Fitness training types explained

There's a lot of confusing terminology thrown around in the fitness industry. Senior Personal Trainer Phil Goulding breaks through the jargon to explain the definitions of the key training terms.

Circuit training

Circuit training is a combination of six or more exercises performed with short rest periods between them for either a set number of repetitions or a prescribed amount of time. One circuit is when all of the chosen exercises have been completed. Multiple circuits can be performed in one training session.

Circuit training will usually involve 6-12 exercises and should be structured in a way that enables you to keep performing the exercises with good technique and very short rest intervals.

Find out more about circuit training

Resistance training

Resistance training is more commonly referred to by gym goers as weight training but the term refers to any form of exercise where you lift or pull against resistance. This could be using dumbells, a barbell, bodyweight, machines, kettlebells, powerbands or any other external resistance.

Traditional resistance training uses dumbells or a barbell to perform an exercise for a specific number of repetitions with the aim of improving muscular strength, size or endurance.

Find out more about resistance training

Compound exercises

Compound exercises are those which use more than one joint or muscle group at the same time.

They are suitable for beginners right up to elite level athletes and give the most ‘bang for your buck’ when weight training.

Find out more about compound exercises

Isolation exercises

Isolation exercises are those used to tackle one specific muscle group or joint ‘in isolation’, rather than affecting multiple muscle groups and joints.

While in reality no exercise will only use one muscle group, isolation exercises specifically target one area.

While isolation exercises can be very simple, they are best used once you have built good over-all strength, so are typically used in more advanced training routines.

Find out more about isolation exercises

Interval training

Interval training is typically used with the more traditional cardiovascular exercises, such as running, rowing, cycling and swimming, as a way to work harder than you could during a continuous effort.

It consists of a series of repeated bouts of exercise (work intervals), ranging from several minutes to just a few seconds. During each interval you work at a prescribed intensity for a set period of time or distance and follow this with a low intensity recovery period (recovery interval). The speed, duration and rest period can all be manipulated in order to achieve differing goals from your training session.

Find out more about interval training

Fartlek training

Fartlek is a Swedish word and roughly translated means ‘speed play’. This style of training originated from outdoor running where athletes would naturally vary their pace according to the terrain and how they felt.

It is a form of endurance conditioning, where the aerobic energy system is stressed due to the continuous nature of the exercise but throughout the duration the speed or intensity of the exercise is varied to improve both the anaerobic and aerobic systems.

Fartlek sessions are usually performed for a minimum of 45 minutes and intensity can vary from walking, right up to sprinting.

Find out more about fartlek training


Supersetting refers to performing two exercises back to back with no rest period between. There are typically two different ways of performing supersets. The first is to use two exercises which use opposing muscle groups (non-competing supersets) or to use two exercises which use predominantly the same muscle groups (competing supersets).

In this article I will be referring to non-competing supersets as these are most beneficial to the typical gym goer and have evidence to show that they are a highly effective way of training.

Find out more about supersets

Continuous training

Continuous training is a form of exercise that is performed at one intensity throughout and doesn’t involve any rest periods. It typically involves aerobic activities such as running, biking, swimming and rowing. These activities use large muscle groups performing repetitive movements over a prolonged period of time.

It can be performed at a low, moderate or moderate/high intensity depending on what you want to achieve from the training and your current fitness levels.

Find out more about continuous training

Last updated Thursday 24 November 2022

First published on Monday 4 January 2016