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No Time To Workout? Not On My Watch! Interval and Circuit Training to the Rescue.

If you are like me, getting in a good workout is like lubricating a joint or oiling a hinge: it's necessary and it makes everything else around it work that much better.  Brush my teeth? Check. Work out? Check!

Missing my workout tends to bring on a world of annoyance. Things just don't feel right.  Miss too many sessions and lethargy kicks in and I start to feel like I've betrayed myself and my body, not to mention all the people that will cross my surly path before I get to the gym again. Whatever my chosen "sweat", it clears the mind and elicits a hard to define euphoria... And I know from talking to other fitness fanatics that whatever "it" is, it is uniquely individual.

So the question becomes: what should you do if you're pressed for time?

Most athletic-minded travelers have heard of both interval and circuit training.  These two marvels of exercise science allow one to cut down their workout time dramatically, while still reaping, if not exceeding, the benefits of a longer, and more steady, exercise bout.  Imagine cutting your standard hour down to thirty or forty-five minutes, all the while getting in better shape! Research in numerous academic journals, supported by a variety of health and wellness certification bodies, agree that supplementing your normal regimen with time-saving (and butt-kicking!) bouts can benefit you in ways you might not have imagined!

Circuit training, which refers to a number of carefully selected exercises arranged consecutively, can provide the benefits of resistance training, as well as some cardiovascular gains.  It is performed by moving from one station to the next (usually 9-12 stations) with little (15 to 30 seconds) or no rest; performing a 15-to-45 second work bout of 8 to 20 repetitions.  This can be done using resistance machines, dumbbells, elastic resistance tubing, body weight, or even rudimentary calisthenics!

Get it done in 15 minutes? Yep!

If you do the math, one could complete a 12-station circuit, assuming 45 seconds of exercise time and 15 seconds of in-between time, in under 15 minutes.  If you can only spare a half-hour, you can complete two circuits, targeting your entire body! You can perform upper and lower body exercises, as well as opposing joint exercises (i.e. a bicep curl and a triceps extension or knee extension and hamstring curl), in order to elicit the greatest response.  Even better, some circuits even throw cardio equipment into the mix, allowing you to add one minute of all-out running or biking between your resistance training to further shake your session up.  If you've never tried circuit training before, seek out a qualified fitness professional to show you how to alternate muscle groups in the most time-efficient way.  Once you've become familiar, feel free to alternate your routine when you've adapted to the exercises.  By reducing stagnation, you will never tire of circuit training!

Interval training is the other head on this exercise monster, and it can be done just as efficiently as circuit training.  Basically, all you have to do is vary both the pace and intensity of your exercise and presto, you are performing an interval training workout.  Short bursts of intensive effort interspersed with more moderate stretches are the key.  The benefits are numerous:

  • it adds variety to your current exercise routine
  • it will speed up your current workout
  • it allows you to find time to exercise
  • it allows you to expend more calories than normal
  • you will be able to work harder than normal

Adding interval training to your routine, the energy levels in the body increase, and endurance can follow!  The Journal of Applied Physiology (Burgomaster et al) states that including a few short workouts weekly that involve all-out sprints as supplements to longer endurance activities allow the muscles to store more glycogen.  What does this mean?  More energy for longer and more intense bouts!

It doesn't take much...a mere fifteen minutes of sprint interval training (SIT) over a two-week period elicited the aforementioned results.  Adding SIT to your regimen keeps chronic fatigue at bay, a condition that could rear its ugly head when you try to go all-out every day of the week.


So hopefully you now have the thought running through your head that you can sneak in a productive workout in a very short time. But where should you start?  The January 2009 issue of Runner's World has a great 20-minute running workout to get you going.  It includes three variations that can take place on non-consecutive days, as to allow for recovery:

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Tempo Run

20 minutes of running at a comfortably hard pace

Every 4 to 6 weeks, pick up the pace by 4 to 6 seconds per mile

Trains the body to process lactic acid more efficiently.

Hill Repeats

Run for 1 minute uphill, rest for 30 seconds at the top, run down the hill, and rest for 2 minutes at the bottom. Repeat 4 times.

Try to go farther in 1 minute, or try to get up the hill faster. In inclement weather, run up stairwells!

Increased speed, strength, and running economy


Run for 30 seconds, and then recover with 30 seconds of jogging. Build up to 20 minutes.

Build to 2 minutes of running and reach a total of 20 minutes of fast running.

Gets fast-twitch muscle fibers firing and teaches the muscles how to hold a faster pace.

For those about to enter the athlete's foray of circuit and interval training, we salute you!  Good luck!

Dan Gaz is a Fitness Associate and Personal Trainer at the Rochester Athletic Club, in Rochester, MN. He has both a Bachelor's and Master's Degree in Kinesiology from Indiana University.

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