5 Upper-Body Circuit Workouts for Serious Muscle Growth

a man flexing his arms

Ready for some serious muscle growth? | Keystone/Getty Images

If you need a break from the monotony of your lifting routine, or if you’re a cardio fiend who wants to get some strength training in, circuits may be where you’ll want to turn. A circuit workout is more or less what it sounds like — a series of lifts or exercises, performed one after another, done in a cycle. Usually, you’ll do an exercise for 30 seconds or so, rest for a short period of time, and move on to the next. Then, once you’ve exhausted your list, you start all over again.

It’s a circuit. Just like you learned about in science class.

Circuit workouts are fantastic for building endurance and stamina. You’ll be out of breath with exhausted muscles toward the end, which is a key indicator that you’ve gotten a good workout. Circuits are ideal for full-body workouts or, in this case, targeted area workouts. This specific piece will outline circuits that target the upper body; that being your arms, shoulders, chest, core, and back.

Circuits, like any weight lifting or cardio routine, are completely customizable and adaptable. You can try different exercises or lifts to focus more heavily on certain parts of your body, or avoid them altogether. Many people like doing circuits because they are somewhat of a meeting point for strength training and cardio; you’re moving fast, getting the blood pumping, and burning through calories — yet you’re also putting your muscles to work. A lot of them.

The only problem is, for folks who are new to circuit training, knowing where to start. There are heaps of circuit workouts out there, and finding one that is ideal for your specific situation can be difficult. So, we’re going to give you a head start, and introduce five.

Whether you want to work out like a Navy SEAL, focus on simplicity, or even build your own from scratch, here are five upper-body circuit workouts that can get you started.

1. Navy SEALs “No Excuses” circuit

Navy SEAL workout

You may not be as tough as a Navy Seal, but you’ll have a great body. | Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Eric S. Logsdon/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

What better way to get in shape than to mimic the workouts of Navy SEALs? We’ve covered some of the hellish fitness trials they go through, and now you can try out an upper-body circuit developed by former SEAL Brad McLeod, who’s become an expert trainer in his post-military life. The workout is long and intense, and you can check it out over at STACK. It includes almost everything you can think of, and you’ll be getting plenty of all-around exercises in, so be ready for a couple of rest days afterward.

2. Ashley Conrad’s upper-body circuit

man doing push-ups with feet raised

Circuit workouts will give you a great sweat session. | iStock.com

Ashley Conrad, a fitness expert and celebrity trainer, put together her own upper-body circuit workout as a contributor for Bodybuilding.com. Her goals, as she writes, were to “build strength and muscular endurance,” and the circuit she constructed should definitely help you achieve both. The circuit itself consists of five rounds, each with 30-second increments of five different exercises. You’ll be doing dips, push-up variants, burpees, and more. There’s even a video tutorial to check out.

3. Men’s Health’s six-exercise circuit

lifting weights at the gym

This simple circuit is a great workout. | iStock.com

If you want to keep things relatively simple, Men’s Health Fitness Director B.J. Gaddour published a solid circuit during the summer of 2015. The circuit centers around six exercises — which is perfect for fitness minimalists or those who have limited equipment available to them. The workout consists of chin-ups, dips, alternating dumbbell rows, close-grip push-ups, standing band resisted curl, and long-lever planks. Do as many as you can in 30-second stretches, then rest for 15 seconds. Simple and effective.

4. STACK’s ‘giant sets’ workout

Woman exercising with a kettlebell weight

Try this workout for serious back and chest gains. | IStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

In case you’re unfamiliar with “giant sets,” STACK explains they consist of four exercises that target the same muscle group. You do this set four to five times, with 10 to 15 reps for each exercise in the set. As far as rest is concerned, you can give yourself a minute or so between sets, but try your best to go from one exercise to the next to really hit your upper body as hard as you can.

STACK’s circuit involves bench presses, decline push-ups, chest flies, dumbbell pullovers, pull-ups, and plenty of bicep and back work. It’s the perfect circuit to build your arms, chest, and back for maximum muscle gains — all in under 45 minutes.  

5. Build your own

working out

Make your own circuit. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

You can think of an upper-body circuit like the salad bar at Pizza Hut — you can customize what you’re getting to maximize your benefit and satisfaction. But take cues from the other circuits we’ve mentioned; you’ll want to build your circuit around a few primary exercises, add some auxiliary lifts, and make sure that you’re not doing too many or too few reps, or spending too much or too little time at each station. This might be a challenge for fitness newbies, but it can be a good way to figure out where you’re at, and what you’re capable of. Try sketching out your own circuit, and adjust accordingly.

Here’s a good place to start.

Additional reporting by Lauren Weiler.