A lot of people neglect muscular endurance when they train. As a result, these people tend to have poor functional strength compared to their size and 1-rep max.
This is important because better muscular endurance and functional strength mean lower risk of injury, better performance in other athletic activities, and just feeling better and more mobile throughout the day.
Anyone can benefit from having better muscular endurance. Read on to learn how.
What is Muscle Endurance?
Muscular endurance is a measure of how long your muscles can keep putting out force before they get fatigued.
Most people tend to focus on either strength or cardio training at the gym. Muscular endurance is in the middle of the two.
Strength is how much force you can generate. But muscular endurance is how long you can generate force for.
Think of it like training for a 1-rep maximum vs training for the total number of reps.
Training muscular endurance means you might not necessarily be able to lift more, run/cycle faster, etc - but you’ll be able to do it for longer.
Why is Muscular Endurance Important?
There’s a correlation between muscular endurance and better overall health and well-being.
For one thing, studies have found an inverse link between muscular endurance and risk of musculoskeletal injuries (meaning injuries to bones, joints, ligaments, and muscles).
Basically, you’re less likely to get injured if your muscular endurance is higher.
Another study found that better muscular endurance leads to a decreased risk of cardiovascular diseases.
So those are two big reasons that science tells us you should care about muscular endurance. It's also important if you want your muscular strength to translate to other areas of your life, outside of the gym, where you need to maintain strength output for more than just 1 or 2 reps.
How to Improve Muscular Endurance
Like anything you want to improve, the best way to build muscular endurance is to test it, using progressive overload.
If you want to get stronger, you need to lift progressively heavier things.
Improving muscular endurance means you need to do more reps and increase the time your muscles are under stress.
You'll want to focus on high-rep sets, decreasing the amount of weight in order to hammer out more volume (i.e. sets and reps).
How Does Muscular Endurance Improve? - The Science
The science of muscular endurance is a little different from training for strength/hypertrophy only.
That's why it's vital to be deliberate about what you're training for. It's time to work out a muscular endurance training program for yourself. But before we talk serious muscular endurance training, let's talk about muscle fibers.
Our muscles are made up of type 1 and type 2 muscle fibers.
Type 2 muscle fibers are commonly known as “fast-twitch”. These are responsible for fast and explosive movements.
Type 1, or “slow-twitch” muscle fibers are the opposite. They’re responsible for sustaining output over a longer space of time.
Certain activities are going to improve one or the other. A sprinter, for example, is going to need to focus on training type 2, “fast-twitch” muscle fibers. While type 1, “slow-twitch” muscle fibers are important for a marathon runner.
One factor that gives marathon runners the edge is aerobic endurance training. The correlation between endurance and strength means you'll incorporate your entire body while building muscular endurance.
But remember, for endurance, it's all about the slow twitch. Keep that in mind with your training.
What is an Ideal Rep Range to Increase Muscular Endurance?
When you train muscular endurance, you want higher volume. This generally means a minimum of 15 reps per set. More commonly, you're looking at 25 or more reps per set.
The goal is to get your muscles fatigued, and be able to push through more reps while your muscles are in that state of fatigue.
These rep ranges are fluid but aim for a minimum of 15-25. From there, lower weight and increase reps if endurance is your only goal, or keep it around 15-25 if you want a balance between strength and endurance.
Top 12 Muscular Endurance Exercises
Let’s look at some of the best exercises you can do to increase muscular endurance.
Planks are among the most basic muscular endurance exercises. They work the endurance of your core, along with arms and legs to a smaller degree. You’ll want to push yourself to progress by increasing the time you spend in the plank - start from 45 seconds or 1 minute if you’re a beginner.
Bodyweight exercises like push-ups are also great for endurance. One push-up is easy - but 50, and 100 push-ups are hard, which is exactly where muscular endurance comes into play.
Abdominal exercises like sit-ups and crunches are the equivalent of push-ups for their muscle group. Keep pushing the rep range higher to achieve progressive overload and improve endurance.
4. Bodyweight Squats
Weighted squats are great for strength training, but take the weight off and do high-rep bodyweight squats for a (safer) alternative that works endurance, and slow-twitch type 1 muscle fibers. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and use slow, controlled movements.
Lunges are another muscular endurance exercise targeting the legs. At the same time, they help improve balance and mobility, and the small stabilizing muscles around the knees, ankles, and hips, which are often neglected.
6. Loaded Carries
Loaded carries (such as farmer's walks) are great for full-body endurance (primarily in the lower half). You can alter this resistance training exercise to focus on core strength, upper body strength, grip strength, and much more as well.
7. Kettlebell Swings
Kettlebell swings are incredibly versatile. They’re a great way to build power, core strength, improve the posterior chain, and (with a lower weight and higher rep range), muscular endurance as well.
Pull-ups are also amazing for endurance. Once you get to the point where you can do bodyweight pull-ups fairly comfortably, you can either add weight (if you want to focus on strength), or steadily increase your rep range in order to focus on muscular endurance.
9. Inverted Row
An inverted row is basically a bench press, in reverse. You position yourself under a bar, and pull yourself up to where your chest meets the bar. Doing this unweighted is amazing for upper body muscular endurance, along with core strength.
As well as one of the best forms of low-impact cardio, swimming is also an amazing endurance exercise. The resistance provided by the water gives a serious workout to your type 1 muscle fibers.
Running is another form of cardio that doubles as an endurance exercise. It’s primarily for your legs - and to get the benefits of endurance, you’ll want to maintain a slower pace over a longer distance (rather than short sprints or interval work).
Similar to running, along with loaded carries, rucking involves walking or running for a long distance with a weight loaded on your back (typically in a backpack). Along with endurance, it’s great at building lower-body strength, cardio, and for weight loss.
Muscular Endurance Benefits
What are the benefits of training and improving your muscular endurance with the exercises above?
- Decreased injury risk: when your muscles function better, for longer, before hitting a point of fatigue, you’re less likely to get muscle or joint injuries.
- Cardiovascular health: many endurance exercises double as cardio workouts, giving you additional benefits for heart health and overall fitness.
- Weight loss: like above, the nature of most endurance exercises means they also help you burn calories and lose weight.
- Functional strength and athleticism: it’s easier to translate your strength gains outside the gym, whether it’s for everyday activities, sports, martial arts, or anything else, if you have the endurance to maintain power output past just a few reps.
Who Benefits Most From Muscular Endurance Exercises?
Muscular endurance is essential for athletes. In most sports, you need to be able to remain active for a longer course of time, so you generally need a combination of fast and slow-twitch muscle fibers.
Endurance can benefit anyone, though. Even if you’re training primarily for power and muscle gain, endurance will help you maintain proper form, and hammer out more reps more safely.
How Many Times a Week Should I Train for Endurance?
It’s a good idea to do muscular endurance training 2-3 times per week. You might want to increase this frequency if endurance is your priority, or decrease it to 1-2 times if your main goal is strength/hypertrophy, and you’re just adding endurance exercises as a supplement.
How Long Before My Muscular Endurance Improves?
This depends on your workout routine. If you do more workouts, and maintain a higher intensity, you’ll progress faster. Fewer workouts or shorter workouts, and it’s the opposite.
However, endurance generally takes a longer time to improve than other areas. That’s just the nature of this energy system. It’s all about steadily increasing your capacity, through longer workouts with higher rep ranges.
Like with any kind of training, stick with it and try to maintain a consistent workout schedule. You won’t go from 0 to 100 overnight, but you’ll see an incremental boost in endurance that really adds up over time.