Muscular Endurance: The science, explanation & how to train

Muscular endurance is a fitness quality that underpins loads of popular sports and activities, but what exactly is it and how do we properly train for it?  In this article, we’ll be covering…

What is muscular endurance?

The definition of muscular endurance is a muscle or group of muscles’ ability to repeatedly produce force, with the key term here being repeatedly.

Therefore, examples of muscular endurance include things like…

  • How many press-ups you can do in 1 minute
  • Max repetition pull-ups
  • Back extension holds for time

In essence, muscular endurance tells us how resistant certain muscles are to fatigue.

The science behind muscular endurance

We’ve written a fantastic article all about the different muscle fibre types, which you should definitely check out if you want to know more detail about the physiology that underpins muscular endurance.

The main thing you need to know, though, is that muscular endurance is more of a type I (slow twitch) muscle fibre activity.  Endurance based activities require good oxygenation of muscles, so that repeated sub maximal contractions can occur.

Muscular endurance exercises

Realistically almost any exercise can be used to develop or test for muscular endurance, so long as it can safely be performed for multiple reps or a prolonged duration.  Here are five common exercises used for muscular endurance

Squats

Squats are a great way to develop and test lower body muscular endurance.  They mainly work the quads, but also include the glutes, hamstrings and adductors.

Press Ups

Press ups are a great upper body pushing muscular endurance exercise.  They work the chest, shoulders and triceps.  Common examples of muscular endurance workouts involving press-ups include max repetition press-ups in 1 or 2 minutes, or max repetition press ups without stopping.

Pull-Ups or Inverted/TRX Rows

Pull-Ups or TRX rows are great upper body pulling muscular endurance exercises.  They mainly work the lats, but also the rhomboids and rear delts.  Stronger and more experienced athletes may want to use the pull-up, whereas newer athletes may want to focus on inverted or TRX rows to ensure that they get enough reps to count as endurance.

Back Extension Hold

The back extension hold for time, also known as the sorensen test, is a great way to assess muscular endurance in the lower back, glutes and spinal erector muscles.  Endurance in these muscles has been shown to have a protective effect against lower back injuries.

Plank Hold

The plank hold for time is one of the most commonly used tests for anterior core muscular endurance.  If you want to use this test, we recommend watching yourself side-on in a mirror, or having a partner watch you, to ensure that your form remains good.  Lower back arching or too much rise or fall in the hips can invalidate the test.

Benefits of muscular endurance

Sport performance:

The primary benefit of muscular endurance is that you can repeat muscle contractions over and over again.  So if you’re an endurance athlete, or you play a sport that requires repeated efforts, muscular endurance will help to improve your performance.

Injury prevention: 

You can also make a strong argument that muscular endurance can help to prevent injuries both in sport and at work. For example, let’s say that you work in a physical job which frequently requires extended periods of lifting or moving objects.  If your muscles get tired halfway through the activity, they can no longer do their job properly, increasing the risk of injury.  On the other hand, muscles with greater endurance would be able to keep on performing properly. 

Stronger bones:

Although strength training with lower repetitions is a more efficient way to increase bone density, muscular endurance training will also provide some of those same benefits, making it a great option for older adults in the prevention of falls.

Healthier body composition:

Regular muscular endurance training has been shown to increase lean muscle, whilst reducing body fat, resulting in an overall improved body composition which is great for health markers.

Examples of muscular endurance 

As we’ve suggested above, there are LOADS of examples of muscular endurance, and almost every exercise can be used to develop or test it.

Squats, lunges, press-ups and pull-ups done for maximal reps or max reps in a certain time are all great examples.

Most crossfit workouts involve a significant amount of muscular endurance

Sports like tennis, football, basketball, rugby, badminton (any many more!) are all examples of muscular endurance in action.

Plus basically every type of running, swimming and cycling event beyond a quick sprint is also an example of muscular endurance at work.

How to measure muscular endurance

Since there are so many types of muscular endurance, the best way to measure muscular endurance is by deciding which test is most specific to your needs.  For example…

If you’re a 1500m runner, the most specific test of muscular endurance for you would be running 1500m as fast as possible.  A good gym based test for you might be seeing how many squats you can do in 4 minutes, which is about the time it takes a good-level runner to complete 1500m.

If you’re a tennis player, the most specific test of muscular endurance for you would be to play an extended rally of shots delivered at a set pace, with the test ending when you can no longer return the shots properly.  A good gym based test might be as many push ups or medicine ball throws as you can do in 20 seconds, which would be a decent example of a longer rally.

Or, if you’re just a gym/fitness enthusiast who wants to test your muscular endurance, the simplest way for you would be to see how many squats, press-ups or trx rows you could do in a minute, as well as how long you could hold a plank with good form.How to train muscular endurance

How to train muscular endurance

One of the best things about muscular endurance is that the training is basically exactly the same as the test.

If you want to be able to do more press-ups in a minute, then one of the best ways to do this is to regularly do workouts in which you do as many press-ups as possible in a minute.

And if you want to run 800m faster, one of the best ways to do this is to regularly run 800m.

Now, with that said, at a certain point you’ll run into what’s known as ‘adaptive resistance,’ which is basically your body getting bored of doing the same thing and no longer responding the same.  So it can be useful to change things up every few weeks or months.  There are two ways that I like to do this with my athletes.

  1. Pace reduction with duration extension.
  2. Pace increases with duration reduction.

So, let’s say that you want to improve your max press-ups in 1 minute.  Currently, you can do 30, which averages out at 1 press up per 2 seconds.

With method 1, you would practice doing repeated press-ups for 2 minutes, at a slower average pace, i.e. 1 press-up per 3 seconds.  So you might end up doing something like 40 press-ups in 2 minutes.

With method 2, you would practice doing push ups as fast as possible for 30 seconds, at a pace of 1 press-up per 1.5 seconds.  So you might end up doing something like 20 press-ups in 30 seconds.

Both methods are close enough to the goal activity that the training will have great transfer, but different enough that they give your body something new to adapt to.

Muscular strength vs muscular endurance

The best way to conceptualise strength versus endurance is as a spectrum, with maximal strength & power on one side, and maximal endurance on the other.

On this spectrum I’ve provided two examples of exercises at each stage of the spectrum…

Sprinting and marathons are both the same exercise (running) but the way the exercise is performed completely changes the energy systems used.  Sprinting is all about maximal strength and power.  A high level sprinter will have completed 50m in about 5-6 seconds.  On the other hand, marathon running is all about maximal endurance, your leg muscles have to sub-maximally contract thousands upon thousands of times.  A high level marathon runner will be running for 2-3 hours.  You’ve then got all the distances and variations in between those two extremes.

Next you’ve got the squat.  A 1 repetition max attempt, i.e the most weight you can lift for one rep, is a pure example of muscular strength, whereas doing as many squats as possible in 10 minutes would be a pure example of muscular endurance.  There are then loads of rep schemes in between those two extremes.

This same spectrum applies to every exercise you can imagine.

Muscular Endurance Frequently Asked Questions

Can athletes have high levels of strength and endurance? Do they have to make a trade-off?

It’s all a matter of degree.  Athletes can absolutely have high levels of both strength and endurance.  Rugby players are actually a great example of this.  Many rugby players have reasonably strong 1 rep max squats (150kg+) and bench presses (110kg+) whilst also being able to run, dodge, tackle and play their sport for 40-80 minutes depending on how long they’re on pitch. 

However, rugby players will never be able to beat endurance focused athletes at running or cycling, nor will they be able to beat strength focused athletes at powerlifting or weightlifting.

So yes, there is a trade-off.  You can be good at both strength and endurance at the same time, but you’ll never reach your full potential in either.

What are some fun muscular endurance activities?

Training for muscular endurance doesn’t always have to be super tough.  If you’re just looking to improve your overall fitness, you can try out loads of different training methods, exercise classes and team workouts to keep training fun and interesting.  Climbing, for example, is a great upper body muscular endurance workout, and it’s loads of fun.

Next Steps

  1. If you’re wanting to train your muscular endurance, put together a list of the most specific exercises and tests for you, and then go and do them, recording your scores so that you can improve over time.
  1. If you found this article useful and want to know more, check out our related articles on muscular strength, flexibility and aerobic glycolysis.

Or for more on the 5 components of fitness, check out this article.

Further Reading

Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

Parry, A (2021). Muscular Endurance: The science, explanation & how to train. Available from: https://sportscienceinsider.com/muscular-endurance-the-science-explanation-how-to-train/. [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 4.5 / 5. Vote count: 4

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!

Let us improve this post!

Tell us how we can improve this post?

Alex Parry header image
Alex Parry
British Weightlifting Tutor & Educator at Character Strength & Conditioning | Website | + posts

Alex is the Owner and Head Coach of Character Strength & Conditioning, and specialises in strength & power development for athletes.

He currently works as a Tutor & Educator for British Weightlifting, and has previously delivered S&C support to gymnastics and swimming talent pathways.