicep Curls
  5. Push-ups
  6. Dumbbell lateral and front raises (for shoulders, one set of each to the side and the front with each arm)
  7. Cable Rows (or a row machine – you can also use an aerobic rower for 3-5 minutes)

Lower Body Circuit

(Example, to be alternated with an upper body circuit)
  1. Squats (you can alternate the stance wide/narrow to focus on different parts of the lower body – go deep to engage more of the glute muscles and hamstrings)
  2. Leg Press
  3. Jump Rope
  4. Calf Raises (on a machine, seated or lying)
  5. Tuck Jumps (or jumping jacks, or other plyometric exercise)
  6. Hanging Leg Raises
  7. Walking Lunges
Circuit training and full-body workouts are well-suited for developing aerobic endurance, increasing general physical preparedness (GPP), and fat burning. While bodybuilders can benefit from mixing up their training routines and incorporating these kinds of workouts from time to time, these are not the most ideal workout to build size, thickness, and overall muscularity. In general, mass building workouts should focus on performing a reduced number of reps with heavier weights and focusing more time on each muscle group individually. However, full-body and circuit workouts can provide a beneficial supplement to heavy resistance training for bodybuilders and other athletes/competitors. Every athlete needs to train for overall conditioning and GPP, including bodybuilders and powerlifters. Moreover, every person who wants to lead a fit and active lifestyle that incorporates regular exercise should learn the basics of this kind of training because these workouts can be performed just about anywhere.  That way, there is no excuse for not exercising!

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