Circuit Training vs. High-Intensity Interval Training

Circuit training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) are two popular exercise routines that are gaining in popularity. You may be interested in trying these types of workouts and wondering what the benefits of each are. Let’s look at both regimes and see how they are similar, how they are different, and which model is right for you.


Circuit Training

Like the name implies, a circuit training workout relies on “circuits” or series of exercises. Once a circuit is completed, you start over from the beginning. The goal is to run through short exercises that focus on one specific body area or muscle group, then move on to the next. By exercising in this way, you can work your whole body.

One advantage of the circuit training model is that it motivates you to train harder. Because each exercise is short and you rotate muscle groups, you can perform at a greater intensity. Compare this to a workout that focuses on a single muscle group for an extended period. You get tired faster and may swap intensity for number of repetitions.

Circuit training allows you to train at high intensity for a short time, then switch to a new activity. By the time you repeat the circuit, each muscle group has had time to reset and recover. For this reason, circuit training is considered a very efficient method of working out.


High-Intensity Interval Training

HIIT is similar to circuit training. The goal is to perform short intervals of high-intensity exercise. The high-intensity effort allows you to thoroughly work a single muscle group, while short intervals will maintain that high intensity.  After all, our bodies can only perform maximum effort exercise for up to 20 seconds (more if you’re super fit)! HIIT alternates between high and low intensity, where you aren’t working yourself to the point of exhaustion.

HIIT is another efficient workout. Mayo Clinic recommends interval training for older adults.1 Interval training can quickly increase muscle mass for younger adults and slow the inevitable degeneration in older adults. HIIT can improve heart health and blood pressure. Furthermore, HIIT is generally safe for most people, even those with preexisting conditions. (Always discuss any new exercise routines with your doctor before starting.)

What’s more surprising and hopeful is that the workout’s intensity doesn’t have to be great—for example, alternating your pace when out for a walk can have many of the same benefits as a more traditional high-intensity interval workout. Walking quickly is the high-intensity portion of the workout, placed between intervals of walking slowly. Switching your pace every 3 minutes can be more beneficial than a longer duration walk at a moderate pace.


Similarities and Differences

As you can see, there are many similarities between HIIT and circuit training. Both focus on short intervals of high-intensity exercise to deliver the same benefits. Both are considered very efficient and effective ways to work out.

One key difference is that a circuit workout is designed to build endurance. You move through a circuit of high-intensity exercises, switching the muscle groups you focus on. HIIT, on the other hand, is less structured. It focuses solely on the high-intensity intervals. In this way, circuit training can almost be thought of as a series of small HIIT workouts.


Choosing a Workout

Choosing a new exercise routine can be difficult. Starting it can also be challenging. The first step is to consult your doctor, especially if you have any medical conditions.

Once you know what exercises are safe for you, think about your goals. Are you young and healthy and want to get in better shape? Maybe a circuit training routine is right for you. If you’re older and simply trying to avoid age-related declines in fitness, a simpler HIIT workout might be better. Maybe you’re training for a sport or event and need something other than circuit training or HIIT. That’s fine, too. There are plenty of options.


  1. Why interval training may be the best workout at any age. Mayo Clinic. Accessed 12/30/2020.

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