Weights and Cardio Circuit Training Program

The ultimate test of a workout's fat-burning potential is how much energy you expend in doing it. Building muscle to increase metabolism, and exercising at an intensity that increases post-exercise metabolism, both contribute to losing fat and improving fitness. Circuit training is an efficient way to work toward both of those goals. The following circuit training workout is a combination of high-intensity cardio and resistance training.

Combining weights and cardio in circuits or interval training is not new, and science backs it up. Research shows that high-intensity circuit training can help to improve overall fitness, strength, and body composition.

Group of people with dumbbells doing step-ups in circuit training workout
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What Are Circuit Training Workouts?

This circuit training is a combination of high-intensity aerobics and resistance training designed to be easy to follow, give you a great workout, and target fat loss, muscle building, and heart-lung fitness. Traditionally, the time between exercises in circuit training is short, often with rapid movement to the next exercise. 

An exercise "circuit" is one completion of all exercises in a program—the idea being that when one circuit is complete, you immediately start at the first exercise again for another circuit. Traditionally, the time between exercises in circuit training is short, often with rapid movement to the next exercise to keep your heart rate up. 

For this workout, you should aim for three completed circuits. The complete workout should take less than an hour. When you first start, you can choose to do only one or two circuits and then progress to three or more. You can also add weight and repetitions as you progress. Do this program four or five times a week. Better yet, do it three times a week, and then add one cardio session (such as walking or running) and one devoted purely to strength training.

Equipment and Details

In this circuit, the exercises involving leg movements are meant to raise the cardio intensity, while the standing weights exercises allow some rest while focusing on muscle and strength development.

Time per circuit: Approximately 15 minutes

Equipment required: Step at least 6 inches (15 centimeters) high; two dumbbells

Muscle groups targeted: Shoulders, arms, back, legs, butt, abs

Choose Your Weights

You'll need weights heavy enough to build strength and muscle. The dumbbells should be heavy enough so that you can only do 10 to 12 repetitions of the upper body exercises. Select weights that you can stick with for the complete circuit once you start.

Choose Your Location

You can do this circuit at home, the gym, or in your yard or a park. You need a space big enough to use a step platform and a set of dumbbells and to perform lunges and squats. If you plan to do the circuit at the gym, you may need to choose a time when it's less busy.

Check With Your Doctor

This is a higher-intensity exercise program. You should get medical clearance if you have been inactive for some time or have an existing medical condition. Be sure to warm up and cool down properly, and stop exercising if you feel any pain (soreness and muscle fatigue is OK, but sharp or sudden pains are not).

This circuit is designed to raise the heart rate to the point where you are breathing somewhat hard on the perceived exertion scale, without being breathless and unable to talk at all. If the workout becomes too intense, slow down, do fewer step-ups, and move more slowly between exercises.

The Circuit Exercises

The times for each exercise include movement between exercises, interval rest, and setup time for each. It’s a busy schedule on purpose.

Warmup

Before you begin the circuit, warm up for at least 10 minutes. This dynamic routine is one option; it includes high knees walking and jump roping to get your whole body warmed up and ready to go.

Step-Ups

Step up onto your step bench, starting with the right foot. Follow with the left, then reverse to step back down onto the floor. Go as fast as you can while maintaining balance and safety. Ensure the step is anchored solidly before starting. If 40 reps is too difficult, try doing fewer reps, but keep the pace fast. When finished, move quickly to the next exercise.

  • Reps: 40
  • Time: 2 minutes

If you do this circuit in a gym, you can substitute the step-ups for 2 minutes on the stair-stepper machine. However, one of the keys to circuit training is short transitions between exercises. So you would need to move quickly from the stepper to the weights area and back.

Dumbbell Curls

Hold the dumbbells at your sides, palms facing inward. Alternating arms, lift the dumbbell to the shoulder by rotating the forearm so that the palms face forward, then flexing at the elbow for a bicep curl. Take your time and emphasize good form.

  • Reps: 12 on each side
  • Time: 90 seconds

Step-Ups

Repeat as above (40 steps in 2 minutes). If you could do 40 reps on the first round, but it's too difficult now, next time start with fewer reps. Try to choose a number that works for all rounds.

Dumbbell Twist Lunges

Hold your dumbbells at chest level, palms facing each other. Step forward into a basic lunge position, keeping your knee over your foot. From your waist, twist your upper body toward the side with the forward (bent) knee. Hold dumbbells still. Or, for an extra challenge, extend arms out straight, then return them to your chest before twisting back to center. Step foot back and repeat on other side.

  • Reps: 10 on each side
  • Time: 90 seconds

Step-Ups

Repeat as above (40 steps in 2 minutes). Move quickly to the next exercise. The intervals between exercises are deliberately brief to keep your heart rate pulsing along.

Be sure to engage your abdominal muscles with each exercise. Pull your abs into the brace position in preparation for each lift and while stepping up. Keep breathing while you engage your abs. It should feel similar to the way your core contracts when you cough or clear your throat.

Dumbbell Lateral Raises

Stand with dumbbells at your sides, palms facing in. With control, lift the dumbbells up and out to the side until they are level with your shoulders, keeping arms straight. You are forming a "T" shape. Hold briefly at the top, then slowly lower.

  • Reps: 10 to 12
  • Time: 90 seconds

Step-Ups

Repeat as above (40 steps in 2 minutes). Move quickly to the next exercise.

Dumbbell Squats

Hold dumbbells at sides, with arms long and palms facing in. Squat down, bending at the knee until thighs are approximately parallel with the floor. Don't let knees extend too far beyond the toes. Straighten to the starting position and repeat.

Do these squats slowly, with good form. Your back should be straight or slightly arched inward, but not rounded at shoulders or spine. Keep your head still and looking forward.

  • Reps: 20 (take a 20-second rest after the first 10 reps, if needed)
  • Time: 2 minutes

Rest and Repeat

Rest briefly (no more than 2 minutes, as needed). Then start over and repeat the circuit. Do one or two circuits to start with until you get familiar with the program. To ramp it up, increase the number of circuits. Eventually, you can increase the step repetitions, add more dumbbell exercise sets, or use heavier weights.

Cool Down

Finish with gentle stretching and some slow step-ups or high knees for a total of 10 minutes. This is important to dissipate muscle lactate—a product of high-intensity exercise—and help prevent delayed-onset soreness.

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Article Sources
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  1. McPherron AC, Guo T, Bond ND, Gavrilova O. Increasing muscle mass to improve metabolism. Adipocyte. 2013;2(2):92-98. doi:10.4161/adip.22500

  2. Sperlich B, Wallmann-Sperlich B, Zinner C, Von Stauffenberg V, Losert H, Holmberg HC. Functional High-Intensity Circuit Training Improves Body Composition, Peak Oxygen Uptake, Strength, and Alters Certain Dimensions of Quality of Life in Overweight Women. Front Physiol. 2017;8:172. doi:10.3389/fphys.2017.00172

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