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Feel the Power of a Short Circuit

The top reason Americans don't work out is lack of time. Anita Kube was one of those harried people.

After her second child was born, the suburban Chicago mom realized she could no longer find two hours a day to go to the health club and spend 60 minutes on a treadmill. She stopped exercising, gained weight, and felt overwhelmed. "I had two small kids and I didn't feel like I had the energy to keep up with them."

So Kube, 39, turned to circuit training. She knew only that it promised a quick, easy-to-follow workout. "The time issue was huge," she says. "It was only 30 minutes. And the club is a half-mile from my home. It was an hour door-to-door."

Kube enjoyed the three-times-a-week workouts so much she stuck with them. She felt she was in better shape than she had been with a cardio-only routine.

Series of exercises

Circuit training refers to a series of exercises done one after the other with little rest between. A complete series makes up one circuit. Fast-paced lifestyles have helped make circuit training gyms the fastest-growing part of the health club industry, the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association says.

Circuit training can include any combination of movements. The most popular format is a series of resistance exercises done at a quick enough pace to keep your heart rate up.

"It's a very flexible and fun way to work out that taxes both the cardiovascular system and the muscular system," says Justin Pines, personal trainer of the year for the IDEA Health and Fitness Association. Circuit training burns about a third more calories than either traditional weight training or strict cardio work, such as using a treadmill or stair stepper. "You're moving faster, using big muscle groups, and you don't give your body time to recover, so you burn more calories."

Studies show resistance exercises in a circuit training format build strength while providing some of the heart-healthy benefits of a cardio workout. But be wary of circuit training workouts that promise these benefits in less than 20 minutes a few days a week, Pines says.

Cardio time

"You need to elevate your heart rate for at least 20 minutes to get cardiovascular benefits," he says; 25 or 30 minutes is better. "You can get muscle gains in less time."

If weight loss is your goal, you'll likely have to add other exercises to circuit training.

Circuit training's flexibility adds to its popularity. A workout can consist solely of cardiovascular exercises, solely of resistance exercises, or any combination of the two. The variety and pacing head off boredom.

The focus on a quick pace means circuit training may not be right for beginning exercisers or people at greater risk for injury, Pines says. "Circuit training has to be done fast. When people are moving fast, they are less likely to be moving properly. There's a higher risk for injuries. If you don't know anything about exercise, I would not recommend circuit training."

But it's been great for Kube, who once had trouble sticking with an exercise routine for more than three months. Now the mother of three, she's been circuit training for four years.

"I feel like I am in much better shape," she says. "I'm not particularly athletic, but I enjoy exercise now. I love it."

A circuit training sample

Pines offers a simple circuit training workout you can do at home. You'll need hand weights or dumbbells. Rest 10 seconds or less between exercises. Repeat the circuit to add time to your workout. Check with your doctor first, especially if you're out of shape.

  • Squats (15 to 20 reps): For added challenge, hold 3- to 5-pound weights in each hand.

  • Push-ups (10 to 15 reps): If you can't do a traditional push-up, put your knees on the floor.

  • Bent-over row (8 to 12 reps): Use dumbbell of 5 to 15 pounds, depending on your strength. Bend at the waist, prop one foot up on a low step, and bring the opposite arm back as if starting a lawn mower. Keep the weight close to your body and don't lift the weight higher than your ribcage.

  • Static lunges (12 to 15 reps, leading with each leg): From standing position, step forward, making sure the knee makes a 90-degree angle. Return to standing. For additional challenge, hold 3- to 5-pound weights in each hand.

  • Bicycle kick (30 to 50 rotations): Lie on back and raise legs in air, bracing lower back with hands. If you have lower back issues, substitute 15 to 25 crunches.

  • Standing shoulder press (8 to 12): From a standing position, start with weights at shoulders. Extend arms overhead. Use dumbbell of 5 to 15 pounds, depending on your strength.