We mean something very specific when we’re talking about ‘muscular endurance’ – in essence, it is any given muscle or area of musculature’s ability to consistently exert force, repetitively, over time. Think of it a bit like stamina, in this regard. The more able a muscle is to keep this consistency over longer periods of time, the greater we can say that muscle’s endurance is.
Pretty much every form of athletic undertaking needs muscular endurance to be well-trained.
There are some more obvious forms of athletic endeavour that we typically associate with muscular endurance. Long distance work like cycling and marathon running are quite clear cases in which muscular endurance is paramount, for example.
However, there are also plenty of less obvious forms of athletic endeavour that rely on muscular endurance. Any form of training will benefit from being able to be completed at high volume. Even more explosive forms of training like boxing, weight lifting and sprinting contain a large element of this – you will benefit from training a lot, consistently, to high volume, regularly.
This takes endurance.
How To Train For Muscular Endurance
Most of us are starting from a lowish bar when we come to endurance training. Ultra-marathon runners and long-distance swimmers will struggle to improve their endurance – it will already be seemingly almost inhumanly high. Office workers will not. For many of us, endurance training – the eliciting of muscular adaptation with the goal of improving endurance – will be as simple as performing mid- to high-rep resistance work.
Essentially, if you are able to do more today than you could last week, you will be benefitting from improved endurance. This could be as simple as performing fifty air squats to failure in week one, then being able to perform fifty-five to failure in week two, then sixty in week three, and so on.
You don’t want to increase intensity or load too much, if at all. To elicit adaptation and progression, we need to manipulate the FITT principle. FITT stands for:
The frequency of your training sessions, the intensity of the sessions and reps themselves (so load, weight, difficulty etc), the type of training (switching from weightlifting to powerlifting to progress, for example) and the time spent training.
Time is the big one here, realistically. You want to be able to lift the same weight for longer, for more reps (which could also be counted as intensity, but let’s keep it simple). You want to be able to run or swim at the same speed, simply for longer, for further.
Frequency is also a good tool, too. You could improve your endurance by adding in an extra run day, an extra day in the gym, and so forth. Make your workouts more frequent, at the same intensity, and your body will learn to cope with the higher volume – the increased endurance asked of it.
Top Three Exercises For Muscular Endurance
The gym bro is going to come out in me, here. There are plenty of disciplines and arenas in which endurance can and should be trained. I’ve mentioned a couple already. However, I’m a weightlifter at heart and I love compound rep exercises.
There is also good reason to train this way. You can hit your muscle mass directly, in exactly the way needed to elicit growth, both in terms of endurance and with regards hypertrophy.
The following are all bodyweight exercises. To train for endurance, you want to keep things light. You don’t want to add weight. As above, we’re not really looking to manipulate intensity. Time and frequency are our friends. Spend more time performing push ups by performing more push ups, and so on.
- Push ups
I’ve mentioned them enough, so I may as well put them first. Push ups are some of my favourite exercises ever. I perform several sets in every upper- and full- body gym session I do, and bring in plenty of variations during my regular yoga practice.
They work your chest and triceps fully, alongside your core stability.
I would warn against going for stronger variations if you’re looking at endurance. Simply go for more. When you can do plenty in a row (30-40+), then you can consider going for heavier loads and wearing a vest or performing tougher variations. Until then, keep the numbers in mind – these are your goal.
To perform a push up:
- Get into a plank position, hips slightly raised, core tight, hands shoulder width or slightly wider.
- Keep your shoulder blades pulled back and down.
- From here, lower your chest under control, chin up, bending at the elbows and keeping your upper arms close to your ribcage. Stop a centimetre or so from the ground, hold for a breath, then press back up to the top.
- Repeat for as many reps as possible, then rest for 60-90 seconds before going again.
Planks are perfect for building and practising core stability. They are also great for improving full body isometric endurance (in which your muscles work hard to hold you still and firm). Training for this kind of full body endurance will have fantastic carry over to any other exercise in which you need to keep your body taut and strong.
Basically, if you can’t perform a thirty second plank, you will be unlikely to be able to perform push ups for thirty seconds straight, or to maintain good posture under a barbell. Train to be able to keep a good, long plank, and these other things will fall into place.
To get into a good plank position:
- Lie flat on your stomach on a mat, with your shoulders and hips also touching the mat.
- You will want your legs straight behind you. For greater stability, move your feet to hip width or perhaps even wider. As you progress, bring them in bit by bit until they are touching.
- Take your hands underneath your shoulders and push yourself up. With your arms fully extended, brace your core, lift your hips slightly, and actively push the ground away.
- At the same time, actively bring your hands towards your feet – they shouldn’t move, but the pressure that comes with this intention will switch on your abs far more fully.
- Hold here for as long as possible to set yourself a baseline. Perform a couple of sets with a 60-120 second rest in between.
- From here, work on progressively holding your planks for longer session by session. Even if it’s just a second or two, you will be improving your endurance.
Many people would go for bodyweight squats, here. However, for me, squats lend themselves far more ably to strength and power training. This isn’t to say they have no place in endurance training – I use them myself in my own volume and endurance training. However, there is a lower body exercise that I think kicks squats to the curb when training for endurance.
They are designed to be lightweight and high rep. They are designed to keep you feeling motivated as you hit silly numbers (I spent lockdown working on a routine that saw me do as many as possible in 15 minutes… I won’t bore you with the details, but I went from 280ish to around 500, representing a huge leap in endurance over a matter of months).
To perform walking lunges:
- Begin upright, with your feet shoulder-width apart. Your hands can be at your hips, at your sides, or supporting whatever weight you may be using (but remember, keep additional resistance low).
- Take a step forwards with your right leg, then, as you bend your front knee to a right angle, drop your left knee until it nearly touches the ground.
- Push back up, keeping your weight in your front heel, until you come forwards to standing.
- Repeat on the other side.
- Perform for high sets (up to around 30), or alternatively measure distance travelled. Then simply try to beat this week on week.