Workability of Concrete: Characteristics, Factors, and Improvement

The workability of concrete refers to the ease or effectiveness with which builders can handle, place, and compact concrete during the construction process. The workability quality encompasses properties such as consistency, flowability, compaction ability, and the ability of concrete to resist segregation. Achieving good workability is essential for guaranteeing proper mixing, transportation, and placement which helps ensure the construction of sound concrete elements.

Workability of Concrete

Workability of Concrete

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) defines the meaning of workability in concrete as “the property determining the effort required to manipulate a freshly mixed quantity of concrete with minimum loss of homogeneity.” Concrete workability can be categorized into five-degree levels.

  • Very Low Workability – This level, also called harsh concrete, refers to concrete that has very low levels of flow and deformability. It is stiff and difficult to handle, requiring significant handling and placement energy. Builders use very low-workability concrete in specialized applications where minimal movement or formwork retention is required.
  • Low Workability – Low workability concrete has limited flow and deformability, but can still be managed with proper techniques. Builders use this type of concrete in applications with moderate reinforcement where ease of compaction is important.
  • Medium Workability – Medium concrete has moderate levels of flow and deformability. Builders can easily handle and compact it using conventional methods. This concrete has wide applicability.
  • High Workability – Concrete with high workability has high levels of flow and deformation. It is fluid, self-leveling, and compacting. This type of concrete is ideal for congested reinforcement areas and in applications that require good flow such as pumped concrete.
  • Very High Workability – This type of concrete has exceptional flow and deformability. It exhibits excellent self-compaction and flows into intricate shapes and congested areas without needed external compaction. This concrete is excellent in applications with complex geometries or where external compaction is not possible.

Primary Characteristics of Workability

While the workability of concrete has many characteristics, the primary characteristics of the workability of concrete are consistency and cohesiveness.


The consistency characteristic of concrete workability describes the fluidity or mobility of fresh concrete. Consistency indicates the ease with which builders can handle, transport, place, and compact the concrete during their projects. Consistency can vary from dry and stiff to highly fluid. Each type of concrete workability including dry, normal, and fluid are useful in specific types of applications.


Cohesiveness in concrete refers to the ability of the mixture to hold together and maintain homogeneity. It represents the degree of interaction and bond between the cement paste (cement and water) and the aggregates, ensuring that the components remain uniformly distributed throughout the mixture. Maintaining proper cohesiveness is vital in concrete as it impacts the uniform durability and overall quality of the hardened structures. It ensures that concrete remains stable and has homogenous strength without voids or weak zones in the concrete.

Factors Impacting the Workability of Concrete

Many factors influence the workability of concrete on the production side as well as during the hydration process.

Water Content

The amount of water to concrete is the most vital factor affecting the workability of the concrete. When water is added to the concrete mix, it is absorbed on the surface of cement and aggregates in the mixture. This fills the spaces and lubricates the particles and helps them move around more easily. Finer particles in the concrete substance require more water to move easily. Too little water creates a dry mixture, but too much water will result in a mixture that bleeds or does not cohere.

Cement Content

The amount and type of cement in the concrete mixture are important factors in the workability. Low cement content tends to create low workability, while high cement content enhances workability. The type of cement also impacts workability, as types like rapid-hardening cement will cause increased hydration and reduced workability.

Aggregate Mix Proportions

The amount of aggregate compared to the other ingredients in the concrete like cement and water impacts the workability. In general, the more aggregate relative to the other ingredients in the mix, the less workable the mixture will be.

Aggregate Qualities

Aggregates are available in different qualities and these impact workability. Aggregates that are different sizes and shapes require different levels of hydration to achieve workability. A smaller aggregate size requires more water for workability than a larger size. Also, aggregates with a spherical rather than angular shape require less cement for workability.

Addition of Admixtures and Cementitious Material

Concrete manufacturers add certain chemical admixtures or additional cementitious materials to the concrete to enhance particular qualities. Some of these include air-entraining agents, water-reducing admixtures, and set-retarding chemicals. In general, these chemicals enhance the workability of concrete. Additional cementitious materials like silica fume and fly ash improve the reactivity of concrete and its workability.

Temperature and Time

Concrete that has just been mixed quickly begins to stiffen due to the evaporation of the water content. Experts refer to this property as slump loss as the concrete becomes less workable over time. This varies by mix richness, cement type, the temperature of concrete, and initial workability.

The outdoor temperature is another important factor impacting the workability of concrete. Hot outdoor temperatures or windy climates cause quicker water evaporation, decreasing workability more quickly than in temperate climates.

Tests for Measuring Workability

Manufacturers measure the workability of different types of concrete to describe their characteristics, but builders can also perform on-site tests to help determine how time and the environmental conditions present can affect the workability of concrete.

  • Slump Test – This test involves placing freshly mixed concrete into a cone, compacting it, and removing the cone. Testers measure the difference in the height of the cone to the height of the concrete slump which indicates the degree of workability and flowability in the concrete mix.
  • Subjective Test – This test involves assessing the concrete on-site and involves the experience and expertise of a builder or engineer. As its name suggests, this test is subjective, so it is difficult if people do not agree with the assessment.
  • Flow Test – This test measures the concrete’s ability to flow under vibration and its tendency to segregate.
  • Compaction Factor Test – This test involved dropping concrete from one hopper to another and then measuring the compaction level.

Improving Workability

Several steps can be implemented in concrete manufacturing or on-site to improve the workability of concrete.

Water Ratio

Adjusting the water content in the cement mixtures is a simple way to improve the workability of concrete. Yet, the adjustment of water must be employed judiciously as too much water can negatively impact the strength and durability of the concrete.

Aggregate Grading

An optimal aggregate grading can enhance the workability of concrete because a mix of aggregate sizes can fill voids and improve aggregate packing. This decreases the need for additional cement paste for binding and improves flowability.


The addition of chemical or mineral admixtures will improve the workability of concrete. Plasticizers enhance workability as do mineral additives like fly ash and silica fume.

Mix Proportions and Design

The proper mix of aggregates, cement, and water is the most important condition in making sure that the concrete is workable. This means choosing a concrete mix that you trust as well as builder experience and expertise.

Mixing Time and Techniques

Sufficient mixture time and proper technique are vital to ensuring optimal workability. Adequate mixing facilities will ensure good lubrication for all elements within the concrete mixture.