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Strength training vs circuit training: What’s the difference?

We compared popular the popular training styles of strength and circuit training so you can figure out which one is right for you. 

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What's the difference between strength training and circuit training?

Strength training and circuit training are often seen as polar opposite styles of training, however, depending on how some of the principles are applied, they can have a number of similarities.

Circuits can be programmed in a way that applies some strength training principles, while strength training sessions can include "mini circuits", such as supersets or trisets, to incorporate the benefits of circuit training. If I've confused you, this article will compare and contrast these two training structures, to help you decide which training style might be most suited to you and your current goals.

Strength training

What is strength training?

Strength training is a type of training that involves the movement of heavy implements such as weights to increase muscle strength and size. True strength training typically involves using heavy loads for low repetitions and long rest periods. However, you can still build strength through moderate and higher rep schemes if adequate stimulus is applied.

Who is it suited to?

In my opinion, strength training is suitable for everyone. However the expression of "strength" will look different for each individual. Strength training for an elderly person may involve sitting down and standing up out of a chair, while for the world's strongest man, it may be lifting 500kg! No matter who is performing this type of training, the same principles apply.

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What are the benefits and outcomes of strength training?

There are many benefits to strength training, a number of which are not purely physical. The most obvious benefit of strength training is that it builds muscular strength, which is important for supporting our bones and joints. Healthy bones and joints can mean experiencing less pain and a lower risk of injury. Our muscles and bones naturally decline as we age, and strength training can mitigate those processes.

Strength training will also help build lean muscle mass, which is important for weight management. Strength training can also be good for improving mental health through the release of endorphins from the pituitary gland, which has a natural analgesic and potentially euphoric physiological effect, as well as through improving confidence.

What are some types of strength training?

There are a number of different ways in which we can train for strength. A lot of people look at rep ranges and argue that strength adaptations only occur with very low repetitions and a high load. However, this is not the case. Studies have shown that strength gains can still be obtained through training with higher repetitions, likely due to an increase in muscle fibre size and number.

Strength training can include a wide range of different styles such as powerlifting, weightlifting, CrossFit, strongman and even bodybuilding. No matter which discipline you choose, the basic principles still apply:

  • Overload: The stimulus needs to be greater than what the muscles are adapted to.
  • Progression: The exercises and the program in general need to continually increase (this could be through altering the load, reps, sets, frequency, tempo or rest periods).
  • Specificity: Train the movements and muscles that you want to get stronger.
  • Variation: Change up your program and exercises every 4-6 weeks, as your body is very clever at adapting to certain stimuli.
  • Reversibility: Use it or lose it!

Circuit training

What is circuit training?

Circuit training is a style of training that involves a sequence of bodyweight or weighted exercises completed in succession. They are typically known for being higher in intensity, using a higher number of repetitions with less resistance and shorter rest periods.

But this doesn't necessarily have to be the case. You can still use heavier loads and lowered repetitions for strength-style circuits, however, there will be a ceiling for how heavy you will be able to lift and consequently how strong you can get while maintaining good technique with limited rest periods.

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Who is it suited to?

Circuit-style training is suitable for people who prefer higher intensity workouts or are looking to increase their cardiovascular fitness. Circuit training is also useful for people who have limited time and need to fit a workout in around their busy schedule. If pure muscle strength and building lean mass is the goal, circuit training may not be the most effective option. But it can help with some muscle maintenance and fat loss when combined with an appropriate nutritional strategy.

What are the benefits and outcomes of circuit training?

One of the main benefits of circuit training is increasing cardiovascular capacity. Circuits usually involve more full body movements, or they at least target most muscle groups during one session. They provide plenty of variety for those who prefer to change things up often and like to keep moving during the entire workout.

As mentioned above, they are also very time efficient, as rest periods are kept to a minimum. Circuit training is also beneficial for maintaining a healthy weight and mental state for the same reason as strength training.

What are some types of circuit training?

Circuit training, like strength training, also has a number of disciplines that come under it. Brands like CrossFit and F45 are two of the most well-known circuit training franchises (yes, CrossFit falls under both strength and circuit training).

Circuits can be programmed in a number of ways. The most common are:

  • Repetition circuits: How long it takes to perform a set number of repetitions.
  • Timed circuits: Set periods of work and rest.
  • EMOM; Every minute on the minute, perform the prescribed exercises.

Circuits can be broken up into rounds or can also be completed unbroken from start to finish by making your way through all the prescribed exercises and repetitions.

What's the difference between strength training and circuit training?

Strength training and circuit training have many overlapping features that can be applied to each to elicit similar training responses. However, typically, strength training involves using higher loads for fewer repetitions and increased rest periods. Exercises are usually performed in isolation or can be combined together to create supersets, trisets and so on.

Circuit training typically involves using lighter loads or bodyweight only for a higher number of repetitions and minimal rest periods. Sessions tend to incorporate more full body exercises or at least involve a full body workout, whereas strength training sessions mainly focus on a specific muscle group.

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How do results differ between strength training and circuit training?

The outcomes of strength training versus circuit training only differ depending on how they are structured. Strength training is a more effective way of building lean muscle mass and size. The more lean muscle you possess, the greater your energy expenditure throughout the day and this can help with fat loss when combined with an appropriate nutrition strategy.

Circuit training tends to expend more calories during the sessions, as you are continually moving. However, it's muscle building properties aren't as great compared to strength training, unless a strength style circuit program is undertaken.

In terms of health, circuit training tends to be more geared towards cardiovascular effort as opposed to muscle strength. However, you can still experience cardiovascular benefits with strength training. Movements tend to be more controlled during strength training sessions as there is no rush to do them in a set time period and you have plenty of rest and recovery to avoid fatigue.

Strength training and circuit training can be incorporated into a fitness regime either exclusively or combined, depending on the goal of the individual. Both styles of training have their benefits and limitations. I hope you now feel more equipped to make the decision on which training style is best for you.


Written by Kayla Lee

Kayla Lee is a physiotherapist with a background in Exercise & Sport Science. She specialises in women's health and sports physiotherapy. Kayla has recently transitioned from a clinical practice to working in the education space, providing training courses in applied biomechanics for personal trainers, students and clinicians. She also works online as a Telehealth consultant and coach.

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