Workout class got you feeling like you need Rosetta Stone? You’re not alone. Heck, even weight room veterans find some terms in the fitness lexicon hard to differentiate.
Three terms that are commonly confused by newbies and advanced lifters alike are “circuits,” “intervals,” and “supersets.”
They refer to three ways of structuring your workout that don’t seem all that different at first glance — but they actually are. And if you know what sets them apart, as well as how to best implement them in your routine, you can reach your goals faster.
Luckily for you, we put together this guide to help.
It may seem a little overwhelming at first, but “if you’re a group fitness fan, being familiar with the fitness terms will help you understand exactly what you’re getting yourself into,” says strength and conditioning coach Jake Harcoff.
It can also help you figure out which fitness streaming service, class package, or local gym is right for you.
Eventually, you can use these various training styles to put together a workout regimen that will help you reach your goals.
“If you know what the training styles are and the outcomes you can get from them, you are in a good place to achieve your goals,” Harcoff says.
In the meantime, don’t let the fact that you haven’t memorized the lingo limit you.
“Don’t let complicated acronyms stop you from trying a new fitness class or [setting] new goals for yourself,” says certified personal trainer and registered dietitian Carissa Galloway, RDN, sports nutrition consultant with Premier Protein.
If you’ve ever set foot in a boutique fitness studio, fire-breathed your way through boot camp, or ponied a Peloton bike, you’ve done interval-style training.
“An interval is a specific amount of time in which you do one exercise or movement,” says Harcoff. Interval training is any workout that involves alternating between doing an exercise — usually at very high intensity — and resting.
If the rest part sounds pretty sweet, the kicker is that you actually need to go HARD when you’re working.
“Here, intensity is referring to effort of force production, not effort of sustained endurance,” says Will Levy, head trainer at Melbourne Strength & Conditioning.
In other words, to really cash in on the bennies of high intensity interval training (HIIT), you need to be ready to feel downright uncomfortable when you crank out nearly 100 percent effort for a length of time.
The benefits of going at maximum intensity? Welp, they can’t be overstated. “Interval training is great for anyone trying to improve performance, lose weight, improve endurance, or burn fat,” says Harcoff.
1. Work out your work-to-rest ratio
With interval training, the key is to really think about the work-to-rest ratio.
Key word: Ratio.
There is no set amount of time you need to work in an interval, nor is there a set amount of time you need to rest. Both measures are customizable.
For example, you could perform 20 seconds of all-out effort followed by 10 seconds of rest (that’s a 2-to-1 work-to-rest ratio). But you could also sprint for 60 seconds, rest for 2 minutes, and repeat (that’s a 1-to-2 work-to-rest ratio).
A good move is to start with a 1-to-1 work-to-rest ratio and then adjust the rest up or down as needed.
“The important thing is that you actually rest during the rest periods — not jog, pedal, or move slower,” says Levy. “Actually stop and rest.”
2. Prioritize quality over quantity
Yes, the goal of internals is to, well, go. But you should never sacrifice form for reps. Doing so puts you at high risk of injury. Sure, there are workarounds, but let’s do our best to stay healthy, eh?
3. Judge your efforts after the fact
TBH, you should feel pretty damn toasted after interval training.
If you’re not completely breathless by the end of your interval workout, you probably could have done more. If this is the case, just make a note of it in your training journal and adjust accordingly next time.
4. Take a few days off before your next interval workout
It’s actually not recommended that you do interval training daily. Your body needs time to recover from all that vroom-vroom-ing.
Your move: Rest at least 48 hours between HIIT sessions. For most people, 2–3 sessions a week will be enough to see results.
Ever seen someone do a set of pull-ups and then immediately drop to the floor to crank out push-ups like they’re at boot camp? That’s a superset.
“A superset is a workout structure where you do two exercises that use opposition muscle groups, back to back,” explains Harcoff.
In the above example, the pull-ups use your upper body pulling muscles (back and biceps), while the push-ups use your upper body pushing muscles (chest, shoulders, and triceps).
Other common opposing muscle groups that can, and often do, get paired in a superset:
- chest and back
- hamstrings and quads
- biceps and triceps
The main benefit of supersets? They’re an incredibly time-efficient way to make gains.
“Supersets allow the muscles used in the first exercise to rest while you train the exercises in the second muscle group,” says Harcoff. In other words, the rest between sets is built in.
1. Decide if your goal is to build muscular endurance or muscle mass
Supersets can be used for building either muscular endurance or muscular strength.
In plain English, muscular endurance is how long your muscles can keep up with a certain amount of work before they need a nap. And muscular strength is how much weight you can lift at once.
While supersets are most commonly used to build muscular endurance, you can use them for muscular strength gains by using higher weight, fewer repetitions, and longer rest periods, says Harcoff.
2. Pick weighted exercises
When creating a superset, think about choosing weighted exercises (or bodyweight exercises that are sufficiently challenging, like the pull-up or push-up). Why? Well, because the point of supersets is to strength train … efficiently.
Here are examples of exercises you might pair for a superset:
- dumbbell chest press and dumbbell row
- barbell back squat and barbell bent-over row
- dumbbell biceps curl and dumbbell triceps kickback
3. Figure out reps and rest
The number of reps you do of each exercise and the number of sets you do of the exercise duo will depend on several factors: how much weight you’re using, the muscle groups you’re working, your training age, your current fitness level, and your goals.
But as a starting point, Harcoff suggests planning to do 8–12 reps of each exercise for 4–5 sets total. You’ll likely need to build in *some* rest between the two movements — research suggests that 90 seconds should be enough.
4. Choose the appropriate weight
Ideally, choose an appropriate weight that you can sustain throughout every set, without setting the weight down.
You don’t want to go so heavy that your muscles are immediately fatigued. But you also don’t want to go so light that you can sneak a look at your Instagram feed mid-lift.
Harcoff’s recommendation: Pick something that feels challenging during the last 2 reps of each set, but not so challenging that you’re legitimately worried you won’t finish.
“Put simply, a circuit is a combination of three or more exercises that you complete back-to-back-to-back with very little rest in between,” explains Harcoff.
“Commonly, some or all of the exercises within a circuit incorporate dumbbells or kettlebells,” says fitness coach JC Deen of JCD Fitness. Cardio machines are rarely involved.
That said, they are generally less effective for building strength on their own, since the aspects that make circuits effective (well-roundedness and expediency) aren’t ideal for aspiring Hulksters.
Another perk of circuits? They’re fun!
Circuits offer a larger variety of exercises for your workout than intervals or supersets, so they’re optimal for individuals who get bored easily.
1. Settle on an exact structure
Technically, the goal of your circuit workout can be to go through the circuit a predetermined number of times or to go through it as many times as you can in, say, 20 minutes. (This workout structure is known as an AMRAP, which is an acronym for “as many reps as possible,” says Galloway.)
Usually, the first option is better if your goal is to improve strength, while the second is better if your goal is to build cardiovascular endurance, she says.
“Though, if you are a beginner, I don’t recommend starting with AMRAPs,” she says. “They can make us feel like we need to rush through the movement, which can increase the risk of injury.”
So, if you’re a beginner, focus on moving through a circuit a set number of times, not for a set duration, and focus on form throughout, she says.
2. If needed, set rest
If you decided to work through the circuit a set number of times, you’ll probably want to build in some rest.
In general, Galloway says, “the goal of circuits is to move quickly between exercises in order to keep your heart rate elevated, providing cardiovascular benefits and burning additional calories.” So you won’t build the rest into the circuit itself.
You can rest a set amount after each circuit, however. For example, you might perform an exercise and then catch your breath for a glorious 60–120 seconds before repeating it.
3. Settle on the movements
When creating a circuit, try to alternate between upper body- and lower body-dominant movements, suggests Galloway. “You don’t want to skip major muscle groups when circuit training,” she says.
You might, for example, move through the following exercises:
- plank taps
As for reps, those will vary based on your goals. But typically you want to try to do 10–15 reps per movement in a circuit, she says.
Welp, there you have it! You now have a better understanding of three different workout structures, as well as which goal each structure is best suited for.
How you use this knowledge moving forward is up to you. If you choose to use this intel to structure your own workouts, be sure to figure out what your specific fitness goals are.
“The biggest factor to consider when planning your own workout routine is what goals you’re trying to accomplish with the help of your training program,” says Harcoff.
He adds that you can also just enjoy having this extra knowledge: “If putting together your own program seems too daunting, hiring a professional to help is a good idea because it’s best to have a plan.”