Person climbing a rock wall.

What is Muscular Endurance and How Can You Gain More?

Date Published: 2023-10-17
Author: Team Sedera

As we’ve seen previously, muscular strength is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Equally as important is muscular endurance and having the ability for your muscles to sustain stress and the rigors of daily life. Let’s take a look at exactly what muscular endurance is, the many ways it’s important, how to measure yours, and lastly how to improve it.

What is muscular endurance?

A lean and muscular athlete swimming.

The definition of muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle to exert force against some form of resistance, sustained over a long period of time. A necessary part of this is to have some degree of muscular strength. Focusing purely on building strength may place a focus on building fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are often associated with explosive movements such as sprinting or weightlifting.

In contrast, muscular endurance tends to focus on building slow-twitch muscle fibers. According to the NASM, slow-twitch muscle fibers are associated with prolonged activities such as marathon running. Slow-twitch muscle fibers are focused on sustained, smaller movements. Exercises that will be biased towards promoting muscular endurance will typically contain less weight, higher repetitions, and possibly more sets of repetitions.

Why is muscular endurance important?

Muscular endurance promotes various aerobic and fatigue-resistant benefits. Whereas muscular strength can improve your ability to exert a lot of force quickly, muscular endurance can help you sustain some degree of force for a much longer period of time. A prime example is a rock climber hanging from a rock climbing wall by the tips of their fingers for a significant period of time. This requires not only tremendous strength but the ability to sustain it.

How to measure muscular endurance

A person being supervised by a coach while maintaining a strenuous, muscular hold such as a pull up.

Measuring muscular endurance is similar in concept to measuring strength. The difference is, there is no “1 rep max” to test endurance. Exactly the opposite, you want to test how many repetitions you can perform with a given exercise. A classic example is a push up test, attempting to do as many push ups as you can until your form breaks down and you run out of steam.

When performing such a test, focus carefully on achieving proper form. Focus on achieving full range of motion where possible.

So, what do you do once you’ve identified the maximum number of repetitions you can perform at a given exercise? Try adding weight! The goal is not necessarily to be able to perform 100 reps at a given exercise. The goal is to be able to lift enough weight to promote growth while lifting a low enough weight to be able to perform a moderately high number of repetitions (12-24) to promote building muscular endurance. 

Say, for example, you find you can perform 30 pull ups before your form and endurance breaks down. Next time around, consider doing a weighted pull up using a harness and barbell plate. Start with a low weight like 5-10lbs. See if this brings your maximum reps down a bit towards the 12-24 range. If so, try working a week or two at this weight and rep range and see how you progress. After a few weeks, have you been able to slowly increase the weight? If not growing the weight, have you been able to add at least a few repetitions while using this added weight? Either can be signs of strength gains while also being endurance focused.

How to improve muscular endurance

A person performing a calisthenic or gymnastic hold like from gymnastic rings, a pull up bar, sawhorse, etc.

With training for muscular strength, we’ve discussed typical repetitions and sets people often use to achieve those goals. For muscular endurance, try reducing the weight, increasing reps, and possibly adding sets. For example, if your normal strength training routine often consists of 8-12 rep sets, try reducing weight by at least 20% and increasing reps to 12-24 reps. You might also experiment with reps in between 12-24 and simply add one more set than your usual strength training routine.

When engaged in a muscular endurance training routine, many of the same principles of growth apply. Namely, the method of progressive overload we discussed previously. Keep this in mind when building your endurance training routine, and look to slowly increase reps, sets, and a moderate increase in weight to avoid plateaus in performance.

Which activities best develop muscular endurance?

When training for muscular endurance, think about activities or exercises that can be performed a bit more slowly and might even require you to hold a position for long periods of time. A classic example of such an exercise is the “plank” position. In short, holding yourself roughly in an extended push up position. Some variations will have your hands on the ground, arms extended. Other variations may have your arms bent and forearms resting on the ground. Either way, the focus is extended holds, a tightened core, and a tightened lower body.

Other exercises that can promote muscular endurance:

  • Push up, pull up, chin up

  • Lunges

  • Rowing

  • Farmer’s walk & loaded carry

  • Kettlebell swing

What is the difference between muscular strength and muscular endurance?

Muscular strength focuses on fast-twitch muscle fibers and the ability to exert maximal force over a short period of time. Muscular endurance focuses on slow-twitch muscle fibers and the ability to exert moderate force over a sustained period of time. It is possible to build both types of strength. However, the types of activities that build each are often quite a bit different and may require separate training routines to achieve improvements in both types of strength. To promote good recovery, consider splitting your training routines for either on different days.

In conclusion

To review, muscular strength is important but, the ability for your muscles to endure is equally as important. With age, our fast-twitch muscle fibers, and overall strength decline. Thankfully, the slow-twitch fibers that promote muscular endurance tend to last longer in old age and potentially even increase. This is important for maintaining stability, avoiding injury, and enduring the rigors of life as we age. Lastly, when starting a strength training routine, consider adding in a workout once or twice a week that focuses on building muscular endurance. Your body will thank you for it!

SEDERA DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. The information contained herein is for informational and/or educational purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.