Training Terminology – The 4 Essential Workout Variables

Health, fitness, and athletic performance training programs come in all shapes and sizes. But the best ones all have one thing in common. They utilize the 4 essential workout variables, which determine training workload, to achieve success.


Whether you design your own program, or you work with a fitness or sports training professional, understanding how to apply and manipulate workout variables is essential in getting the best outcomes. The 4 variables are Intensity, Frequency, Duration, and Volume. I’ll define these terms and offer a few details on how you can use them to your advantage.


  • Intensity: Challenge level or effort required for any type of training. This is measured via perceived exertion, heart rate, speed/pace, percentage of 1-RM, etc.
  • Frequency: How often one trains, i.e. the number of workouts per week (or any other length of cycle but most people utilize the week as a common measure).
  • Duration: The length, in time or distance, of a single training session (how long a workout lasts or how far it goes). Hours, minutes, kilometers or miles are used.
  • Volume: Total amount of training per week, also measured in hours, minutes, kilometers or miles. Volume can also be quantified by month, training cycle, or season.


There’s nothing wrong with getting lots of general daily activity (GDA) and we all need to do quite a bit of that. But when we really want results, we TRAIN, and this is more than “just going out there and doing whatever.” When we utilize and manipulate the 4 key variables, we can make sure our training is goal-specific and highly effective. Whether we are designing a long-term training plan, or just thinking workout to workout, applying the 4 essential variables allow us to assess and manage workload.


Workload is the impact, or stimulus of training on our bodies. Many times when our focus is on general health, or a maintenance phase of conditioning, we may want to use the minimum effective dosage (workload) of training available. Conversely, when we are trying for maximum performance, and are hoping to wring out every last drop of our athletic potential, we might carefully apply the maximum absorbable dosage or workload in order to snag those last few percentage points of conditioning.


It’s the wise exerciser or athlete or coach who generally only increases one variable at a time. If intensity goes up, don’t simultaneously increase overall volume. Or if workout durations are on the upswing, don’t add more weekly sessions. Too much too soon equals burnout, breakdown, injury, despair, and lack of success. In fact, you may want to downregulate one variable as an offsetter when you upregulate another. More isn’t always better and our bodies have finite abilities to adapt. Good planning, purposeful monitoring (output measures, recovery signs, etc.), and responsively modifying our training is SO valuable. By putting just a little thought into your training variables, you can make your programming more effective and more enjoyable. Hope this helps and happy training to ya!


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