The difference between circuit training and HIIT

Do you know the difference between circuit training and HIIT (high-intensity interval training)?

One thing is very similar between the two: They both provide great ways to get in a killer workout in a shorter window of time. For you busy guys out there looking to become fit dads, these styles of workouts could be for you.

But the difference between these two styles of training is one of the more misunderstood aspects of health and fitness. I often hear the two terms used interchangeably, or one referred to as the other, and while they are similar, there are marked differences between the two training styles.

That being said, I want to review the differences between the two, as they can provide very different results depending on your fitness goals.

Circuit Training

Think of circuit training like this: You typically have anywhere from four to eight exercises, almost all of them of the strength training variety (i.e. using weight), and you want to complete all of these moves within a certain timeframe or rep range as quickly as possible.

Not clear enough?

Let's say you only have 30 minutes to workout but you still want to gain muscle and drop body fat. So you decide you want to do a total-body circuit. It might look something like this:

  • Complete as many rounds as possible in 30 minutes, resting 2 minutes in between rounds.
    • Bent-Over Dumbbell Cobra - 12 reps
    • Alternating Dumbbell Hammer Curls - 12 reps each arm
    • Dumbbell Bench Press - 12 reps
    • Dumbbell Walking Lunges - 10 reps each leg
    • Alternating Dumbbell Shoulder Press - 10 reps each side
    • Single-Leg Medicine Ball Lift-and-Chop - 10 reps each side

In between moves of the circuit, you're not necessarily running from one area of the gym to the other to complete the next exercise, but you aren't wasting time either. No checking your phone, no stopping to chat. Head down. Work on.

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

The operative phrase here is "high intensity."

While similar to circuit training, HIIT's major differentiator is the fact that during your moments of exercise, you are exerting maximum effort for a set period of time. This is critical — your exercises should be all-out, no holding back. You burst of exercise are followed by a period of rest.

HIIT workouts are much more cardio-based and typically don't feature strength moves like circuit training. HIIT is much more geared toward improving cardiovascular fitness, and studies show HIIT training's fat burning benefits last far longer and steady-state cardio.

Because of the intensity at which the exercises are performed during HIIT, the total time in the gym can be lower than circuit training or regular split training, and it is not recommended to do HIIT training as your primary training style, as the physical demands on the body can be extreme.

An example of a HIIT workout might look like this:

  • Complete 4 rounds, resting 1 1/2 minutes in between rounds.
    • Air-Dyne Bike Sprints - 30 seconds
    • Rest - 1 minute
    • Burpees - 30 seconds
    • Rest - 1 minute
    • Medicine Ball Slams - 30 seconds
    • Rest - 1 minute
    • Jump Lunges - 30 seconds
    • Rest - 1 minute
    • Wall Ball Toss - 30 seconds

If you total up the time spent exercises and the rest periods, your total time for this workout should be just over 30 minutes.