Sidelined circuits for a fancy spin session or avoiding the cardio workout completely? We hear you: The thought of doing rounds of exercises one after the other all sounds rather militant and old-fashioned, right? Wrong. Despite being invented in the ’50s, pre–Jane Fonda aerobics, pre-barre and pre–Joe Wicks (yes there was an era when he didn’t dominate the fitness charts), circuit classes are making a comeback.
“People want a workout that is going to provide them with optimum results without having to spend hours slogging away at the gym. Physically, the body is constantly switched on in a circuit class, as you’re always moving, but the variety of exercises also help to keep us mentally engaged in a workout,” explains Mike Chapman, co-owner of F45 Tottenham Court Road, a dedicated circuit-based fitness studio (more on that later).
Keep scrolling to read why you need to give circuits the once over.
But isn't it just an out-of-date HIIT class?
Absolutely not. The perfect mix of cardio and strength exercises, while HIIT (aka high-intensity interval training) focuses on going hell for leather on one exercise until you can’t breathe, circuit sets last for longer, but they focus on strength and cardio equally. So instead of 30 seconds of squat thrusts until you feel queasy, you might do a minute of bodyweight squats focusing on technique and reps.
This means that as well as getting your heart rate pumping like Grandmaster Flash, you’re also honing in on those big calorie-burning exercises, because there’s nothing like a lunge or squat to get those thighs fired up and the scales coming down. That’s because you have to work all the muscles in the lower part of your body at the same time, and that’s effort all over.
It’s not just a leg workout, though: Circuit classes will tone you from top to toe. If you’ve never been to a circuit class before, expect around eight to 10 stations. Each class is different every time you go (so you can’t predict how painful the workout will be and you keep going back), but generally, they include a variety of exercises. Think of exercises like planking on a medicine ball, step-ups, bicep curls and weighted squat walks.
What’s more is that the arrival of HIIT with the long-standing success of circuits means that hybrid classes are now being created. “We have dedicated circuits classes, but we’ve also just launched Freestyle Group Training classes, which is a merge of both. It consists of nine stations made up of bodyweight exercises and innovative HIIT equipment, including the SkiErg,” explains James Capon, health and fitness manager at Fitness First.
You can't see it on the timetable
Yep, note Fitness First referring to it as FGT. While circuit classes have more than likely been on your local gym’s timetable forever, they could well have given it a fancy new name to entice in newbies. However, after speaking to Virgin Active, Nuffield Health, The Gym and Pure Gym, all offer classes at each and every one of their gyms with Pure Gym revealing that circuits make up 50 of their classes per week in each studio. That’s 450,000 a year, which proves that there’s a big fan base out there. The best way to seek out a circuit class at your local gym is to ask at reception.
There are even dedicated circuit studios popping up all over the country. Remember F45? Its franchises have spread like wildfire across Australia and America, and now they’ve landed in Blighty. Currently just in London, they plan to migrate north in the next few months, with a site in Birmingham already secured. Featuring 45-minute workouts based on functional training, the exercises are selected from a database of over 3000 different ones, so it’s highly unlikely you’ll follow the same circuit twice. Currently trending is the Hollywood, which involves 27 (yes, 27) stations that push your strength, core stability and cardio endurance into the spotlight.
We’d be lying if we said circuits didn’t contain some cardio, but it’s so varied and fast that it passes you by before you have time to focus in on how much you hate it. Compare 45 seconds of jumping jacks to even 10 minutes of monotony on the treadmill, and you don’t have to do the maths to realise which one is the better deal.
“People’s mentality is, overall, more positive in circuits,” continues Chapman. “Even someone who doesn’t like cardio will persevere, because they know it’s going to be over in a short space of time. The idea that they can move on to a potentially more enjoyable exercise once complete pushes them further, too.”
Most circuit classes also divide up so there are two to three people per station. That’s enough to keep you motivated and pander to your competitive side if you’re so inclined, but it means no risk of bumping into one another as you all try and get your head round aerobic routines at 6:30 a.m.
How many calories will I burn?
Ah, the big C-bomb: calories. Virgin claims its circuit class will burn around 500 calories in half an hour, as does Fitness First, while F45 reports that some of its extreme circuit plans with 22 stations will burn upwards of 800 calories per session. Exercise-wise, strength moves are the big hitters: Think sled pushes, kettlebell swings and those bodyweight squats. A maximum of three sessions a week is advised, but even just incorporating one circuits class a week into your routine will reap you leaner, meaner rewards.
Next up, see how we fared when we signed up to an F45 session.