What Is Muscular Endurance And How Do You Improve It?

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For some people, success in the gym can be measured by the size of their muscles and the numbers on the weights they can lift. However, many of those people don’t consider how long they can lift those weights for, a quality known as muscular endurance. It’s a mistake to overlook that element, especially if you are going to the gym to improve your performance playing sport.

For more information on the importance of muscular endurance and how you can go about improving yours, we spoke to Ben Walker, personal trainer and owner of Anywhere Fitness.

What is muscular endurance?

Muscular endurance is the ability to continuously contract a muscle against a given movement or resistance. The more repetitions managed without the muscle failing, the greater the endurance. This isn’t to be confused with muscular strength, which is best achieved when lifting weight that fails the muscle between eight and 12 reps.

Athletes or fitness enthusiasts who want to avoid a bulky look and keep their muscles lean, flexible and with the ability to move through their full range of motion during sports performance will want to focus on muscle endurance as opposed to strength.

How do you improve your muscular endurance?

You want to avoid being in the target zone for hypertrophy [building muscle mass], so focus on lifting less weight and completing more reps. If training for a specific sport activity, mimic the movements performed on game day against resistance. For example, a basketball player who is continually jumping off either foot will want to include high repetitions and variations of jumps and planks and wall sits. It’s good to include these along with high rep exercises because the muscle is contracted for the entire duration of the routine and endurance is achieved from a different method of contraction.

It's also important to avoid long rest times between sets. Improving endurance is best achieved while the heart rate is elevated and your muscle tissue is forced to recover faster. Try to limit your rest times to a minute, and less if you can. Those looking to achieve muscular strength will tend to rest between one and two minutes, but we want to stay in the endurance zone.

What kind of exercises should people start with?

It’s easier in the beginning to make muscular endurance gains by focusing on one particular area before adding more muscle groups in a single movement. Take an exercise that primarily targets one muscle group and perform the workout while applying different variations. Again, focus on doing as many repetitions as you can till failure.

For example, let’s take pectoralis major [in the chest] as a single muscle. Start by performing an exercise such as seated chest press on a weights machine. Set the load to perform roughly 20 to 40 reps. Upon failing on your last rep in that bracket, immediately set the load to half the weight and perform more reps to failure as soon as possible. This is called a drop set and is a great technique to use to increase muscular endurance. You can add drop sets to any free weight or machine exercise as you make gradual improvements in your overall endurance.

Holding exercises and bodyweight exercises are also essential for building muscular stamina. Again, start with basic exercises that mainly target a single muscle group. Make it a goal to hold a wall sit or plank for as long as you can. Record your time and attempt to keep beating it. You can increase the intensity over time by holding weight during the exercise.

Holding exercises can also be done with free weights. Take an exercise such as a lateral dumbbell raise. Practise holding the concentric phase for as long as possible, which is when your arms are fully extended laterally at 90° and the dumbbells are at shoulder height. Time yourself and rest for a minute before trying again. Apply this training method to the concentric phase of a range of free weight exercises to target different muscle groups in the lower and upper body.

How can you test your own muscular endurance?

Simply take a single exercise and perform as many repetitions as you can, at your own pace, until failure. Press-ups are great for this.

You can also assess your endurance based on time. Set a time on the clock, say 45 or 60 seconds, and complete as many reps as possible in that time. Then repeat it. The first test indicates the strength element of your muscular endurance, while the second highlights your capabilities when it comes to intensity and recovery. So if you find you are weaker on the second test, then perhaps you need to pick up the speed in your training or cut the rest times slightly.

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.