Forget the headline that urges you to “get your bikini body.” Ignore the cover prompting you to “get beach body ready.” Sure, we at Oxygen have used them and will continue to use these attention-grabbing headlines, when appropriate, but for now, for this time of the year, don’t pay attention to such premature calls to action.
The most realistic goal at this point in the year is to simply get into an exercise plan that quickly starts melting the fat, adds strength progressively, teaches you proper form and brings out the sexy shape of your muscles that are now obscured with adipose tissue. Further, to make your effort worthwhile, this exercise plan should allow you to continue burning fat for hours after the end of each workout by offering a few tweaks you can employ once you’ve established a certain amount of base fitness.
And here is just such a plan. Designed in two parts, this plan is based on a unique combination of exercises you can do at home or at the gym. This plan, with roots sunk in 1953 where it was first developed at the University of Leeds in England, is the circuit workout. (At its simplest, a circuit is, as defined in IDEA Today by exercise physiologist and Oxygen advisory board member Len Kravitz, Ph.D., “A number of carefully selected exercises arranged consecutively.”
Minimal Gear, Minimal Time
The types of circuits available to you seems endless, but this one is specially formulated so that it requires very little gear: a Swiss or physioball, a pair of dumbbells, preferably with adjustable weights, and a bench or box or a set of stairs onto which you can step up.
Per workout, you’ll also need approximately only 20 minutes to devote on each of three nonconsecutive days during your week for a total of one hour of effort. (For motivation, tell yourself that it’s only 20 minutes of serious effort per session.)
Benefits of this Killer Circuit
As you move up the intensity ladder, you’ll see the benefits accrue.
- Because you keep your heart rate elevated, the circuit promotes not only fat loss but also endurance capacity and cardiovascular health. When you further increase the workout’s intensity, by reducing rest time or adding jogging in place, you improve your chances to burn fat for up to three days. That means burning fat almost continuously as long as you keep to the program.
- The resistance aspect of the circuit, especially when you hit larger muscle groups like glutes and thighs or back or chest, adds to the fat-burning capacity of this Oxygen circuit.
- You develop strength and enhance the look of your muscles, as well as improving your resting metabolic rate.
- Research is beginning to show that high-intensity circuit training (as little as eight minutes of it) may improve insulin resistance, a benefit that reduces the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
In addition to shedding fat, the exercises chosen for this circuit provide balanced development of your large muscle groups and a number of the smaller ones. Also, the sequence does not overwhelm one muscle group at the expense of another, which leads to improvements in bodywide strength, top to bottom and side to side. The muscles simply become stronger, shapely and highly functional.
Once your family physician has given you a thumbs up to pursue this form of training, your goal is to shoot for high reps per exercise (12 to 15) — a rep range suited for some muscle building, serious fat loss and endurance. Do not compromise exercise form for the sake of speed, however. Form precedes speed (and reduces risk of injury), so pay attention to your form when you first begin. As your form becomes second nature, your speed will increase almost automatically.
The ultimate goal is to do three consecutive circuits, which should take 20 minutes to complete, give or take a minute or two. When you first begin, don’t push for three circuits. Try to complete one full circuit and see how you feel. If you have the energy and want to try a second circuit, go for it, but know that it’s OK to stop at any point. You don’t have to complete the second circuit. Just go until you can’t. Over time, your body will adapt (quickly, actually, as long as you avoid working out on consecutive days) and you’ll be able to go longer.
A word about rest: You have several options for resting between sets. You can rest up to 30 seconds between exercises, which is recommended when you first start the circuit protocol. Or, if you already have a moderate fitness base, you can rest 10 to 15 seconds, which will improve fat-burning capacity somewhat. Or you need not rest at all, simply moving on from one exercise to the next, which places the greatest metabolic demand on your body and produces exceptional results. (Try this approach only after you’ve worked through the other two successfully.) To boost fat loss even more, you can increase the metabolic requirements by jogging in place for 30 seconds between exercises — this is killer, meaning you should rest (30 seconds) only between circuits.
72-Hour Fat-Burning Trick
According to research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, you can coax your body to generate aerobic and metabolic benefits (like fat loss) up to 72 hours with a high-intensity resistance circuit of 15 minutes. In order to maintain exercise intensity, which may allow for the 72-hour energy expenditure, an ACSM journal article recommends keeping the rest interval between sets at or below 15 seconds. By jogging between sets, you may be able to further amplify the benefits of this Oxygen circuit. There’s this caveat, however: Start slowly, after your exercise form has been well-established, and then build up running speed progressively over time. You want to burn fat, not burn yourself out.
Setup: Grasp a pair of dumbbells, letting them rest against the sides of your thighs at arms’ length. Stand roughly 1 or 2 feet away from a bench, feet apart only slightly.
Action: Step up onto the bench with your left leg. As you move toward erect posture, plant the trailing foot/leg next to the left foot on the bench. Step back down onto the floor with your left foot/leg, reversing the process. Continue until you’ve completed 12 to 15 reps; that’s half the set. To complete a full set, without pausing, step up leading with your right foot/leg and complete 12 to 15 reps.
Tip: Keep your head up, in a neutral position, while maintaining a natural arch in the lower back throughout the set. Avoid leaning forward too much as you step up.
Home Tip: If you don’t have a bench, simply step up onto a box that can support your weight or the second stair in a staircase.
Swiss-Ball Modified Press (close dumbbell spacing)
Setup: Lie on a physioball, firmly planting your middle and upper back against the ball. Your feet — roughly shoulder-width apart — should be planted squarely against the floor with your body locked into one plane. With arms extended, hold a pair of dumbbells, palms neutral.
Action: While maintaining dumbbell contact as best as possible, slowly lower the dumbbells toward your sternum, trying to keep your elbows pointing toward your lower body, not out to the sides. The dumbbells should maintain contact. Press the dumbbells back up, and repeat for the recommended number of reps.
Tip: Throughout the set, maintain a straight line to your body; don’t lower your hips to generate additional power as you begin to fatigue.
Dumbbell Stiff-Leg Deadlift
Setup: Stand, holding a pair of dumbbells at arms’ length against the front of your thighs (palms facing the thighs). Push your glutes slightly rearward so as to place weight onto your heels.
Action: Lock your lower spine, bend your knees slightly and slowly bend forward at the waist, sliding the dumbbells along the fronts of your thighs. Stop the motion when the dumbbells arrive between the top and midpoints of the shins. Keeping your lower back locked, slowly return to the upright position. Repeat.
Tip: To greatly reduce the risk of injury, do not round your back as you bend forward, keeping the lower back locked in place.
Swiss-Ball Modified Dumbbell Pullover/Press (aka rainbow press)
Setup: Position your upper back on the top of the physioball, feet spread and flat against the floor, and your hips positioned slightly lower than your chest. Wrap your hands around the center post of a dumbbell, and position your elbows along your torso. In this start position, your elbows should form a 90-degree angle and the dumbbells should be positioned just above your sternum.
Action: While maintaining the bent-arm position throughout the entire range of motion, move your arms and the dumbbell in an arc until the weight clears your head, stopping just before you sense your back beginning to arch. Maintaining the bend in your elbows, reverse the arc and return to the starting position. Repeat.
Tip: Once you establish the 45-degree bend in your elbow, maintain that angle throughout each repetition.
Superman With Arm Sweep
Setup: Lie facedown on the floor (or lengthwise on a bench if you have access to one), extending your arms in front of you, palms facing down.
Action: Contract the muscles of your lower back and then raise your upper torso off the bench or floor as much as comfortably possible. Pause in this position and sweep your arms rearward toward your hips. Pause briefly, before slowly returning to the arms-extended position. Lower your torso, then repeat.
Tip: When you raise your upper torso off the floor, be mindful of the tension in your spine and avoid hyperextending the vertebrae. Some athletes are able to raise the upper torso and legs, but that relies on having strong erectors in your lower back.
Alternating Dumbbell Biceps Curl
Setup: Stand erect, holding dumbbells at the sides of your thighs, arms extended, palms facing inward.
Action: Move the left dumbbell in an arc toward your chest. (As soon as the dumbbell clears your thigh, rotate your wrist so that the palm faces the ceiling.) At a certain point, you’ll notice the tension lessening in your biceps, which signals it’s time to reverse the arc and return to the starting position. Do the same with the opposite side, completing one rep.
Tip: Keep your elbows tucked at your sides as you rep. Avoid moving them forward or out to the sides. This will maximize the contractions.
Setup: Lie on your back, positioning your calves on top of a physioball. Fold your arms across your chest.
Action: Keeping your back flat against the floor, slowly lift your shoulders and upper back off the floor until you no longer feel pressure on your shoulder blades. Hold for a count of two and then slowly return to floor. Repeat.
Tip: When in the starting position, lock your head and neck in place, keeping them fixed in this position as you crunch. Avoid bringing the chin toward the chest, especially as your muscles begin to fatigue.