What Is Muscular Endurance—And How Can You Improve Yours?
Ever wondered how some people can run marathons without killing their quads? Or hold a perfect plank for minutes on end? Or even just deep-clean the bathroom without their arms cramping up? The answer is simple: muscular endurance.
Muscular endurance is an important component of fitness that impacts your workouts and overall quality of life. Improving your baseline level of muscular endurance can result in big gains. Not familiar with this concept? We've got you.
We tapped experts to understand what exactly muscular endurance is, how it differs from other aspects of fitness, and most importantly, how you can safely improve your own muscular endurance. Here's everything you need to know.
What is muscular endurance?
Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle or muscle group to exert force over a prolonged period of time, DeAnne Davis Brooks, EdD, CSCS, certified exercise physiologist, associate professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, and USATF-Level 1 track coach, tells Health. In other words, she says it asks the question, "How long can you contract that muscle?"
Thomas Swensen, PhD, professor of exercise science and athletic training at Ithaca College, puts it this way: Having muscular endurance means your muscles are able to work for a long time, he tells Health.
As it turns out, you need muscular endurance to complete a number of athletic feats and everyday tasks. Running a 10K, for example, requires muscular endurance of the quads. Swimming long distance demands muscular endurance of the shoulders. And hauling groceries home from the store necessitates muscular endurance in the arms and back.
How is it different from regular strength and cardiovascular endurance?
Muscular endurance isn't the same as muscular strength. Strength, Brooks explains, is "your maximum ability to exert force." Squatting 100 pounds one time, for example, requires strength. Muscular endurance, on the other hand, is all about sustained efforts over a longer period of time. Doing 100 bodyweight squats in a row, for instance, requires muscular endurance. "A person can be very strong and not have high endurance," says Brooks. And vice-versa.
Muscular endurance is also different from cardiovascular endurance. Cardiovascular endurance, Brooks explains, is "the ability of your heart, blood vessels, and lungs to supply oxygen-rich blood to the body over an extended period of time." With cardiovascular endurance, you can move multiple large muscle groups at a moderate or high intensity over a long period of time. Muscular endurance, on the other hand, is focused on just a single muscle or muscle group and can involve lower-intensity activities.
Still, muscular endurance and cardiovascular endurance are linked. As Swensen explains it: "There's a whole host of [physiological] adaptations that occur that allow the muscles to do more work, but they're not in isolation of all the cardiovascular changes that occur too that also make it easier for the muscles to do more work." In other words, improving your cardiovascular endurance can also boost your muscular endurance.
What are the benefits of muscular endurance?
OK, so we've established what muscular endurance is. But why does it matter?
For starters, if you improve your muscular endurance in a targeted way, "you'll definitely have better performance" in your sport or favorite workout, Noam Tamir, CSCS, founder and CEO of TS Fitness, tells Health. That's because more muscular endurance will allow you to exercise longer—maybe you'll be able to run nonstop for 90 minutes instead of 60, or be able to hold those pulsing lunges in Barre class for an extra 30 seconds.
The benefits can translate into day-to-day life, too. With more muscular endurance in your upper body, for example, you can carry your sleeping toddler all the way home. Or shovel your driveway without pausing every five minutes to shake out your arms.
Amping up your muscular endurance can also help you gain additional cardiovascular benefits from exercise, says Brooks. Say you like to swim but don't have enough muscular endurance in your shoulders to go hard enough for it to truly count as cardio. By improving muscular endurance in your shoulders, you can stroke intensely enough to get your heart pumping, which in turn will unlock a host of important health benefits related to aerobic exercise. Think boosted mood, reduced risk of conditions including type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, improved heart and lung functioning, and more, according to the Mayo Clinic.
And yet another perk of solid muscular endurance: It can allow you to comfortably partake in a wide variety of activities, like going on that epic all-day hike, doing a multi-hour walking tour at the local museum, or tearing up the dance floor until closing time. In other words, you'll be able to more fully enjoy life.
How is muscular endurance measured?
When testing your muscular endurance, it's important to first pick a muscle or muscle group you want to evaluate, says Brooks. Then, find a movement that zeros in on part of the body. For example, if you want to test the muscular endurance of your calves, choose heel raises. Or if you're curious about the endurance of your core, opt for planks.
From there, you have two options for measuring your muscular endurance, according to Brooks. One is to have a set load and count how many reps you can perform with that load until failure. For example, you could test the muscular endurance of your upper body by doing as many push-ups as you can before your form falters. Or, you could evaluate your lower-body muscular endurance by lunging until you just can't anymore.
The second way to measure muscular endurance is to see how many times your muscles can exert force in a set period of time. For example, to test your ab endurance you could see how many sit-ups you can do in three minutes. Or, for triceps endurance, you could evaluate how many dips you can bust out over the course of your favorite song. As Brooks explains, "a person who can do more in a set amount of time has a higher level of endurance because they're able to contract the muscles more quickly as they get fatigued."
How can you safely improve your muscular endurance?
To boost your muscular endurance, you first need to get specific. Simply doing any type of activity that gets your body moving and heart pumping "might not necessarily be targeting the specific muscle group as effectively as you could," explains Brooks. So pick a specific muscle or muscle group that you want to work on, like your glutes, core, or shoulders.
From there, design a plan that regularly works the specific muscle to failure, or at least pushes it to work harder than it's used to in your day-to-day life, Brooks suggests. The plan can look really similar to the muscular endurance measurement tests described above: In your workout, see how many reps of a movement you can do in a certain time, or push yourself to do as many reps as you can until failure. Record your results and then try to beat them next time. The idea, explains Brooks, is that over time your body will make physiological changes that allow you to do more reps. You may have to be patient to see these changes—it can take about four weeks of consistent efforts before you see substantial results, says Tamir—but with dedication, you will see progress.
That said, don't get so carried away with muscular endurance training that you do it every day. Muscular endurance training technically falls into the category of muscular strength training, explains Brooks, and the general recommendation for that category is to rest at least 48 hours before working the same muscle group again. This downtime is important because it gives your muscles the rest they need to repair themselves and build back stronger.
One easy way to incorporate enough rest into your routine is to alternate your workouts so that they target different areas of the body on different days, suggests Brooks. For example, maybe you work your upper body muscular endurance on Mondays and Wednesdays and your lower body muscular endurance on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can also do a total-body workout on Mondays, rest or do a different activity on Tuesdays, and then do another total-body workout on Wednesdays.
Finally, while it's true you can see big gains by working on your muscular endurance, don't let this type of training take over your entire exercise routine. Cardio and regular strength training are also important, and a well-rounded fitness program will include doses of each.
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