Program Design Basics for Aerobic Exercise

By Luke R. Garceau, MA, CSCS*D – The ability to design an aerobic exercise program is a valuable skill held by strength and conditioning professionals.  Properly designed aerobic exercise programs allow clients to achieve continual improvements in exercise economy and cardiovascular health.  Program design can be complicated, but also simplified through the manipulation of four program design variables: frequency, intensity, time and type.

Frequency – determining the number of days to exercise per week.  The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends 5 days per week of moderate-intensity exercise, 3 days per week of vigorous-intensity exercise, or 3-5 days per week of a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise (2011).

Intensity – defining how ‘hard’ to work.  Generally speaking, higher exercise intensities are performed for shorter durations.  Exercise intensity is commonly monitored by calculating heart rate or using a rating of perceived exertion (Borg, 1982).  Heart rate can be assessed by a heart rate monitor (watch and chest strap) or palpation of the radial artery at the anterolateral location of the wrist (palm side below base of thumb).  Heart rate recommendations are usually given as a percentage of one’s maximal heart rate.  Maximal heart rates can be estimated by subtracting one’s age from 220 (ACSM, 2011).  Ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) can also provide a measure of exercise intensity by providing a 6-20 rating from Borg’s RPE scale.  The scale was designed to emulate heart rate effects during exercise such that adding a “0” to each number on Borg’s RPE scale would be equivalent to their associated heart rate at that time.  The ACSM provides exercise intensity guidelines (as a percentage of heart rate maximum) for the following habitual physical activity levels (2011):

  • No habitual activity = 57-67% of heart rate max
  • Minimal physical activity = 64-74% of heart rate max
  • Sporadic physical activity = 74-84% of heart rate max
  • Habitual physical activity = 80-91% of heart rate max
  • High amounts of habitual activity = 84-94% of heart rate max

Time – determining the duration to exercise, on the days you exercise.  Generally speaking, one should schedule 20 – 60 minute of continuous or intermittent activity, depending on the exercise intensity.  Intermittent exercise bouts of at least 10 min may be accumulated throughout the day to reach the target duration.  The ACSM recommends the following exercise durations per day for the following habitual physical activity levels (2011):

  • No habitual activity = 20-30 min
  • Minimal physical activity = 30-60 min
  • Sporadic physical activity = 30-90 min
  • Habitual physical activity = 30-90 min
  • High amounts of habitual activity = 30-90 min

Type – determining the mode of exercise.  All should select rhythmical aerobic activities that can be maintained continuously and that involve large muscle groups.  Beginners are recommended to perform exercises which require minimal athletic skill (i.e., walking, leisure cycling, aqua-aerobics, etc.) (ACSM, 2011).  As one progresses, activities requiring more skill can be performed with more intensity (i.e., jogging, running, spinning, elliptical exercise, swimming, racquet sports, soccer, etc.) (ACSM, 2011).

Designing programs through the manipulation of frequency, intensity, time and type can also be referred to as the FITT Principle.  In addition to the FITT Principle, one should also incorporate progression of exercise.  Typically, only one program design variable is progressed at a time, and frequency, intensity or time is progressed no more than 10% each week.  Finally, please remember these are only recommendations, and one should seek clearance from their physician before beginning an aerobic program.  Happy training!

American College of Sports Medicine (2011), ACSM’s guidelines for exercise testing and prescription (8th ed.).  New York, NY: Lippincott William & Wilkins.

Borg, G. A. V. (1982). Psychological bases of physical exertion.  Med. Sci. Sports Exerc, 14, 377-381.

1 Response to “Program Design Basics for Aerobic Exercise”


  1. 1 Jill Weisensel January 25, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    This is very well done and explains the guidelines clearly. I will be printing this and posting it in the office. Thank you!


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