It happens to everyone: You arrive at the gym ready to work out only to realize you don’t have a plan or maybe you just do the same thing every single time. Sure, developing your own workout regimen can be daunting. Some activity is always better than nothing, but if you want to see results, you need a plan.
We’ll let you in on a secret: The way most certified fitness professionals develop a fitness program isn’t magic nor is it all that complicated. It comes down to the FITT principle. “FITT is how professionals design and prescribe an exercise program. It’s the bedrock principle of how we approach what a client is going to do and how that will progress over time,” explains John Ford, a Brooklyn-based personal trainer.
THE ELEMENTS OF FITT
The four elements of FITT — frequency, intensity, time and type — are interdependent, and changing just one can make a difference. “Your body adjusts [to a workout] in a 6–8-week window. Then you’ll plateau and you won’t see gains from doing the exact same thing anymore,” Ford says. Using FITT can help you make one change to your routine and see if your body responds or if you should make another change.
Here’s a FITT primer to help you meet your goals.
Frequency is how often you work out, typically measured by the number of sessions per week. You want to find that sweet spot where you exercise often enough to reach your goals but not so frequently you put yourself at risk for injuries or burnout. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, which many experts suggest to break down into five days of 30-minute sessions.
Intensity is how hard you exercise. You can measure this using a heart rate monitor, by gauging your rate of perceived exertion or by using the talk test: For moderate-intensity workouts, you want to exercise hard enough that you’d be able to talk but not sing. For vigorous workouts, you want to exercise where you can only speak a few words before needing to take a breath. Higher-intensity workouts are better if you wish to change your body rather than maintain your fitness level. However, you also need to choose an intensity appropriate for your starting level. Immediately jumping from no activity to high-intensity training is unsafe.
Time is the duration of your workout. For this one, it’s best to factor in not only the other FITT principles but also how much time you truly have to exercise. Longer isn’t always better, and something is better than nothing.
Type is what you are doing — running sprints, lifting weights, doing vinyasa yoga or going on long hike. In addition to meeting the guidelines of at least 150 minutes of cardiovascular activity and two days of strength training per week, it’s important to choose activities you enjoy or you likely won’t stick to them. Don’t overlook cross-training since doing different types of exercise can get you closer to your primary goal. For example, mobility work improves range of motion, which benefits pretty much everyone.
TWO TAKES OF FITT
The American College of Sports Medicine and American Council on Exercise each has its own spin on FITT, and either can be used to create a smart fitness program.
The ACSM includes three more letters with FITT: VPP. This stands for volume, pattern and progression.
- Volume is the amount of work you are doing, whether that’s miles walked, weight lifted or bodyweight exercises performed.
- Pattern is how you split up the work — is it 10 minutes three times a day or one 30-minute workout?
- Progression comes in as you continue to exercise over time. It is what you adjust in your workout program and how you do that.
In addition to the four other principles, ACE adds an “E” for “enjoyment”. How much do you like what you are doing? That doesn’t mean you need to love every workout, but if you absolutely hate treadmill work, there are other ways to get your cardio.
ACE also looks at three other training principles: specificity, overload and reversibility.
- Specificity means you should do activities to meet your goal, whether that’s running a marathon or improving heart health.
- Overload refers to progressively stressing your body so you continue to make fitness gains but are not overtraining or experiencing injuries.
- Reversibility is explained by the adage, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” To maintain the results you get, you need to continue to work out.
HOW TO USE FITT
This alphabet soup is a lot to digest. If you want some help and can afford it, hire a certified trainer to develop a fitness regimen for you. If you simply want some guidance, start with these recommendations:
If you are new to exercise: “Don’t look at FITT,” says Jacque Crockford, exercise physiology content manager for the American Council on Exercise. “Just try to move.” Pick something you enjoy and feel comfortable doing — and do it at the frequency, duration and intensity level best for you. “Doing anything is good, and it’s a great way to start and make it a lifestyle change” rather than exercise being something you “should” do, she says.
If you want to gain strength: Do cardio for about 30 minutes twice a week at moderate-to-vigorous intensity since it is good for heart health. Then do three days of strength-based training for less than an hour a day, Crockford recommends. Aim to perform 4–5 sets of 8–12 reps of each exercise, Ford says. Choose a weight heavy enough so that by the fourth or fifth set, you may need to drop to a slightly lighter weight.
If you want to lose weight: Increase your cardio to at least 225 minutes of moderate-to-high-intensity exercise each week. “Anything less than that, and you probably won’t see the results you want,” Ford says. Choose an activity or a mix of things you enjoy and divvy up the 225 minutes over the week to best fit your schedule.