If you’re a marathon runner or distance cyclist, you might not be next in line to win a Strongman competition, but you probably have pretty impressive muscular endurance.
Though brawny, strong, powerful muscles tend to steal the glory and turn heads, muscular endurance can be equally important, if not more so, depending on the demands of your sport activity.
But, what exactly is muscular endurance and how do you build it? What are the best muscular endurance exercises?
In this article, we will cover everything from the basics, such as the muscular endurance definition, to the specifics like how to test your muscular endurance and how to increase it.
We will cover:
- What Is Muscular Endurance? Muscular Endurance Definition
- Benefits of Muscular Endurance
- How to Measure Muscular Endurance
- How to Build Muscular Endurance
Let’s get started!
What Is Muscular Endurance?
When we think about resistance training, we usually think about building muscular strength. The stronger your muscles are, the more weight you can lift.
In contrast, muscular endurance refers to the stamina of your muscles, or more specifically, the ability of your muscles to continually contract under a load or resistance.
The load might be just your own bodyweight, as with holding a plank, running, or doing push-ups, or it can be any sort of resistance like dumbbells, weights, or resistance bands.
If you have a lot of muscular strength, you might be able to bench press 200 pounds, and if you have a lot of muscular endurance, you might be able to bang out 75 push-ups without stopping.
Muscular strength and muscular endurance are each individually considered to be one of the five health-related components of physical fitness (the other three being aerobic or cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and body composition).
The better your muscular endurance, the more reps of an exercise you can do, or the longer you can perform the exercise.
Someone with good muscular endurance might be able to hold a plank for 3 minutes whereas someone with poor endurance may only make it to 30 seconds.
Benefits of Muscular Endurance
There are several benefits of having good muscular endurance, including the following:
- Improving the ability to maintain good posture for extended periods of time.
- Improving the ability to perform activities of daily living (walking, carrying groceries, etc.) with competency and ease.
- Improving the ability of the muscles to produce energy aerobically.
- Improving athletic performance in endurance-based sports and exercise.
- Decreasing the risk of musculoskeletal injuries.
How to Measure Muscular Endurance
How do you know if you have good muscular endurance?
There are different tests you can perform that assess the stamina of your muscles by seeing how many repetitions of a certain exercise you can do before you are exhausted and cannot do any more.
There are official tests such as the sit-up test and curl-up test, but you can also measure your muscular endurance and keep track of your progress over time.
Good exercises to use for measuring endurance are squats, push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, or V-ups, though pretty much any exercise that you can perform at least 15 reps of will work.
There aren’t readily-available norms for some of these tests, but you can get an idea of how your muscular endurance compares to others by looking up the specific exercise online and seeing if there are guidelines.
If you’re a more advanced athlete, you can also compare your results with the expectations of the US Army, such as the requirements for the push-up test.
You can also do isometric holds, or static exercises, such as planks, pull-up bar holds with your chin above the bar, or wall sits.
See how long you can hold the exercise before failure.
One study created norms for performing a plank rather than sit-ups or crunches to measure muscular endurance.
The entire test community was college students, so the results may be overly ambitious for older adults because like muscular strength, muscular endurance tends to decline with age.
However, you can see how you compare to college students and college athletes by comparing your forearm plank time in seconds to the plank times in seconds below:
|Percentile||Male (n = 194)||Female (n = 275)||Non-Varsity (n = 109)||Varsity (n = 361)|
How to Build Muscular Endurance
Just as you can increase muscular strength through a consistent, progressive resistance training program, so too can you increase muscular endurance through a targeted training program.
However, although muscular strength and muscular endurance adaptations both involve increasing the volume of your training, the approach to strength training is different for each of these two fitness goals.
Training volume refers to the total amount of work that you are doing in a single workout session or over the course of the week.
With strength training, training volume is the product of the load you are using (the weight) multiplied by the number of reps and sets.
Increasing any one of these variables will increase your training volume.
To increase muscular strength, the general recommendation is to lift a load that’s 80-100% of your 1RM for 1-5 reps or 60-80% of your 1RM for 8-12 reps if you’re trying to build muscle mass.
Generally, the main variable in the training volume equation that you manipulate when you’re trying to increase muscular strength is the load you are lifting.
In contrast, if you’re trying to increase muscular endurance, the recommendations state that you should use a lighter load for more reps and sets.
According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, if your goal is training for muscular endurance, you should perform three or more sets of 15 or more exercise reps with a load that is 50% or less of your one rep max (1RM).
Note that your 1RM is the maximum load you can use when performing one full repetition of an exercise with good form.
For example, if you want to do squats to increase the muscular endurance in your legs, and the most you can squat for a single rep with good form is 160 pounds (72.7 kg), you should perform at least 3 sets of 15 reps or more lifting up to 80 pounds.
The best way to increase muscular endurance is to also gradually and progressively increase the difficulty of your resistance training workouts, but instead of manipulating the load you lift, you will increase the number of sets and or the number of reps or length of time you perform the exercise.
For example, imagine you begin your training program with the following abilities:
- 15 squats with 10-pound dumbbells
- 12 push-ups
- 6 pull-ups
- 20 step-ups with 10-pound dumbbells
- 45-second plank
Rather than add any additional weight, you’d slowly build up the number of reps or seconds you could do each exercise.
With squats, you would use the same dumbbells but increase to 15, then 18, then 20 reps, and so on.
With the plank, you would build up to 60 seconds, then maybe 75, then 90, and so on.
The goal of muscular endurance training is to improve the stamina of your muscles, so the variable you are manipulating is the number of reps or the length of time, rather than the weight or load (as would be the case with muscular strength training).
Another factor you can adjust is the length of time between sets.
Although this will not directly impact your training load, it can increase or decrease the difficulty of the workout.
Reducing the amount of rest between sets will improve your endurance because you are effectively shortening the recovery time.
You can also strategically sequence together muscular endurance exercises that utilize the same muscle groups in a back-to-back manner.
This also requires endurance because your muscles have to continue performing without getting complete recovery.
For instance, instead of doing lat pull-downs after squats to give your legs a break before doing lunges, challenge your lower body by grouping the squats and lunges right after one another and then moving on to lay pull-downs or other upper-body exercises.
Aerobic endurance exercises, such as long-distance running, cycling, rowing, and hiking also require muscular endurance.
The muscles used during the activity have to perform continually without rest.
You can increase your muscular endurance for these activities by both directly doing that sport activity and increasing the length of your workouts as well as by performing strength training exercises that target the muscles used in the movement pattern for the sport.
As an example, a cyclist could build muscular endurance for cycling by increasing the length of their longest ride each week, as well by performing exercises like squats, step-ups, lunges, hamstring curls, and deadlifts.
These strength training exercises, which target the primary muscles used in cycling, would be performed with a moderate load for a high number of reps rather than with a heavy load for fewer reps.
There is also evidence to suggest that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can build muscular endurance.
Overall, adding variety to the type of exercises and workouts you do is the most effective way to improve endurance while not neglecting the other important aspects of your fitness.
Unless you are training very specifically for a muscular endurance test or activity, you’ll want to keep a fairly balanced, well-rounded approach to your fitness.
For guidance on strength training, check out our guide!