Smart Fat Loss Circuits

by Josh Hillis on April 3, 2013


Well known and long standing adages like “leave a couple reps in the bank” and “safety is part of performance” often, sadly, are put aside for fat loss circuits.

In this world of CrossFit, P90X, and super ultra-hardcore-bootcamps everywhere, it’s hard not to fall into the “more is better” trap that everyone is constantly pushing. As RKC’s we should be well aware that more isn’t better. It’s just more.

Fat loss clients come in with that perspective, and it’s our job to educate them. Often we’ll get a new client who will literally tell us “I want to sweat and puke and be sore.” Regardless of how stupid a goal this might sound to us, we’re best off giving them some of that, in the smartest way possible. We usually can give ’em what they think they want up front, then educate them over time.

In this article, we’re going to talk about what smart, RKC-style fat loss circuits could look like.


A Smarter AMRAP

CrossFit popularized the term AMRAP for “as many rounds as possible”, and I thank them for that.

Unfortunately, the concept of doing an AMRAP workout at 100% effort is a recipe for disaster. You can only push oxygen debt and muscle exhaustion for so long before exercise form goes out the window. So don’t do that.

Or as Yoda so famously said: “Stupidity leads to bad form. Bad form leads injury. And injury leads to the orthopedic surgeon.”

We’re going to slow our AMRAPs down – somewhere in the neighborhood of 80-90%, and err on the side of too little vs. too much.

We’ve all been fed a myth about intensity. And it feeds that thing inside us that always tells us we should be doing more. But it’s false. I experimented with my clients for two years during the writing of my first book, and found no difference in results between running clients at 80-90% intensity in workouts and running them at close to 100%.

So… 80-90% intensity… all of the benefits… none of the injuries… shouldn’t that be like, totally obvious, right?


The Josh Hills Fat Loss Circuit Progression: Not Just More Rounds

More rounds is also another stupid thing that most circuit based workouts do. Just more. More, more, more. More isn’t better. So very un-RKC.

I consider 5 rounds the magic number for any of these workouts. They may have to work up to being able to complete five rounds. That’s fine. But when they are getting up over 7 rounds, bump ’em up a level. That could be a harder bodyweight progression, a lower bench for pistols, a lighter band for pull-ups, or a heavier kettlebell.

But lets not turn this into a Group X class. Lets up the weight on our circuits instead of just cranking out a zillion rounds.

This is a super important point, and I’ve never seen anyone else in the entire fitness industry bring it up. There is a right amount of work to get done in a circuit, and you can have it happen like clockwork every single time. It’s right about 5 rounds. It’s heavy enough that they *have to* rest during the 20 minutes, but no so heavy that it looses it’s circuit-ness.

It also lets clients know that it’s *ok* to rest. Obviously if they could crank through the 20 minutes without any rest, they’d be doing 10+ rounds or so. It gives them a target, it lets them know how they are doing, and it lets them know when they can progress. These are all major points for having clients understand and be engaged in the workout program.


20 Minutes of Circuits, Then Do Strength

A 20 minute bout of circuits, at 80-90% intensity, should be enough high intensity stimulus for all of the fat loss results we want. And it should be enough to satisfy the clients who want to feel like they are getting throttled.

After that, we can move on to very well rested strength work. We put the circuits at the beginning (after a joint mobility warm up), because it’s hard enough to keep everything tight in a circuit anyway – we want them as fresh mentally and physically as possible, to do the circuit with the heaviest weights possible and the most perfect form.

We’ll put three movements in the circuit, and then we’ll do the fourth movement in the strength portion. For example, if we have a push, a pull, and a squat in the circuit, we’ll do a hip hinge in the strength part. If we have a push, a squat and a hip hinge in the circuit, we’ll do a pull for the strength part. That way, we’re always hitting all four basic movements, but we’re rotating through which ones we do in the circuit and which ones we do for strength.

If the client also needs FMS or any other corrective exercises, you can super-set the correctives with the strength work.


Workout A:

As many rounds in 20 minutes:

  • Assisted Pullups x 3
  • Kettlebell Push Presses x 10L+10R
  • Kettlebell Goblet Squats x 10
  • 3 minutes rest, then
  • Single Leg Deadlifts 3 x 5L+5R
  • with 1-3 minutes rest between sets, then
  • Side plank 2 x 0:30L+0:30R
  • Plank 2 x 0:45


Workout B

As many rounds in 20 minutes:

  • Bear Crawl x 50 ft
  • Walking Lunges x 100 ft
  • Kettlebell Swings x 25
  • 3 minutes rest, then
  • Assisted Pullups 3 x 5
  • with 1-3 minutes rest between sets, then
  • Side plank 2 x 0:30L+0:30R
  • Plank 2 x 0:45


Workout C

As many rounds in 20 minutes:

  • Convict Conditioning Style Pushup Progression x 10
  • Kettlebell Bent Over Rows x 10L+10R
  • Kettlebell Swings x 25
  • 3 minutes rest, then
  • Bench Pistols or Split Squats 3 x 5L+5R
  • with 1-3 minutes rest between sets, then
  • Side plank 2 x 0:30L+0:30R
  • Plank 2 x 0:45


Food, Food, Food

Look, no fat loss article can ever be complete without mentioning that the food is going to be the number one driver of fat loss. Smart fat loss workouts complement a smart food program. That’s why it’s so totally stupid to kill people in the workouts or push the envelope to the point of injury – it just isn’t going to make a difference.

Be smart, check people’s food journals (both quality of food and quantity of food) and do intelligent circuits at 80-90% intensity, with smart progressions over time. Your clients will stay healthy, happy, and injury free, and most importantly – get all of the fat loss results that they hired you for.


About Josh Hillis: RKC, NASM-CPT/PES/CES, Z-MRS/MIS,  Over the last 8 years as a personal trainer, Josh has worked with every kind of fat loss client, but he is a specialist in helping fit women lose the last 5-10 pounds of stubborn fat.   He’s been quoted by The Los Angeles Times, The Denver Post, he’s been in USA Today, and was a featured expert for Experience Life! Magazine.  Josh has written six books on fat loss and kettlebell training, created an audio program on fat loss nutrition for On Target Publications, and contributed a chapter “Fighter Workouts for Fat Loss” to The RKC Book of Strength and Conditioning for DragonDoor Publications.  Josh holds beginner and advanced fat loss nutrition workshops on a monthly basis at several kettlebell gyms in Colorado.  Josh is the creator and writer for, which has over 32,000 subscribers in over 200 countries world-wide.

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