How long can your muscles sustain exercise? 

Muscular endurance is one of the five core components of muscular fitness alongside cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, flexibility, and body composition.

Whether you want to hold a plank or run a marathon, muscular endurance gives you the power to accomplish your fitness goals.

Read on to learn more about it and discover the best ways to improve muscular endurance safely.

What Is Muscular Endurance?

Muscular endurance is a muscle’s ability to consistently sustain repeated contractions against resistance over a set period. It differs from person to person and muscle group. Some of your muscles may naturally have greater endurance than others.

Having greater muscular endurance means you can do more repetitions of an exercise. A few exercise examples include planks, push-ups, sit-ups, or squats.

Understanding muscular endurance becomes easier when you look at muscle fiber types. While fast-twitch muscle fibers generate the powerful movements required for sprinting or weightlifting, muscular endurance relies mostly on slow-twitch muscle fibers, which support endurance activities like long runs.

As a runner, you need the endurance to keep on running long distances. But to train properly, it’s important to make the distinction between muscular endurance, muscular strength, and cardiovascular endurance.

Muscular strength vs. muscular endurance vs. cardiovascular endurance

While muscular endurance refers to how long your muscles can work, muscular strength is the amount of force you can lift or move.

The stronger a muscle is, the easier it will be to complete a physical task. But without endurance, you will not be able to sustain that force for long.

Cardiovascular endurance, on the other hand, refers specifically to the ability of your heart and lungs to provide your body with oxygen, which it needs as fuel during exercise.

Put simply, cardiovascular endurance is the measure of how well you can perform exercises that involve your whole body.

As a runner, you want to add a strength training program to your workout plan. The role of strength training is to reduce your injury risk and improve your running performance.

Stamina vs. endurance

Sometimes the words stamina and endurance are used interchangeably, but there are differences between the two. Stamina refers to the maximum amount of time a muscle group can maintain near maximum force.

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Endurance, as we’ve seen, focuses on increasing repetition time – the force exerted by the muscles doesn’t have to be maximal. Basically, a sprinter needs stamina, but a long-distance runner needs endurance.

What Are the Benefits of Muscular Endurance Training?

Do you need muscular endurance as a recreational runner? You bet! Here are the best reasons to add muscular endurance training to your workout plan.

Improved running performance

There is a strong correlation between muscular endurance training and sports performance. More than strengthening your core and legs, it can improve your posture and stability. It also increases the aerobic capacity of muscles.

Reduced injury risk

A 2017 study found associations between strength training and a lower risk of injury. Beginner runners are especially prone to injuries as they may start running with underdeveloped muscles that affect their gait and running form.

Improved blood sugar and insulin levels

Runners suffering from type 2 diabetes can also benefit from muscular endurance training. Combined with resistance training like lifting weights, it improves insulin levels and blood sugar according to this study.

How to Measure Muscular Endurance?

Before starting a strength training program, you want to test your muscular endurance, as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends. This will enable you to personalize your training program to achieve optimal results.

  • You can use the push-up test to measure your upper body muscular endurance. With this test, you have to do as many push-ups as you can. Alternatively, you can set a 1-minute countdown timer and count how many push-ups you can do in this interval.
  • For your lower body, you can do the squat test – perform as many reps as you can before you lose proper form.
  • You can also test your core with the low-plank-hold position. Place your elbows and toes on the floor and record for how long you can maintain this position.

Tip: You want to measure and keep tracking muscular endurance for different muscle groups over time.

How to Improve Muscular Endurance Safely?

Improving your muscular endurance without risks calls for the right mix of weight training and resistance training. Variety is crucial as it will increase the chances of continuing to perform the exercises for years to come.

Cardio training

Long-distance running is good cardio training for improving muscle endurance.

But there are other aerobic exercises you can throw into the mix, including jumping rope and cycling. These are great for building cardio endurance as well.

Weight training

Weight training exercises are some of the best for developing your muscular endurance. But remember that more is not necessarily better.

Whether you’re a beginner or advanced runner, focus on low-intensity strength training to boost endurance.

For best results, choose a load that is less than 50% of the max weight you can lift, push, or pull and increase the number of reps.

The National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends velocity training. This refers to the speed at which you contract muscles during exercises. When doing fewer reps, contract your muscles slowly. When doing 15 or more reps, contract your muscles more quickly.

Circuit training

You also want to add circuit training to your workouts. Perform six or more timed exercises (or for a specific number of reps) with rest periods in between.

A typical circuit training routine for runners could include a mix of resistance training and cardio exercises. It can combine sprints, bench step-ups, running, squats, and more.

Regular exercise

Regular exercise helps with building endurance, but it’s important to pay attention to frequency and volume. 

Following the American Council on Exercise’s (ACE) advice, you want to add to your muscular endurance training workout exercises for the lower body, upper body, and whole body.

Working multiple muscle groups, and in particular large muscle groups, using light loads appears to be the most effective approach for building muscular endurance. In the beginning, aim for 10–15 repetitions at a frequency of 2–3 days a week.

Raise the bar

We’ve seen that it’s good to stick to lighter loads. But progression remains important, so you want to increase the number of reps you do. Still, you want to challenge the body without injuring it.

For advanced training, you can increase that to 25+ reps and multiple sets and up the frequency to three total-body workouts or 4–6 workouts targeting different muscles.

Rest periods

Rest is crucial for endurance training at all levels. According to ACE, you need to give your muscles a 48-hour rest in between training sessions. Don’t work the same muscles in this period.

This amounts to 2–3 weekly resistance training sessions in the beginning. As you progress, you can increase general training frequency to 3–5 training sessions per week, as noted above.

Endurance-optimizing diet

Achieving muscular endurance isn’t only a question of the exercises you do but also of making healthy dietary choices.

For optimal results, eat plenty of fruits and veggies. You also want to eat whole grains, which provide complex carbs to fuel your muscles. However, avoid eating high-fiber foods before a workout as it may cause stomach problems.

Tip: Protein should make up 10–35% of your calories, while fat should be 20–35%. You need both protein and fat to build muscle endurance, so focus on healthy sources.

Training for Muscular Endurance

Sticking to simple muscular endurance exercises is a good approach in the beginning. Some of these also double as muscular strength exercises, allowing you to improve your strength at the same time.

Doing squats, lunges, cable rows, and bench presses will help you build your muscular endurance, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

Ideally, when training your muscular endurance using weights, aim to complete three or more sets of 15 or more reps with a load that is 50% or less of the maximum you can handle in a rep. Don’t just lift the heaviest weights you can!

Here are some of the best exercises to boost endurance that you want to add to your endurance workouts. Weights are not required.

Push-ups

Push-ups are a great way to start building more muscle endurance. Make sure you do them right!

  1. Lie flat on your stomach with your arms at chest level.
  2. Push yourself off the ground with your hands and toes, making sure you keep your back straight – you need to feel the tension in your back and thighs.
  3. When you come down, let your chest touch the ground.
  4. Do 3–5 sets of 15 reps.

Tip: Place your palms closer together to work your triceps more.

Body weight squat

Squats work your lower body muscles. Here’s how to do it correctly.

  1. Stand straight with toes pointed ahead and feet a bit wider than your shoulders.
  2. Extending your arms straight in front of you, bend your knees. Your thighs should be parallel to the floor. Make sure your back’s straight.
  3. Push yourself up with your hips, legs, and feet.
  4. Do 25 reps per set, aiming for at least 3 sets.

Walking lunge

You also want to try walking lunges, which work your abs in addition to your lower body muscles.

  1. Stand straight.
  2. Take a step forward.
  3. Drop your body to the ground so that your back leg touches the floor.
  4. Push down your front heel.
  5. Keep your abdomen upright.
  6. Repeat with the other leg.
  7. Do 3–5 sets of 25 reps each.

Plank

Planks work mostly your core but have a positive effect on just about all your muscles.

  1. Lie on your stomach with your legs flat and your forearms propping your upper body.
  2. Raise your hips off the ground feeling the tension in your lower back and shoulder muscles.
  3. Hold the position for at least 30 seconds or as long as you can – that amounts to a rep.
  4. Do at least 5 reps.

Sit-ups

Last but not least, add some sit-ups to your muscular endurance workouts.

  1. Lie flat on your back, legs bent, hands beneath your neck.
  2. Bring your torso up, tightening your stomach muscles.
  3. Make sure to keep your lower back on the floor.
  4. Fall back slowly and repeat.
  5. Aim for 3–5 sets of 25 reps.

Takeaways

In the end, don’t forget that simple habits like skipping the elevator and walking to work, if possible, can also help you build muscular endurance.

So can investing in a standing desk, which will engage more of your muscles and burn more calories than sitting.

As a recap:

  • Muscle endurance is how long your muscles can sustain repetitions over a period of time.
  • It uses mostly slow-twitch muscles, the same you rely on during endurance running.
  • Muscle endurance can improve your running performance while lowering your injury risk.
  • Train your muscle endurance by varying your exercises and increasing your reps rather than the weight or force of the exercise.
  • Start with simple muscular endurance exercises like planks, pushups, lunges, or situps and do them correctly.
  • Prevention is better than injury, so don’t push yourself too much too soon. Resting for 48 hours between muscular endurance exercises is crucial.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best way to increase muscle endurance?

There isn’t a single “best” way, as the most effective approach depends on your current fitness level and goals. However, several key strategies can significantly improve your muscular endurance:

  • Strength training with moderate weights: Aim for 15-25 repetitions per set with a weight that challenges you for the final few reps, using short rest periods (30-60 seconds). This builds both strength and endurance in the targeted muscles.
  • Cardiovascular exercise: Activities like running, swimming, cycling, or brisk walking improve your overall cardiovascular system, enhancing your ability to deliver oxygen and nutrients to your muscles, aiding endurance.
  • Circuit training: Combine strength and cardio exercises in a timed circuit, working various muscle groups with minimal rest between exercises. This elevates your heart rate while training different muscles for endurance.
  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT): Short bursts of intense exercise followed by brief rest periods push your muscles to work harder, improving both strength and endurance in a time-efficient way.

How long does it take to improve muscular endurance?

The timeframe depends on your starting point and training consistency. You might see initial improvements within weeks, particularly if you’re new to exercise. However, significant and sustained gains typically take 2-3 months of dedicated training. Be patient and focus on progressive overload (gradually increasing difficulty) for long-term progress.

Which activities help develop muscular endurance?

Many activities can help, depending on your preferences and goals. Some popular options include:

  • Running: Excellent for overall lower body endurance and cardiovascular health.
  • Swimming: Engages various muscle groups while minimizing impact, making it good for all fitness levels.
  • Cycling: Targets lower body muscles and improves cardiovascular endurance.
  • Bodyweight exercises: Push-ups, squats, lunges, and planks effectively train major muscle groups without equipment.
  • Circuit training: Combines various exercises to build endurance and challenge different muscle groups.
  • HIIT: Provides a time-efficient way to improve both strength and endurance through short bursts of intense exercise.

What exercises can improve endurance?

Many exercises promote endurance, focusing on moderate weight with higher repetitions and shorter rest periods. Examples include:

  • Compound exercises: Squats, lunges, push-ups, rows, and pull-ups target multiple muscle groups, building overall endurance.
  • Bodyweight exercises: Push-ups, planks, lunges, squats, and burpees are versatile and require no equipment, making them accessible for any workout routine.
  • Cardiovascular exercises: Running, swimming, cycling, jumping rope, and elliptical training effectively target larger muscle groups for sustained periods, improving overall endurance.

Do high reps build endurance?

Yes, performing high repetitions (15-25+) with moderate weight is a key strategy for building muscular endurance. This trains your muscles to sustain contractions for longer durations, improving their ability to resist fatigue and perform tasks for extended periods. However, ensure proper form and avoid sacrificing technique for higher reps, as this can lead to injury.

References

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Written by

Chris Zibutis

Chris Zibutis is the Head Running Coach and founder of Joggo – that one person on earth who loves interval runs.  He holds a degree from Copenhagen Business School and is an avid runner – having participated in numerous marathons and triathlons, Chris brings substantial fitness and running experience to the Joggo team.