Updated: Jul 11
In this article we’ll take a quick peek at the components of fitness: their characteristics and how they can be developed so as to improve your physicality. In addition, next to each component of fitness, an effective training method has been identified. Why?
Well it’s not enough just to know the characteristics of each component of fitness. This knowledge alone, though useful, would not enable you to take action to improve or rectify fitness imbalances. It be like knowing the ingredients of a meal but not the preparation or cooking instructions.
It is for this reason why each component comes accompanied with a best training method and range of associative exercises.
What this article covers
The five primary components of fitness
The characteristics of each component of fitness
Best training methods
A range of relevant exercises
Benefits of developing each component of fitness
But first . . .
Component of Fitness FAQ
Why are components of fitness important?
It’s important to have an awareness of the components of fitness for the simple fact that by doing so you will be able to identify physical imbalances but also how to rectify them. Let’s imagine that you are completely clueless to this concept; you haven’t the foggiest what strength or muscular endurance mean and you have no idea what exercise modalities can improve them. If, for whatever reason, you became aware of a particular weakness, say you trained with a friend who could lift far more and with relative ease, you would not know how best to ameliorate your inferior physicality. However, after reading this article you will know.
Which component of fitness is the most important?
A professional health and fitness practitioner afflicted with a puritanical predisposition would probably scoff at the notion of prioritising one component of fitness over another. ‘They are all of equal importance,’ the purist might proclaim with affected passion, beating their chest as they did so. However, I’m of the opinion that cardiovascular is by far the most important component of fitness. Here’s why.
Cardiovascular fitness provides us with an indication of the relative capacity of our heart, vascular and respiratory systems. These are, unarguably, highly important physiological insights. After all, every year millions of people die from coronary heart disease and vascular conditions – stroke, atherosclerosis and myocardial ischemia. Other than diet reformation the surest method of reducing susceptibility to these diseases is cardiovascular exercise.
The same cannot be said of strength or flexibility. As far as I am aware no one ever died from not being able to bench the body weight or from poor range of movement around a joint.
Which components of fitness should be emphasised in a warm-up?
The warm-up phase of an exercise session, though often overlooked by many trainers, is of paramount importance. But not all warm-ups were created equal. For example, performing a series of light lifts or spending 5 minutes mobilising joints is very nearly pointless.
When it comes to warming up – and warming up well – we ought to engage in cardiovascular exercise, such as rowing, because this raises our core temperature, and include a number of muscular endurance exercises, such as press-ups, burpees, light resistance exercises, because this acts as a face slap for our muscles: that is it wakes them up (otherwise known as neuromuscular facilitation).
Which component of fitness does circuit training improve?
Depending on the design of the circuit most all of the components can be incorporated and improved. Due to the bewildering versatility of circuit training you could engineer the emphasis around a specific component of fitness or include a range.
Take CrossFit training as a perfect example. Some CrossFit sessions are almost purely muscular endurance – light weights and high reps. Yet other sessions see the athlete transition from a cardiovascular exercise to a heavy Olympic lift. Thus the answer to the question is: whichever component of fitness you want the circuit to improve.
5 Components of Fitness
Component of Fitness #1: Muscular Strength
Strength is an expression of one’s ability to exert force against a resistance – usually a percentage of or exceeding one’s body weight. The power lifter, body builder or strong man are synonymous with this component of fitness. However, contention rages regarding what constitutes as ‘real’ or ‘functional’ strength as opposed to ‘static’ or ‘synthetic’ strength. The former would be modelled by the gymnast who, though unable to bench press their body weight, can with ease perform highly complex controlled movements such as the crucifix. Static strength, by contrast, is seen in the highly-muscled weight lifter who can bench above his (or her) body weight but couldn’t perform 5 strict pull-ups.
Best training methods for developing strength
The strength building calculation is a simple one (heavy weights + long rest periods = augmented strength). The trainer, after an extensive warm-up, would proceed at a leisurely pace to climb the poundage ladder until they had reached or were within arm’s reach of their 1 rep max. But though this is widely recognised as the most effective method it is by no means infallible. There are all too many examples of world renowned strength athletes who have broken the mould and pursued unorthodox methods that yielded remarkable results. As with any method of developing a component of fitness it is certainly the case that one size does not fit all. You have to forge your own path.
Range of relevant exercises
Traditional strength exercises are nearly all compound movements. A compound exercise is one that works multiple muscle groups and transitions through two joints: a squat, for example, stimulates the muscles of the legs and transitions through the joints of the hip and knee. Of course, strength is not merely limited to traditional compound exercises but can also be developed functionally. Examples of strength exercises include:
Military (or shoulder) press
Clean and press
Benefits of strength
Strength is usually pursued as an end in and of itself. Usually because the strong man (or woman) receives backslaps, adulation and kudos from fellow gym frequenters and the physically enfeebled. As physical attributes go strength is by far the most coveted. This has been the case for thousands of years. In the Iliad Homer sings the praises of the strong man and it was Hercules’ strength alone that carried his name through the ages. However, when acquired in this mind-set – to be strong because it carries considerable social coin – strength is almost worthless. Honestly, in the real world when’s Billy Big Arms ever going to be called up to curl 100kees?
But when used to enhance performance in activities – such as a physical discipline like swimming or rowing – augmented strength is highly beneficial. Watson (1995) cites a study showing performance gains made by elite level athletes after adopting strength training techniques. A mere ‘four weeks of strength training produced a 19 per cent increase in power which resulted in a 4 per cent improvement in swimming speed.’ For a performance athlete a 4% improvement is enormous.
Strength is an expression of one’s ability to exert force against a resistance.
The power lifter, body builder or strong man are synonymous with this component of fitness.
However, strength is more than static weightlifting. It can also include complex controlled movements seen in gymnastics or combat sports – such as wrestling.
The strength building calculation is a simple one: heavy weights + long rest periods = augmented strength.
Strength is best pursued for the purpose of enhancing sporting performance.
Component of Fitness #2: Muscular Endurance
Muscular endurance is merely the ability to apply force against a resistance for extensive periods of time. For example, a person who can perform, say, 50 kettlebell snatches or complete a set of 100-unbroken press-ups is said to have good muscle endurance. Looked at another way, endurance is a term ‘used to describe the durability of an object or an individual’s ability to tolerate circumstances that are less than pleasant,’ (Watson 1995). Thus the grand tour cyclist crawling up a mountain pass or the marathon runner pushing on in spite of the pain and fatigue is showcasing extreme muscular endurance.
Best training methods for developing muscular
Perhaps the single most effective method of developing muscular endurance would be to take part in regular circuit training. This is because the characteristics that define a circuit – minimal rest periods coupled with high-intensity/volume output – aligns almost exactly to the characteristics that define endurance training. In fact, it would be true to say that in the vast majority of cases a circuit is populated by a series of muscular endurance activities; usually resistance exercises of a light to moderate weight.
Range of relevant exercises
Really it matters not the exercise but the weight and number of repetitions performed per set or sitting. As discussed above, as long as the weight is low and repetitions high you are training muscular endurance. But unlike strength, muscular endurance training usually incorporates calisthenics (body weight exercises). See example list below:
Body weight exercises
Hanging leg raises
Any and all kettlebell exercises
All of the strength exercises can be converted into muscular endurance
Benefits of muscular endurance
Though it’s not always the case, but in the majority of instances the trainer with good muscular endurance usually has good cardiovascular capacity. The two aren’t inextricably linked but they do often walk hand-in-hand. When multiple muscular endurance exercise are grouped together to form a circuit and the circuit is completed at a high intensity with minimal rest, the trainer would not escape without elevating their heart rate. Consequently, by training muscular endurance you will likely be training your cardiovascular system also (see the benefits of CV training below). This is a beneficial by-product that strength and/or flexibility alone cannot confer.
Muscular endurance is merely the ability to apply force against a resistance for extensive periods of time.
A person who can perform, say, 50 kettlebell snatches or complete a set of 100-unbroken press-ups is said to have good muscle endurance.
But looked at another way endurance describes ‘the durability of an object or an individual’s ability to tolerate circumstances that are less than pleasant,’ (Watson 1995).
The single most effective method of developing muscular endurance would be to take part in regular circuit training.
The muscular endurance equation: low weights + high reps + low rest = augmented muscular endurance.
Component of Fitness #3: Cardiovascular Fitness
Cardiovascular – or aerobic – fitness pertains to the efficiency at which the heart and vascular system can deliver oxygenated blood to the working muscles. In any aerobic discipline – cycling, running, swimming – an athlete who can sustain a high output is said to have a ‘good engine’. That is: their heart is strong and it can pump a high volume of blood around the body. As McArdle (2001) says, ‘a large maximum cardiac output (stroke volume) distinguishes champion endurance athletes from well-trained athletes.’
An individual with above average cardiovascular fitness will almost certainly have a larger than average sized heart, greater stroke volume (the quantity of blood that is pumped out of the left ventricle with each beat), low resting heart rate and above average muscular density in the muscles of the cardio-respiratory system: cardiac muscle, the diaphragm and the smooth muscles that line veins to assist blood flow.
Best training methods for developing cardiovascular fitness
Few people recognise just how responsive and sensitive to physical stimulation the cardiovascular system is. For example, studies have shown that a mere 60 minutes per week of moderate aerobic exercise (such as gardening or walking) is enough to maintain general health and cardiovascular fitness whilst also ‘reducing the risk of a first heart attack’ (McArdle et al – Exercise Physiology).
Here we’re merely considering maintenance. To develop cardiovascular fitness, say in preparation for an event such as a marathon, the intensity and training volume must both be consistently high. It is not uncommon for a professional endurance athlete to exercise for in excess of 40 hours per week in readiness for a competition.
Range of relevant exercises
Conventional cardiovascular training involves continuous or steady-state activities. Continuous training is exactly how it sounds: continuously performing the same exercise without rest for extensive periods of time. To qualify as continuous training and adequately stimulate the appropriate physiological systems, the activity should last longer than 15 minutes. There is no upper maximum duration. Cardiovascular exercises include:
Benefits of cardiovascular fitness
‘Regular aerobic training reduces systolic and diastolic blood pressure during rest and submaximal exercise,’ (McArdle et al – Exercise Physiology). This is eminently a good thing. According to the NHS high blood pressure ‘increases your risk of serious problems such as heart attacks and strokes,’ (NHS – cited online (2020)).
Furthermore, regular aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce one’s susceptibility to coronary heart disease (CHD), which is a serious health condition resulting from the accumulative build-up of fatty plaque in the arteries. In the US alone CHD is the number one cause of premature mortality and is responsible for a staggering 375,000 deaths every year (Greger 2017 – How Not To Die ).
Cardiovascular fitness pertains to the efficiency at which the heart and vascular system can deliver oxygenated blood to the working muscles.
Large maximum cardiac output (stroke volume) distinguishes champion endurance athletes from well-trained athletes.
The cardiovascular system is highly responsive.
A mere 60 minutes per week of moderate aerobic exercise (such as gardening or walking) is enough to maintain general health and cardiovascular fitness.
Engaging in regular cardiovascular exercise has been shown to reduce susceptibility to strokes and coronary heart disease.
Component of Fitness #4: Flexibility
Flexibility is typically characterised by the range of movement (ROM) around a joint: the greater the ROM the more flexible a person is. Often regarded as an enigmatic quality that some people just possess, flexibility is a property of the muscles, tendons and joints and anyone, if they are willing to implement the training principals that follow, can enhance their ROM.
The sports and disciplines in which flexibility is highly prized include gymnastics, dancing and martial arts – more specifically kick boxing and Muay Thai boxing. However, as it will become evident, all people, irrespective of their sport or training discipline, can benefit from increased flexibility.
Best training methods for developing flexibility
To enjoy the benefits flexibility has to offer (see below) we need only stretch for 10 minutes daily. This would include a whole-body stretch that incorporates the major muscle groups – those of the legs and back.
The modality of stretching applied should be long-duration static – otherwise known as developmental stretching. We would perform a developmental stretch by gently progressing into the position and, once a mild stretch can be felt in the muscle, hold it for between 20 seconds and 1 minute. Other ways to reap the rewards stretching can confer is by taking part in Yoga or Pilates.
Range of relevant exercises
Stretching comes in multiple shapes and sizes. They include:
Static or developmental stretching: holding the stretch position for 20-plus seconds. Follow the link for a comprehensive guide to the benefits of stretching and 10 minute daily stretching regime.
Ballistic stretching: applying the stretch with force – the individual, usually someone training in the martial arts or dancing, would forcibly throw the limb through the range of movement until it had reached maximal stretch capacity. This is an anachronistic and dangerous form of stretching that has largely been replaced by dynamic stretching.
Dynamic stretching: exactly the same as ballistic other than that, when throwing the limb out, an intercepting object would be placed in its path so as to prevent over stretching the muscle.
Contract-relax proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF): the muscle is firstly contracted for 10-20 seconds. Once the contraction is eased the stretch is applied – usually by a sports therapists or physio.
Benefits of increasing flexibility
Of all the components of fitness flexibility is most neglected as it is seen as unessential to the augmentation of physicality. This is a gross mistake and those who harbour this contention could be putting themselves at greater risk of injury. Flexibility is actually one of the major components of fitness and ‘it is important for a number of reasons, the three principal ones being: (1) to allow an adequate range of movement, (2) to avoid posture defects and (3) to avoid sports injury,’ (Watson 1995).
It’s that last reason that makes flexibility training so important. By participating in daily stretching, for a mere ten minutes, we could reduce our injury susceptibility by over 15%. Norris, in his book The Complete Guide to Stretching, cited one such study demonstrating how injury in sports athletes reduced when they developed their ROM. ‘the risk of injury decreased as flexibility improved,’ (Norris 2004).
Flexibility is typically characterised by the range of movement (ROM) around a joint.
Flexibility is a property of the muscles, tendons and joints and anyone, if they are willing to implement the training principals that follow, can enhance their ROM.
To enjoy the benefits flexibility has to offer (see below) we need only stretch for 10 minutes daily.
The modality of stretching applied should be long-duration static – otherwise known as developmental stretching.
By participating in daily stretching, for a mere ten minutes, we could reduce our injury susceptibility by over 15%.
Component of Fitness #5: Speed
Broadly speaking speed relates to the rapidity at which a person can move either part or the whole of their anatomy across a distance within a certain time. We talk about ‘fast reaction’ and ‘bursts of rapid movements’ but these terms are meaningless without the two necessary unitive measurements: distance and time. Without getting too technical, so as not to confuse myself, this is the macro measurement of speed – that is, action we can perceive with the naked eye: the boxer throwing a lightning fast punch, the sprinter covering 100 metres in under 10 seconds.
But speed can be registered and measured before it translates into physical action. ‘Reaction time is a property of the nervous system and depends upon the speed at which information is processed,’ (Watson 1995). You could be the fastest sprinter in the world but if you are slow to react to the starting pistol you might never win a race – especially when a place on the podium hinges on hundredths of a second. Thus in sports where success balances on such fine margins, the athlete will develop both their speed – the time it takes to cover a specific distance – and their reaction time – how quickly they can process information and translate it into action.
Best training methods for developing speed
Speed is affected by two properties: the force a muscle can generate and how much weight the muscle must move. If we conduct a thought experiment we will easily understand this relationship. Imagine two competitive cyclists both of whom can apply equal force through the pedals. Now let’s say that one of the cyclists weighs 20kg more than her counterpart, in a head-to-head race, all else being equal, we know which cyclist would emerge victorious. But why, when framed this way, is it so obvious? Because weight nullifies speed. It’s for this reason why top level athletes obsess over superfluous weight. For speed and acceleration will always be ‘improved by increasing force available from muscular contraction and by reducing weight of the object to be moved,’ (Watson 1995).
So, to increase speed we must develop the force a muscle can exert whilst also looking to reduce excess, non-force producing tissue (aka fat!). Because speed is a component of fitness highly specific to sporting disciplines, to outline the myriad methods of developing speed would require a book. However, the aforementioned relationship outlined in the previous paragraph provides a framework in which to operate. All we would need to do is tailor training session to increase the force muscles can exert whilst re-engineering body composition so as to reduce or remove superfluous weight. In theory it’s as simple as that!
Benefits of increasing speed
The enhancement of one’s ability to cover a distance in a shorter time is always going to be beneficial for those who compete in sports. The boxer who can move in or out of danger quicker makes for a more formidable opponent. The cyclist who has marginally reduced their body mass but maintained their power outputs will have cultivated a competitive advantage. However it’s gained, however the relationships has been manipulated, more speed in sport nearly always makes the champion.
Speed relates to the rapidity at which a person can move either part or the whole of their anatomy across a distance within a certain time.
‘Reaction time is a property of the nervous system and depends upon the speed at which information is processed,’ (Watson 1995).
Speed is affected by two properties: the force a muscle can generate and how much weight the muscle must move.
Speed and acceleration will always be ‘improved by increasing force available from muscular contraction and by reducing weight of the object to be moved,’ (Watson 1995).
Quick Overview of the Skill-based and Health Related Components of Fitness
Exemplar displays of coordination can be seen in such sports as basketball and boxing where the athlete effortlessly and in high pressured situations conducts their body through a series of complex movements. And really, without waffling on any further, coordination is precisely that: deftly navigating the body to meet the demands of the external environment.
Agility is the quality of being able to respond quickly to external demands by changing one’s directional of travel with ease and efficiency. However, there’s more to it than that. For not only is agility a display of one’s ability to change direction but also to be able to meet the environmental demands after moving. For example, it’s not much use if the footballer, after weaving round an opponent, is unable to fire off a shot. Thus good agility is about changing ‘direction quickly whilst keeping balance, strength, speed and body control,’ (BBC - 2020).
Balance pertains to the control one has of their body during movement. Typically associated with ‘up-right’ movement, balance is perhaps best seen in wrestling, judo and jujitsu where the combat athlete, after a throw, attempts to control their opponent from the floor. Another sport of note where balance is an essential attribute is that of fencing.