Muscular endurance is merely the ability to apply force against a resistance for extensive periods of time. For example, a person who can perform, say, 50 kettlebell snatches or complete a set of 100-unbroken press-ups, is said to have good muscle endurance.
Looked at another way, endurance is a term ‘used to describe the durability of an object or an individual’s ability to tolerate circumstances that are less than pleasant,’ (Watson 1995). Thus the grand tour cyclist crawling up a mountain pass or the marathon runner pushing on in spite of the pain and fatigue is showcasing extreme muscular endurance.
Some characteristics of muscular endurance training include:
High repetition sets – 12-plus reps
The resistance is light
The period of time the exercise spans exceeds 30 seconds – there is no absolute upper limit (apparently the planking world record stands (or lies) at a little over 35 hours!)
The repetitions are performed in a smooth unbroken continuous movement with no noticeable breaks or pauses
Rest periods between sets should be short
Best training methods for developing muscular endurance
Perhaps the single most effective method of developing muscular endurance would be to take part in regular circuit training. This is because the characteristics that define a circuit – minimal rest periods coupled with high-intensity/volume output – aligns almost exactly to the characteristics that define endurance training.
In fact, it would be true to say that in the vast majority of cases a circuit is populated by a series of muscular endurance activities; usually resistance exercises of a light to moderate weight.
Another highly effective method of developing muscular endurance is by regularly engaging in AMRAPs. I’ve covered this training methodology in a different article (AMRAP Training), so I won’t go into detail here. But the basic principal of an AMRAP is predicated on performing an exercise continuously for a specified period of time.
Other appropriate training methods include EMOMs and HIIT sessions. Again, as with AMRAPs, though perhaps to a lesser extent, the two aforementioned methods involve high volume output and minimal rest.
Muscular endurance fitness testing
The person who desires to test their muscular endurance has innumerable methods from which to choose. This is both positive and negative.
It’s positive because it provides a plethora of possible means of ascertaining current performance and, due to the enormity of the number of tests available, there is one for most all muscle groups.
But, on the other hand, it’s negative because it can lead to confusion over which is the best test to conduct. Also, an inexperienced trainer might select a substandard test or one that isn't suited to the muscle group they desire to test.
Below I have listed a range of muscle endurance tests and, opposite each one, included the primary muscle groups tested. The list is not exhaustive. Following the list, I’ve outlined the procedure of a standard military test.
The reason behind this is twofold. Firstly, it provides you with a test to try. Secondly, and more importantly, it demonstrates the procedure – or protocol (to use technical parlance) – that should be implemented prior to and during a test.
Range of muscular endurance tests
2-minute press-ups – chest and triceps
2-minute sit-ups – abdominals
2-minute burpees – legs and cardio-respiratory system
Pull-ups unbroken – (depending on the grip position) forearms, biceps and back
2-minute step-up test – legs and cardio-respiratory system#
Squat test – quadriceps and gluteals
Continuous plank test – chest, shoulders, transverse abdominus, hip flexors and quadriceps
Maximum (set-weight) bicep cur test – biceps brachii, forearms
45 seconds hurdle jump test – muscle of the legs
Press-ups in 2 minutes
The 2-minute press-up test is used throughout the British military to assess a recruit’s muscular endurance. In one long line recruits will be ordered to adopt the press-up position whilst a partner lies on the floor at their front, arm stretched out and hand clenched into a fist directly under their chest.
On command of the Physical Training Instructor (PTI) the recruit will be given the order to perform as many press-ups as possible in 120 seconds. The partner, who looks away, only counts a repetition when they feel the chest of the recruit performing the press-ups make contact with their fist.
If you decide to use the 2-minute press-up test as means of measuring muscular endurance, there are a number of points you ought to take into consideration. The following points could be implement for pretty much any muscular endurance test that you decide to conduct.
Solicit the services of a second party to monitor a) the quality of your repetitions and b) the number of repetitions performed. (Prior to starting the test it is best to first agree on what constitutes as a quality repetition – and ensure that you can use the same person come retest.)
For pacing purposes ask the second party to inform you when every 30 seconds elapses.
Prior to conducting the test decide your plan of approach. If you rarely perform press-ups I advise sticking to reps of 2 or 5. This will prevent you from filling with lactate early on.
Hand positioning: the hands should be positioned in line with the chest and slightly wider than shoulder width.
Position a soft object of about 4” in height directly under your chest. For a repetition to constitute as such you must make contact with the object. It goes without saying that the same object should be used when you retest.
Really for those who are using this test as means of measuring muscular endurance, and not for military pre-selection training, emphasis ought to be placed on the improvement made from the initial test to the retest. If you only managed to score 25 reps in two minutes during the initial test, but advance that by 10 or more two weeks later, physical development has been made – which is not only motivational but informative.
Range of relevant exercises
Really it matters not the exercise but the weight and number of repetitions performed per set or sitting. As discussed above, as long as the weight is low and repetitions high you are training muscular endurance.
But unlike strength, muscular endurance training usually incorporates calisthenics (body weight exercises) and cardio. See example list below:
Hanging leg raises
All of the strength exercises can be converted into muscular endurance
Benefits of muscular endurance training
Though it’s not always the case but in the majority of instances the trainer with good muscular endurance usually has good cardiovascular capacity. The two aren’t inextricably linked but they do often walk hand-in-hand.
When multiple muscular endurance exercise are grouped together to form a circuit and the circuit is completed at a high intensity with minimal rest, the trainer would not escape without elevating their heart rate. Consequently, by training muscular endurance you will likely be training your cardiovascular system also.
Other benefits of muscular endurance training include:
Low body fat
Healthy body composition
Lean, defined physique
Better able to endure extensive periods of arduous physical exertion
Muscular endurance is merely the ability to apply force against a resistance for extensive periods of time.
A person who can perform, say, 50 kettlebell snatches or complete a set of 100-unbroken press-ups is said to have good muscle endurance.
But looked at another way endurance describes ‘the durability of an object or an individual’s ability to tolerate circumstances that are less than pleasant,’ (Watson 1995).
The single most effective method of developing muscular endurance would be to take part in regular circuit training.
The muscular endurance equation: low weights + high reps + low rest = augmented muscular endurance.
Two muscle endurance exercises to try
1: Kettlebell Swing
Muscles worked: all of them! But primarily the gluteus maximus (bum), transverse abdominus (tum), latissimus dorsi (back – damn! Didn’t rhyme).
The kettlebell swing is synonymous with whole-body, functional training. And though it is arguably the best single exercise for all-round fitness it is deceptively simple – at a glance. You are, effectively, swinging a steel ball between your legs – stop tittering.
However, there’s a bit more to this exercise than meets the untrained eye. But the small investment required to master the KB swing is paid back in substantial fitness rewards. So what’re you waiting for . . . get mastering!
Stand directly over the KB feet spaced 1.5 should widths apart.
Bending at the knee – not rounding at the lumbar region – grasp the bell and straighten: smoothly and under control.
To initiate the movement pull the bell back and, on contracting the glutes, drive forward through the hips – remember: you are not pulling the KB up with the shoulders; you are thrusting it forward with your love-making muscles.
Keep the eyes fixed on an indefinite point in the distance as this will help stabilise posture and reduce back rounding.
When receiving or ‘catching’ the KB in the groin – sounds painful but it shouldn’t be (if it is you’re not doing it right!) – absorb the energy in the hips and transverse abdominus and redirect it into the next repetition.
To complete the exercise return the kettlebell back to the floor the same way you picked it up: bending at the knee, no rounding of the back.
Keep control throughout the exercise
Relax during the movement
Make sure that your feet are evenly spaced and planted firmly before attempting the swing
Fix your eyes on a point roughly head height
Ensure the arms are slightly bent throughout
Do not bend or round your back – keep it straight or slightly concaved
Do not at any point lock the legs out
2: Medicine ball ‘power’ squat jump slam
Muscles worked: all of them!
This is one of my favourite exercises. Why? Well it’s just such a beast. And it stimulates the whole body including your cardiovascular system. Seriously, few exercise can do as much for your physicality as medicine ball slams.
Stand over a medicine ball: your feet should be shoulder width apart and the MB in-line with your toes – or thereabouts.
Bending at the knee grasp the MB and in one smooth, clean movement hoist it above your head.
Now before executing the final phase of this exercise – the slam bit – you must leap up and, as you land, transfer that energy into the slamming of the MB. Of course points 2 and 3 should be one seamless movement.
As the MB bounces back up catch it and immediately complete the next rep.
Keep control throughout the movement
Keep your eye on the MB as you slam it. I've had the pleasure of witnessing trainers catch it up in the kisser when taking their eye off their balls.
Slam the ball with all your might – like Thor bringing down his huge hammer!
Make sure that the surface on which you are slamming is solid
Do not fold at the waist when picking up the MB. Yes your back will round a little as you squat down to pick it up but the movement must remain one that resembles a deep squat.
Now that you’re thoroughly clued-up on all things muscular endurance, you’re probably itching to put theory into practice. Below you will discover two Hungry4Fitness circuits that will put your muscular endurance to the test.
(As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest is a former Royal Marines Commando, personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.
Watson A. W. S (1995) Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance. Longman. England.