Muscular Endurance

Do you want to be a better runner? Skier? Tennis Player? Or a better overall athlete? Improve your muscular endurance to outlast the competition.

Muscular Endurance Defined.

Muscular Endurance (ME) is different than absolute strength or power. Absolute strength is your ability to handle a heavy load for a small number of repetitions (1-3 rep range). In contrast, ME is the capacity to repeatedly exert force against resistance. Muscular endurance is the stamina of the muscle.

Muscle Fiber Types.

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There are two primary muscle fiber types: slow twitch (Type I) and fast-twitch (Type II). The way to engage ME is to target slow twitch muscle fibers. ME hits the endurance component of Type IIa muscle fibers as well but this is a secondary benefit. The greatest advantage will come to athletes looking to improve muscular stamina.

The cells within slow twitch muscle fibers excel at clearing waste and using oxygen as fuel. This is why we call endurance activities aerobic (using oxygen) and strength activities anaerobic (without oxygen). Type I fibers exhibit a denser capillary network than Type II fibers. The compact capillary formation brings blood (oxygen and fuel) to the muscles. Focusing the blood to the muscle is what helps this type of muscle fiber to contract over a longer period of time.

Time Under Tension.

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Time under tension is the core of muscular endurance. But what is time under tension and how can we optimize it?

Time under tension is just as it sounds. It’s putting your muscles under load for an extended period of time.

We will use running to discuss ME because it’s a clear-cut example activity. Keep in mind that muscular endurance can be applied to many different disciplines, so stick with the sections about running even if you’re not a runner because the concepts will be relevant to you.

When running a marathon, your legs are under load for each step. Left leg, right leg, left leg, right leg. Repeat 30,000-40,000 times and you have a completed a marathon. Typical marathon training programs will ramp your distance up and up and up until you reach a level of ME (along with joint robustness, cardiovascular ability, and mental fortitude) to handle the marathon step count. We can accelerate the muscular endurance portion of the training by focusing on the time under tension. 

Let’s break down the math and figure out how much true time under tension is in a 5-mile run. A typical running stride takes 200 milliseconds to complete but is under full load for about half that time or 100 milliseconds. A 5-mile run would take 50 minutes for someone who runs a 10-minute mile. With a stride rate of 156 strides per minute (156 SPM is an average stride rate), this 50-minute run would take ~7,800 steps. If we take the 7,800 steps, divide this by two (you only step with one leg at a time), and then divide by 60 (to convert seconds into minutes)…the true time under tension for this run is a mere 6.5 minutes

Now let’s cover is a step by step process for translating this 5-mile run (or any activity) into ME terms:

  1. Identify the primary muscle groups used for your exercise in question.
    • 5-mile run example: Primary muscle groups are the quadriceps and core.
  2. Find an exercise or multiple exercises that isolate the muscle group(s) you’re looking to isolate.
    • 5-mile run example: Chair pose (yoga posture) is a quad killer and targets the core too. Perfect!
  3. Find how much ‘time under tension’ you’re trying to replicate. A great rule of thumb is 10%-20% total exercise time you are replacing. For instance, if you want to replicate a 2-hour (120-minute) bike ride for a muscular endurance workout, you’ll need to design a time under tension protocol of ~12-24 minutes.
    • 5-mile run example: Translating the 5-mile run into a muscular endurance procedure is as simple as matching time under tension. Using our 10%-20% rule of thumb we know that we’ll need to hold chair pose for 5-10 minutes. The 6.5 minute time under tension calculation we did fits right in this window.
  4. Break up the total time under tension into sets. Keep in mind that the lower the number of sets the greater the total fatigue will be.
    • 5-mile run example: Let’s say we want to create a 5-minute (10%) time under tension session to match our 5-mile run. Splitting the 5-minute total into 10 sets of 30-second chair pose followed by a 30-second rest is good. Breaking it into 5 sets of 60-second chair pose followed by a 30-second rest is better.
  5. Bonus Step! This is for the advanced only and is not necessary to get the benefits covered in steps 1-4. If you want to add a small amount weight to the exercise in question this will really pile on the tension. Remember that we’re trying to stay away from absolute strength and to favor repeated force against tension, so keep those weights light.
    • 5-mile run example: Putting 5lbs in each hand during the chair pose would amp this move up big time.
  1. Identify targeted muscle groups.
  2. Find appropriate exercise(s)
  3. Determine time under tension
  4. Break it up into sets
  5. If you want to bring the heat, add light weights.

Follow these steps and you’ll be a time under tension god!

 Benefits and Pitfalls of Muscular Endurance Training.

One major benefit of ME training is it can cut exercise time.

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In our 5-mile run example, the 50-minute run was replaced by a 10-minute workout. Not bad! Is this a replacement for every 5-mile run? No. But cutting a few workouts by 80% of their training time gives you flexibility.

The second advantage is jumping ME levels.

Let’s say example guy Mike has been struggling in his Saturday morning group 5-mile run. To combat this he completes a 60-second chair pose & 30-second rest workout for 15 sets (a 22-minute workout) during the week. That’s the ME training equivalent of a 7.5-mile to 15-mile run! Next Saturday Mike is going to crush it because he now has the muscular training to be able to handle much more than the 5-miles they will cover. By doing an overloaded workout like this you can jump ME levels to go further in your activity.

The ability to jump muscular endurance ability is also the biggest pitfall of ME training. 

When I first got into running I was a pretty seasoned cyclist and had a high level of ME. The other aspects of running (ankle stability, foot callouses, and joint toughness) didn’t match my ME fitness level. My first 10-20 runs were frustrating because I had the muscular and cardiovascular fitness to be able to run for 10-15 miles, but the other components of running wouldn’t allow me to go past about 3 miles. If I were to have listened to the muscular/cardio signals instead of joint/foot/ankle signals I would have pushed into injury territory.

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If you focus too heavily on muscular endurance training, your durability in running, cycling, boxing, etc. will fall behind what you can handle. I’ve found that bringing in an ME session no more than 1 in every 3 workouts allows me to make great progress but doesn’t put me at risk of potential injury.

Burn Baby Burn. 

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The sensation of ME training is intense muscle burn. No matter what exercise you’re doing if you are feeling that ‘I think my muscle is going to burst into flames’ feeling, you’re doing it right.

Get into the Ron Burgundy mindset: “Ohh, it’s the deep burn. Oh, it’s so deep. Oh, I can barely lift my right arm ’cause I did so many. I don’t know if you heard me counting. I did over a thousand.” Cheesy? Yes. Effective? You know it!

Full body Muscular Endurance Workout.

Detailed below is my full body muscular endurance workout. Feel free to form your own workout by picking and choosing moves that hit your target muscles. This workout should take about 35 minutes but will blast your whole body.

  • Warm-up
    • Jumping jacks, high knees, and high knee jumps or other moves to get your heart rate up. ~10 reps of each move
    • Simple yoga vinyasa routine. Mountain (standing upright), forward bend, jump back to plank, upward dog, downward dog, warrior 1, warrior 2, warrior 3, and then come back to mountain pose. I’ll go through this once or twice on each side. Don’t look for perfection here, we’re just trying to awaken all of your muscles.
  • Section 1
    • 10 repetitions – Slow motion squats with dumbbells (Ladies: 5-15lbs, Men: 15-35lbs).
      • Let the dumbbells hang at your sides and do a 4-2-4 count as you’re squatting. 4 seconds down, 2 seconds held at the bottom, 4 seconds up. Stop yourself just before you reach standing again and head back down. We want to keep tension in the legs for the entire exercise. [Advanced: inhale on the way down, exhale on the way up. No extra breaths]
    • 15 repetitions – Pike Plank
      • Get in plank position with forearms on the ground. From here raise your butt to the sky mimicking a downward dog movement. Do this in a 5-5 count. 5 seconds raise to the top, 5 seconds return to plank. You should be moving in a slow but constant motion. [Advanced: inhale on the way down, exhale on the way up. No extra breaths]
    • 10 repetitions – Slow motion deadlifts with dumbbells (Ladies: 5-15lbs, Men: 15-35lbs).
      • Let the dumbbells hang in front of you (touching your quads when at rest) and do a 4-2-4 count as you’re deadlifting. 4 seconds down, 2 seconds held at the bottom, 4 seconds up. When you reach the top of the movement squeeze your butt cheeks together as tight as possible. Keep tension in the hamstrings throughout the entire exercise. [Advanced: inhale on the way down, exhale on the way up. No extra breaths]
    • 15 repetitions – Slow motion push-ups
      • Do push-ups from either knees or feet and do a 4-2-4 count as you’re moving. 4 seconds down, 2 seconds held at the bottom, 4 seconds up. Stop yourself just before your elbows lock out and head back down. [Advanced: inhale on the way down, exhale on the way up. No extra breaths.]
    • 10 repetitions – Slow motion bent over rows with dumbbells (Ladies: 5-15lbs, Men: 15-35lbs).
      • Let the dumbbells hang at your sides and do a 4-2-4 count as you’re rowing. 4 seconds up, 2 seconds held at the top, 4 seconds down. Stop yourself just before your arms are fully down and head back up. We want to keep tension in the back for the entire exercise. [Advanced: exhale on the way up, inhale on the way down. No extra breaths]
  • Rest 30 seconds (just long enough to grab some water, not long enough to catch your breath)
  • Section 2
    • 10 repetitions per side – Slow motion Bulgarian split squat
      • Put one leg on a raised surface behind you (bed, chair, sofa, etc.) and do a 4-2-4 count as your squatting. 4 seconds down, 2 seconds held at the bottom (knee about 1” off the floor), 4 seconds to the top. Stop yourself just before you reach standing again and head back down. We want to keep tension in the working leg for the entire exercise. [Advanced: inhale on the way down, exhale on the way up. No extra breaths.]
    • 15 repetitions – Slow motion push-ups
      • Do push-ups from either knees or feet and do a 4-2-4 count as you’re moving. 4 seconds down, 2 seconds held at the bottom, 4 seconds up. Stop yourself just before your elbows lock out and head back down. [Advanced: inhale on the way down, exhale on the way up. No extra breaths.]
    • 10 repetitions – Slow motion deadlifts with dumbbells (Ladies: 5-15lbs, Men: 15-35lbs).
      • Let the dumbbells hang in front of you (touching your quads when at rest) and do a 4-2-4 count as you’re deadlifting. 4 seconds down, 2 seconds held at the bottom, 4 seconds up. When you reach the top of the movement squeeze your butt cheeks together as tight as possible. Keep tension in the hamstrings throughout the entire exercise. [Advanced: inhale on the way down, exhale on the way up. No extra breaths]
    • 15 repetitions – Superman
      • Lying face down on your stomach. Lift arms and legs out in a superman type pose and hold for a 10-3 count. 10 seconds up, 3 seconds rest. Focus on squeezing your body as tight as possible.
    • 30 repetitions – Leg scissors
      • Lying face up on your back. Scissor legs with one leg straight up towards the sky and the other leg about 2 in off the ground. Scissor legs every 4 seconds. Left leg towards the sky right leg hovering (1, 2, 3, 4) right leg towards the sky left leg low (1, 2, 3, 4). Count each time you move your legs. Keep your arms by your side and not under your butt.
    • 60 seconds – Chair pose
      • Quadriceps parallel to the ground. Arms overhead. Weight back on the heels. Flex those legs! Make it burn!!!
  • Cool-down
    • Emphasize stretching the muscles you worked. Here are a few moves I like: split leg stretch, butterfly groin stretch, pigeon pose, quad stretch, upward dog, cat-cow, and simply bending over to get those hammies.
    • Your muscles are most limber when they’re warm aka after any workout so don’t waste the opportunity to increase flexibility!

If you don’t have dumbbells don’t sweat it. You can do all of these moves without them. Whether you have dumbbells or not, concentrate on squeezing the muscles and pushing that burn deep into the muscle.

Attached Full Body Muscular Endurance Workout is a quick pdf version of the workout (extended descriptions removed).

Final Notes.

Muscular endurance is here for you to last longer (in bed…sorry that was too easy) in any activity you choose. If the only thing you take away from this article is the time under tension concept, you’ll be 10 steps ahead of the competition. Holding static strength positions trains your muscles to contract over a longer period of time and teaches your mind to view discomfort as a choice, not a requirement.

Get creative with your training! Want to extend the impact of your 3-mile run? Pause under a bridge and do a 2-minte wall sit. Then continue the run. This will add at minimum 1-mile’s worth of muscular endurance gains. And it will give you a lesson in how to run with jelly legs.

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Feel the burn and tell us about it! Leave a comment below about how muscular endurance has helped you achieve your goals.

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