Weights and Cardio Circuit Training Program

Athletes holding dumbbells
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Even if some weight loss and fitness ideas in the exercise sciences have not been realized to the extent we all wished for, there is no doubt that the ultimate fat burning and fitness criterion is how much energy you expend in physical activity, whether an organized activity or non-exercise activity. It all adds up and there is no doubt that building extra muscle to increase metabolism, and exercising at an intensity that increases post-exercise metabolism, all contribute to losing fat and enabling us to slim down and get fit.

Before you get into the detail, or at any time, it may be useful to check out our ten top exercises for hints on form and technique.

What Is Circuit Training?

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. An exercise "circuit" is one completion of all prescribed exercises in the program; the idea being that when one circuit is complete, you 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. This program has only five exercises.

The Basic Program

The complete program includes three circuits to gain strength development and cardio in under an hour of activity. Starting out, you can choose to do only one or two circuits and then progress to three or more and adjust weights and repetitions upward to suit your fitness as you progress.

You could do this program four or five times in a week but our recommendation is to do no more than three sessions and supplement that with at least one pure cardio session like the treadmill, walking or running, plus at least one pure strength training day on the weights.

Combining weights and aerobics in circuits or interval training, or on alternate days, is not new. However, there is scientific evidence that it works to improve overall fitness and metabolism (Park 2003, LeMura 2006). Some similar programs make the mistake of using light weights or an intensity that is too low.

Equipment and Details

Time for each circuit: 15 minutes (approximately)
Equipment required: a step of 6 inches (15 centimeters), eg Reebok Step; two dumbbells.
Exercises: five – basic step aerobics, dumbbell overhead press, bicep curl, weighted lunge, squat
Place of Activity: home, gym, park or open space
Number of circuits in a workout: three; but start with one or two and work up if necessary
Muscle groups targeted: shoulders, arms, back, legs, butt, abdominals

What You Do in This Circuit Program

  1. A complete circuit takes about 15 minutes total time, involves five exercises and requires one set of dumbbells and one step platform or the equivalent of at least 6 inches (15 centimeters).
  2. The dumbbells should be of a weight so that the maximum number of repetitions of the upper body exercises, the overhead press, and bicep curl, is 10-12 repetitions, and not much more for one set. It's important that these weights are heavy enough to build strength and muscle. The lower body exercises, the weighted lunge and the squat, are done with the same dumbbells at the side allowing more flexibility.
  3. The circuit exercise variables – dumbbell weight, the number of repetitions, the number of circuits — can be adjusted to get the kind of workout required depending on fitness and training goals.
  4. This circuit can be done at home, a gym or the park. You need a space sufficient to utilize a step platform or equivalent, a set of dumbbells and sufficient room for lunges and squats. Perhaps choose a time when it’s not so busy if you plan to do the circuit at the gym.
  5. The exercises involving leg movements such as step-ups and lunges are meant to raise the cardio intensity, while the standing weights exercises allow some comparative interval rest while focusing on muscle and strength development.
  6. The times set for each exercise include movement between exercises, interval rest and setup time for each. It’s a busy schedule on purpose.
  7. Ensure you are medically fit for this program before you commence. Ask your doctor for a clearance if you are unsure.

The Exercises

  1. Warmup. Start with a light warm-up of about ten minutes. You can stretch, jog, or fast walk on the spot or treadmill, do some dumbbell bicep curls and overhead presses at a leisurely pace with a light weight and a few crunches.
  2. Step ups, fast – 40 steps. Step up onto the step bench starting with the right foot, follow with the left, then reverse it down again, alternating the starting foot at half way if you wish. This exercise should be performed as fast as possible with balance and safety. Ensure the step is anchored solidly before starting. (2 minutes.)
  3. Dumbbell curls. Hold the dumbbells at the sides, palms facing inward (like a hammer grip). Do 12 alternate curls with each arm lifting the dumbbell to the shoulder by rotating the forearm so that the palms face upward, flexing at the elbow, then return to the side. These curls should be done somewhat slowly while emphasizing good form. Place dumbbells in the rack or safely on the floor after each weight exercise. (90 seconds)
  4. Stepups, fast – 40 steps. Same as number 2, Stepups.(2 minutes.)
  5. Dumbbell lunges, fast – 20 lunges, 10 each side. Hold dumbbells by the side, hammer grip, and lunge forward with each foot alternately, ensuring the knee does not extend beyond the toes. Keep the dumbbells by the side as you lunge. This exercise should be done as fast as reasonably possible with balance and safety. (90 seconds)
  6. Stepups, fast – 40 steps. Same as number 2, Stepups.(2 minutes.)
  7. Overhead press – 10-12 repetitions. Move immediately to the dumbbell weights station. Run if possible. Do 10-12 overhead dumbbell presses. Hold dumbbells horizontally at the shoulders with upright arms. Lift the dumbbells overhead with full arm extension making sure not to lock the elbows out explosively. Return to the shoulder and immediately repeat the exercise. Do this exercise slowly with good form. (90 seconds)
  8. Stepups, fast – 40 steps. Same as number 2, Stepups.(2 minutes.)
  9. Dumbbell squats – 20 squats. Do 20 squats; rest for 20 seconds after number 10 if required, else do 20 without rest. Hold dumbbells at the sides with arms long. Squat down, bending at the knee until thighs are approximately parallel with the floor ensuring knees are not extended too far beyond the toes. Straighten to the starting position and repeat the squat. Do these squats slowly with good form. The back should be kept straight or slightly arched inward, the neutral position, but not rounded at shoulders or spine, with the head still, looking forward. (2 minutes.)
  10. CIRCUIT REPEAT. Rest for two minutes between circuits only if necessary. Remember to move quickly between exercises. Run if you can.
  11. Cool Down with gentle stretching and some slow step ups or similar for a total of ten minutes. This is important to dissipate muscle lactate — a product of high-intensity exercise — and prevent undue soreness next day. This is known as DOMS, 'delayed onset muscle soreness'.

Tips for Your Program

  • The workout features elements of high-intensity aerobics combined with muscle building strength and conditioning. If you can’t reach the nominated number of step-up repetitions (40), reduce the number while maintaining the pace. For example, do the step-ups at a fast pace for 30 seconds instead of 40 seconds and so on.
  • In the warmup or beforehand, choose a set of dumbbells with which you can complete 10-12 lifts of the overhead press and the bicep curl for one set of 10-12 repetitions. Try not to reduce the dumbbell weight during the program. You need to try to get this weight at the limit of your existing strength and endurance so that you just about fail at number 12 lift. This is called 12 RM, repetition maximum.
  • Try to choose weights and step up repetitions that you can stick with for the complete circuit once you commence. Do three circuits for a total of about 45 minutes with ten minutes warm up and ten cool down.
  • The intervals between exercises are deliberately minimal and are mainly changeover time. This is designed to keep that heart rate pulsing along at greater than 70 percent of your maximum output, which is where you get good training effect and metabolism increases.
  • One other point: in this higher-intensity zone, strength development and aerobic fitness are more likely to be complementary. Long and slow endurance training conflicts with strength training. The body’s muscle response is contradictory and the results can be disappointing (Nader 2006).
  • You could use a stair stepper machine if you do this circuit in a gym. However, one of the keys to circuit training is to have a minimal interval between exercises. So you would need to ensure a swift transition to the stepper from the area where you plan to do the dumbbell exercises.
  • The number of exercises in the circuit has deliberately been minimized so that the program is easy to learn and easy to recall for immediate implementation.
  • There are no shortcuts to fat loss and fitness when it comes to exercise: you can go "hard and short" or "slow and long" or somewhere in between. This circuit program is somewhere in between. I can promise that your butt will be hangin' out at the end of it if you max it out.

Note: The program is designed as a higher-intensity exercise program. You should get a medical clearance if you have been inactive for some time or have an existing medical condition. In addition, please observe the warmup and cool down periods and stop exercising on the occurrence of the unusual pain of any sort.

Check Points

  • Start slowly and build up; that’s the key. You could do one or two circuits to start with until you get familiar with the program. If you choose to ramp it up, increase the number of circuits. Further along, you could increase the step repetitions, the dumbbell exercise sets or even the dumbbell weight.
  • It’s important to keep the weights heavy enough for 10-12 RM, which means you can’t do more than 10-12 lifts without your good form failing.
  • It’s very important to maintain good form with each lift. The upper-body lifts, in particular, should not be done so fast as to lose form and concentration in the target muscles.
  • Use each exercise to work the abdominals. Although none of the five exercises targets the abdominals directly, remember to pull those abs into the brace position in preparation for each lift. Do the same when working the step up. Practice stepping with the abs braced. It sounds a bit odd, but it works after you get used to it. And it doesn’t affect your breathing. Bracing the abs is not the same as holding your breath; neither is bracing the abs ‘pulling your belly button toward your back’ like some trainers seem to recommend. It should feel similar to the contraction in the abdominals as you cough or clear the throat.
  • Use a heart rate monitor or manual pulse check if you wish to keep track of the intensity. Calculate your potential maximum heart rate with the formula 220 minus your age. For a forty-year-old, this would be 220-40 = 180 beats per minute (bpm). This is only a guide and more sophisticated formulae are available yet not required here. Continuing with the example above, a training rate goal would be 70 percent of 180, which is 126 bpm. Let’s say the range is 120-130 bpm.
  • To make sure you are exercising in a safe zone, particularly if you are unfit or have a medical condition, combine the training heart rate zone with the talk test. The talk test implies that you are able to converse adequately, if not altogether comfortably while exercising. You should never feel completely breathless and unable to talk in this program. If so: slow down, do fewer step-ups, and move more slowly between exercises.
  • If you don't bother with heart rate monitoring — and most people don't — bear in mind that this circuit is designed to raise the heart rate to the point where you are breathing 'somewhat hard' on the perceived exertion scale, yet without being breathless and unable to talk at all.

That's it. Good luck. Let me know how you go, or if you have any questions.

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Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  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

Additional Reading
  • LeMura LM, von Duvillard SP, Andreacci J, Klebez JM, Chelland SA, Russo J. Lipid and lipoprotein profiles, cardiovascular fitness, body composition, and diet during and after resistance, aerobic and combination training in young women. Eur J Appl Physiol.(5-6):451-8, 2000.
  • Nader GA. Concurrent strength and endurance training: from molecules to man. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Nov;38(11):1965-70.
  • Park SK, Park JH, Kwon YC, Kim HS, Yoon MS, Park HT. The effect of combined aerobic and resistance exercise training on abdominal fat in obese middle-aged women. Journal of Physiological Anthropology and Applied Human Science, 22, 129-135, 2003.