How to Measure and Improve Muscular Endurance

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Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to sustain repeated contractions against a resistance for an extended period of time. The greater your muscular endurance, the more reps you can do of a certain exercise. It is just one of the components of muscular fitness, along with muscular strength, flexibility, and power.

Types of Muscular Endurance

In strength training, muscular endurance refers to the number of repetitions of a single exercise you can do without needing to stop and rest. Examples include how many times you can do a full squat, a sit-up, or a biceps curl with a light-to-moderate weight before breaking form.

Muscular endurance is muscle-specific. In other words, you may have more endurance with squats than biceps curls. It all depends on which muscles you train.

The type of muscular endurance used during cardiovascular fitness activities such as running, swimming, or cycling is usually called cardiovascular endurance or cardiorespiratory endurance and is different from the strength training definition.

Endurance training for these types of physical activities builds the energy systems of the body, the muscle fibers, and capillaries that can sustain long periods of exercise, such as running a marathon or cycling a 100-miler.

Why Muscular Endurance Matters

Muscular endurance is important in everyday activities, such as climbing three flights of stairs to get to the floor where you work or carrying a heavy bag of groceries from the car to the house. In sports, muscular endurance helps you better compete.

Some studies have found that muscular endurance training can improve sports performance. A 2017 study in Frontiers in Physiology noted that cross-country skiers who did this type of training had better double poling performance.

Research has also found that, when combined with standard resistance training (lifting weights to build muscle), muscular endurance training helps improve blood sugar and insulin levels for people with type 2 diabetes. It can also reduce injury risk.

How to Measure Muscular Endurance

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends testing your muscular endurance when starting a strength training program. This helps you know where you began, while also making it easier to track your progress along the way.

The push-up test is often used to measure upper body muscular endurance. To do this test, do as many push-ups as you can before you break form. This may also be a timed test to see how many you can perform in a minute.

Once you have your number, you can compare how your performance matches up with others in your age and sex category. By tracking this number over time, you can see increases or decreases in your upper body muscular endurance.

You can do muscular endurance testing on your own or, if you're working with a trainer, they may use this type of test to set the right intensity and loads for your exercises. Even the U.S. Army uses push-up tests to assess the muscular endurance of its recruits.

How to Improve Muscular Endurance

An effective muscular endurance training program uses lighter weights while doing a higher number of reps. Research has shown that this approach appears to be the most effective for improving local and high-intensity (or strength) endurance.

The principles below can be applied to a novice, intermediate, or advanced muscle endurance training workout. They are based on the American College of Sports Medicine's position on weight training and resistance training.

Choosing Muscular Endurance Exercises

The exercises you choose should work large muscle groups (such as the legs or back) or multiple muscle groups (such as the upper body and core). Add variety by including exercises that target one or two limbs or one or two joints.

The National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends doing exercises such as squats, bench presses, cable rows, and lunges to help build your muscular endurance.

Loading and Volume

Load refers to the amount of weight or resistance you use (a 10-pound dumbbell or setting the leg press machine to 110 pounds, for instance). Volume is the number of times you do the exercise or the total number of repetitions.

Ideally, you want to choose a load (weight) that is less than half of the maximum weight you can push, pull, or lift one time. This is considered a light to moderate intensity load.

If you are a novice or intermediate exerciser, aim to perform 10 to 15 repetitions for one or two sets. If you are an advanced exerciser, plan to do a little bit more, or anywhere from 10 to 25 repetitions per set.

Rest Periods

Short rest periods should be used for muscle endurance training. Rest one to two minutes for high-repetition sets (15 to 20 repetitions or more) and less than one minute for moderate (10 to 15 repetitions) sets.

Circuit training is good for building local muscular endurance and the rest periods during this type of exercise should only fill the time it takes to move from one exercise station to another.

Frequency

Frequency refers to how often you should do a workout that focuses on building your muscular endurance. This frequency is similar to that for building larger muscles. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) suggests:

  • Novice training: Do 2 to 3 days each week when training the entire body.
  • Intermediate training: Do 3 days per week for total-body workouts or 4 days per week if using split routines for upper and lower body workouts.
  • Advanced training: Use a higher frequency of 4 to 6 days per week if the workouts are split by muscle group.

Repetition Velocity

Repetition velocity refers to how slow or fast you contract your muscles during specific exercises. Different speeds of contraction can be used based on the number of repetitions.

  • Intentionally slow velocities: Use when performing a moderate number of repetitions (10 to 15).
  • Moderate to fast velocities: These are more effective when you train with a larger number of repetitions, such as 15 to 25 or more.

The National Strength and Conditioning Association says that training based on velocity can help enhance physical performance.

A Word From Verywell

Muscle endurance training must be related to your target activity, whether it's doing barbell squats or running a marathon. You likely have limited time for training each week, and you have to consider whether you spend it doing specific muscle endurance training or practicing your sport.

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