Here's what you need to know...

Alternating between sets of upper and lower body exercises produces high levels of lactate and burns a ton of calories.

Occupying multiple pieces of equipment can be a challenge in commercial gyms, so you may need to alter the programs to accommodate your situation – sequencing exercises that are close to each other and/or reducing the number of exercises in a circuit.

Circuit training involves performing a series of exercises in rotation with varying loads and equipment, and usually with minimal rest. Alternating between sets of upper and lower body exercises (staggered sets) allows you to "decongest" one hemisphere of the body by circulating fluid to the other hemisphere, which improves recovery and ultimately performance.

These types of workouts produce high lactate levels and a high amount of fatigue, but due to the upper-lower zigzag sequence, you're better able to manage both. The key is to work muscles that are far apart from each other, take little rest, and keep the work moving around the body. This type of training is a killer, especially when you're not used to it, so be prepared.

To that end, here are three circuit-training options that'll get you lean in no time. The intensity increases from one program to the next. Start at Option #1 and work your way up to Option #3.

You can do all three options in succession, one right after the other, and then insert a strength/hypertrophy phase, or do a strength/hypertrophy phase after you complete each individual circuit-training program. I prefer the latter approach since you tend to maintain a greater level of muscle mass and strength, but the former is useful if you have quite a bit of fat to shed.

Pick your poison and go with it.


Option #1: High Reps, Minimal Rest

  Exercise Tempo Sets Reps Rest
A1 Back Squat 1010 3 15-20 10 sec.
A2 Flat Dumbbell Press 1010 3 15-20 10 sec.
A3 Prone Leg Curl 1010 3 15-20 10 sec.
A4 Standing Military Press 1010 3 15-20 10 sec.
A5 Supine Cable Knee-In 1010 3 15-20 10 sec.
A6 Bent-Over EZ-Bar Row 1010 3 15-20 3 min.
B1 Incline Dumbbell Press 1010 3 15-20 10 sec.
B2 Seated Leg Extension 1010 3 15-20 10 sec.
B3 Front Lat Pulldown 1010 3 15-20 10 sec.
B4 Standing Calf Raise 1010 3 15-20 10 sec.
B5 Flat EZ-Bar Triceps Extension 1010 3 15-20 10 sec.
B6 Semi-Stiff-Leg Barbell Deadlift 1010 3 15-20 3 min.

Note: Tempo of 1010 refers to a tempo of 1 second lowering/no pause/1 second lifting/no pause tempo.

This workout involves 2 circuits of 6 exercises each. Notice there's only 10 seconds of rest between each exercise of a circuit – just enough time to get from one station to the next – and then 3 minutes of rest after you complete each circuit.

Try to complete 3 sets of each circuit, so start conservative. Keep a bit in the tank and don't use maximum loads. Do this workout 3 days a week on non-consecutive days. A Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule is popular since it frees up the weekend.

This is very effective, but the reps are a touch high and the rest interval a bit low for most strong lifters. If you normally train for relative strength and then jump into this type of work without making the appropriate adjustments, like reducing the weight a bit and taking a few extra seconds of rest if you need it, you likely won't survive past one or two rounds (circuits).


Option #2: Moderate Reps, Very Low Rest

Christian Curls

For the next phase we're going to split things up and slow things down. Each workout is now 2 circuits of 4 exercises, except there's greater rest and we use lower rep brackets.

Day 1

  Exercise Tempo Sets Reps Rest
A1 Dumbbell Lunge 20X0 4 12-15 30 sec.
A2 Sternum Lat Pulldown 3011 4 10-12 30 sec.
A3 Prone Feet-Neutral Leg Curl 4010 4 10-12 30 sec.
A4 Decline Dumbbell Triceps Extension 4010 4 10-12 30 sec.
B1 Back Squat 3010 3 12-15 30 sec.
B2 One-Arm Cable Row 4010 3 10-12 30 sec.
B3 Seated Good Morning 3010 3 12-15 30 sec.
B4 Standing Close-Grip EZ-Bar Curl 4010 3 10-12 30 sec.


Day 2

  Exercise Tempo Sets Reps Rest
A1 Side Back Step-Up 20X0 4 12-15 30 sec.
A2 Wide Neutral-Grip Lat Pulldown 3011 4 10-12 30 sec.
A3 Semi-Stiff-Leg Dumbbell Deadlift 4010 4 10-12 30 sec.
A4 Seated EZ-Bar French Press 3110 4 10-12 30 sec.
B1 Hack Squat 3010 3 12-15 30 sec.
B2 Seated Rope Row to Neck 2012 3 10-12 30 sec.
B3 Standing Calf Raise 2210 3 10-12 30 sec.
B4 Flat Neutral-Grip Dumbbell Press 4010 3 10-12 30 sec.

Train 3 times a week, alternating between Day 1 and Day 2 each session (see the chart below). You should be able to last up to a month on this program – 6 training exposures per workout – and make progress each workout before requiring a change.

  MON TUE WED THU FRI SAT SUN
WEEK 1 Day 1 Off Day 2 Off Day 1 Off Off
WEEK 2 Day 2 Off Day 1 Off Day 2 Off Off
WEEK 3 Day 2 Off Day 2 Off Day 1 Off Off
WEEK 4 Day 2 Off Day 1 Off Day 2 Off Off


Option #3: Moderate Reps, Low Rest

A few years ago, I put together a circuit training system that uses lower rep ranges and higher rest intervals designed primarily to pack on muscle. Yes, a circuit-based program that builds some serious muscle through sheer volume.

That system can be altered slightly to encourage more fat loss yet still build muscle. The template is simple: 2 upper body exercises (press, chin-up, and/or row) followed by a lower body exercise (squat or deadlift), and then another 2 upper body exercises (elbow flexion and extension) followed by a different lower body exercise (unilateral or single-joint movement). You can insert whichever exercises you like, but this type of scheme is useful for several reasons.

For one, it allows you to congest one area of the upper body (front and back) with antagonist movements and then decongest it with a lower body movement. Then, you decongest the lower body by moving fluid back to the upper body, and so on, all to improve recovery and performance.

Second, one of the biggest problems with full-body routines for advanced trainees is the amount of pounding the lower body takes. Often, even if you use a 2-day system, the legs just can't keep up.

To respect this, you could either take more or less time between sessions for each body part or perform more or less work within a session. Using a 2:1 ratio of upper to lower body movements in a full-body routine allows you to manage the amount of work each body part performs in a session, so that recovery is constant for each body part between sessions.

Also, you'll notice that the eccentric tempo is quicker than normal. Usually a slower speed of lowering is used with lower rep brackets, and faster speeds are used with higher reps (or else you'd be in the gym all day long). In theory that makes sense as:

Lower reps + slower speeds = longer time under tension = greater muscle mass = higher metabolic rate = lower body fat

In practice, however, it doesn't quite work that way. Slower eccentric speeds are associated with greater muscle fiber damage and soreness, which may delay recovery and make it a real pain to move two days later when it's time to do your next full-body workout.

Branched-chain amino acids can help with soreness, and I found it best to use faster tempos. The upside is that you can use slightly greater loads in this manner, so you benefit in a couple of ways.

Day 1

  Exercise Tempo Sets Reps Rest
A1 Mid-Supinated-Grip Chin-Up 20X0 4 8-10 1 min.
A2 Incline Pronated-Grip Dumbbell Press 20X0 4 8-10 1 min.
A3 Heels-Elevated Back Squat 20X0 4 8-10 1 min.
A4 Incline Hammer Curl 20X0 4 8-10 1 min.
A5 Parallel-Bar Dip 20X0 4 8-10 1 min.
A6 Dumbbell Step-Up 20X0 4 8-10 1 min.
Christian Raises


Day 2

  Exercise Tempo Sets Reps Rest
A1 Flat Neutral-Grip Dumbbell Press 20X0 4 8-10 1 min.
A2 Seated Neutral-Grip Cable Row 20X0 4 8-10 1 min.
A3 Low-Handle Hex-Bar Deadlift 20X0 4 8-10 1 min.
A4 Standing V-Handle Pressdown 20X0 4 8-10 1 min.
A5 Seated Preacher EZ-bar Reverse Curl 20X0 4 8-10 1 min.
A6 Rear-Foot-Elevated Back Split Squat 20X0 4 8-10 1 min.

This system works best with the following schedule:

  MON TUE WED THU FRI SAT SUN
WEEK 1 Day 1 Day 2 Off Day 1 Day 2 Off Off
WEEK 2 Day 1 Day 2 Off Day 1 Day 2 Off Off
WEEK 3 Day 1 Day 2 Off Day 1 Day 2 Off Off
WEEK 4 Day 1 Day 2 Off Day 1 Day 2 Off Off

This workout is quite deceptive. When you settle into maximal loads after the first week or so, it's suddenly not that easy. The first round or two, no problem. The third round is tough, and the fourth, a killer!


Make It Happen

There are always challenges with any system, and this one is no exception. It just doesn't work in a busy gym. You can't occupy multiple pieces of equipment and expect to hit your next set at the prescribed time without someone messing up your plans. So try to train during non-peak hours or consider a private facility if possible.

You may need to alter the programs to accommodate your situation – sequencing exercises/stations that are close to each other, and/or reducing the number of exercises in a circuit. And that's fine. With some ingenuity, you can make it happen. Just respect the principles outlined above.

The bottom line is that circuit training can be a great way to get in shape. If you've built up a decent amount of strength and size over the years, but all that muscle is covered with a layer of fat and walking up a flight of stairs leaves you breathless, this system is for you.