The FITT Principle Explained

In this article, we’re going to explain the FITT principle (also known as the FITT formula). We’ll cover what it is and how we can use this principle to create an effective training programme.

FITT Principle

The FITT principle stands for frequency, intensity, time and type of exercise. These are four components that we can consider when creating a training programme. The four components are interconnected and how we manipulate them within a training programme, will influence the outcome of that programme.

Let’s break the meaning of the FITT principle down further and explore each component…

Frequency

This refers to how often you train.

For the general population, UK guidelines recommend strength training on at least two days a week and at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise spread across the week. For adults aged 65+, they should also engage in balancing activities twice per week to reduce the chance of frailty and falls.

For an athlete, the frequency of their training may depend on their training age (i.e., the cumulative amount of time spent doing a specific type of training), the type of training they are engaging in, the intensity of the training and the time they need to recover.  

Training Age

If we take an athlete with a low training age, if they engage in some form of training once or twice per week, they are likely to get an adaptation from it as their starting base is low, their body will adapt to it. However, if the athlete has a high training age, they are more likely to need more of a stimulus and thus, require them to train more frequently.

Type of training

The frequency of sports training is dependent upon the type of training. For example, a rower can train multiple times per day because it’s an impact-free sport. This means they’re not putting much stress on their joints, bones and muscles so they can train more frequently. If we compare this to a footballer who has to jump and run constantly, their body is making repeated impacts with the ground (i.e., it’s a high impact sport) which is taxing on the body. This means their body needs more time to recover so they are not able to train as frequently.

We can also follow some general guidelines for how frequently we can engage in strength training in sport. As a rule of thumb, we should have at least one rest or recovery day (but no more than three) between sessions that fatigue the same muscle group. This means if you do a split routine (i.e., upper body one session and lower body in a different session) you can train more frequently than if you do a whole-body workout in each session.

It’s also important to be aware that the upper body may recover more quickly to heavy loading than the lower body and we can recover more quickly from single-joint movements (e.g., leg extension) when compared to multi-joint movements (e.g., squat). Knowing this may inform how frequently you do certain exercises and how you structure your strength training sessions around your sport.

Intensity

This refers to how hard you work during a training session.  

The intensity of your training will also differ depending on the type of training you’re doing and your goal…

In strength training, we can manipulate a number of variables (load lifted, recovery time and the number of repetitions and sets) to alter the intensity of the exercise. The intensity and therefore how you manipulate these variables is dependent upon your goal. Below are some general guidelines on how you can manipulate these variables to meet your goal:

FITT principle explained for different training outcomes

In cardiorespiratory training, we can manipulate a number of variables to alter the intensity of the exercise and develop different energy systems. In general terms, it is recommended to work at a moderate intensity for longer steady-state workouts and at a higher intensity for short interval workouts.

Below is a more in-depth general guideline on how you can manipulate other variables to alter the intensity and develop the different energy systems:

FITT principle meaning for cardiovascular training

The intensity of training has an impact on how frequently we can train. The more intense a session is, the more recovery time is needed.

Time

Time refers to the duration of the training session.

UK guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise spread across the week for the general population – how you split this time up into each session is up to you. If you’re a beginner, you may want to start off with shorter sessions until your body has gotten used to training and then alter the amount of time you’re training for depending on your goal – you can use the table above to help inform this.

For strength training, there isn’t a set rule on how long each session should take. For an athlete, it may depend on what other training you have that day or week and what the priority is. For example, a rower may already have 5 water sessions and 6 land sessions per week and may have time for two 1.5-hour strength sessions per week. As they get closer to their big race, strength session duration may reduce to 1hr so that they have more time to focus on rowing or have more time to recover in between sessions. This will vary depending on your sport and the time available to you.

Type

This refers to the form of exercise you undertake.

As mentioned at the start of this article, UK guidelines recommend strength training and cardiovascular training for the general population. How you do these types of training is totally up to you, but whatever you choose, make sure it’s something that you enjoy!

Below are some suggestions of what you can do for both types:

Examples of types of exercises when applying the fitt principle

How to use the FITT principle

We’ve covered what the F.I.T.T principle is and learned about each element, it’s now time to put this theory into practice and explore how we might actually use this information within a training programme.

When first planning you’re programme, two key factors we must consider are:

1. The specific adaptation (and the athlete’s goal) we are trying to create.

2. Current level of fitness/ training age of the athlete.

Once we’ve considered those two factors, we can then select the frequency, intensity, time and type of exercise that will create the specific adaptation we want to create to help the athlete meet their goal and is appropriate for the athlete.

After a period of time, the athlete will adapt to the training stimulus applied (according to the progressive overload principle), so there is a need for the training to be progressed. This is a fine balance as without progressive overload, the athlete will plateau or become de-trained but progressing too fast or changing too many variables at one time can lead to overtraining and increase the risk of an injury. This is where our FITT principle becomes very useful… the FITT principle provides us with a structure to increase or change one or two variables at a time.

FITT Principle Example

In our FITT principle example, we will use a case study of an athlete that has been working to increase their strength.

They have been performing back squats 2 times per week at 80% of their 1RM and completing 5 reps for 5 sets. Their body has adapted to this now so we can look to increase either the frequency they are performing the squats, intensity, time (sets and reps) or type of exercise they are doing.

To ensure the athlete continues to progress, I may choose to increase the intensity the athlete is working at to 83% of their 1RM and keep all other variables the same.

Why is this useful for coaches and athletes?

The FITT principle provides us with a great framework to build a training programme and provide a structure to progress the training programme at a safe rate.

It’s a great place for beginners to start learning about training as it provides us with the basic principles. These principles can still be used by those even with experience and can be tailored to every athlete.

What are the limitations of the F.I.T.T principle?

It’s great that the FITT principle provides guidelines that can be used to create a framework when planning and progressive programmes but in the real world, there are a lot of moving parts so it might not always be as clear cut of making simple adjustments of changing these variables – there is a wider picture that is complex that must also be considered at some point.

Summarising the F.I.T.T Principle

The FITT principle is made up of four components (frequency, intensity, time and type of exercise) which we can manipulate to create an effective and progressive training programme to support our athletes. 

To learn more around training check out our article on the 5 components of fitness. Or dive deeper into the topics of muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular fitness and flexbility.

Reference

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Emily, co-founder of Sport Science Insider, graduated from the University of Leeds in 2020 and went on to become an accredited S&C coach with the UKSCA in 2022. A former athlete herself, Emily has since gone on to deliver S&C coaching for the Southern Academy of Sport, GB Rowing, GB Taekwondo and works currently as a full-time S&C coach at the University of Leeds.