How does the physical training meaning relates to the "finding a solution meaning" using the particle out? What's the perspective?

  • 6
    One really shouldn’t try to find good explanations why phrasal verbs mean what they do, or conversely have the constituents they do. Generally, they just are, and the only way to learn them is one at a time. And some, like work out have multiple meanings that are unrelated to each other. I hope nobody ever told you that mastering English would be easy. Sep 10, 2023 at 3:12
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    @PaulTanenbaum i find looking for a justification of the etymology of phrasal verbs helpful in remembering their meaning. While not explicitly stated, this might be the kind of explanation OP is asking for.
    – bracco23
    Sep 11, 2023 at 11:25
  • An etymology I just made up: work inside tends to be intellectual (scholars, accountants, etc, usually involves sitting at a desk), and work outside tends to be physical (farmers, construction workers, etc). Hence, when you "work out", you build your muscles.
    – Stef
    Sep 11, 2023 at 11:41
  • @PaulTanenbaum: One shouldn’t expect any language to be absolutely logical, but there’s usually a lot of internal logic and patterns, and recognising these is very helpful. At the least, there’s usually some etymological thread of how a word or phrase came to have its current meaning(s).
    – PLL
    Sep 11, 2023 at 15:37
  • @Stef Thank you! That defenitely makes a lot of sense, I also looked for the word out definition and I found out that in its 12th sense it means 12 (particle) used to indicate exhaustion or extinction: the sugar's run out; put the light out -Collins Dictionaries. English Dictionary Complete and Unabridged. Which could mean or refer to strenuous exercise when you are exhausted and can no longer continue to put in any effort.
    – Quique
    Sep 11, 2023 at 15:47

2 Answers 2


As with many English words, "work out" has two meanings that don't relate to each other at all.

This is often the case when one version of a phrasal verb is intransitive and the other is transitive, as with "He took off" and "He took off his hat". "Work out" is one of those verbs too.


The use of the phrase in the sense of physical training or finding a solution is quite well established. The definitions can be found in Collins Dictionary.

  1. PHRASAL VERB B1+ If you work out, you do physical exercises in order to make your body fit and strong.
  1. PHRASAL VERB B2 If you work out a solution to a problem or mystery, you manage to find the solution by thinking or talking about it. Negotiators are due to meet later today to work out a compromise.

etymonline has more information about work out and the noun workout.

work (v.) To work out "bring about or procure (a result) by continued labor or effort" is by 1530s. As "bring to a fuller or finished state, elaborate, develop," by 1821. Meaning "to solve, calculate the solution to" a problem or question is by 1848.

The pugilistic sense of "box for practice (rather than in a contest) is by 1927 ...

workout (n.) 1909, "boxing bout for training," from work (v.) + out (adv.). General sense of "spell of strenuous physical exercise" is attested by 1922. also from 1909


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