Muscle Endurance: The Secret Ingredient to Staying Stronger Longer

Muscle Endurance: The Secret Ingredient to Staying Stronger Longer

By: Julio Hannibal Canario

Man lifting rockI had him right in my grasp. Five more minutes – that’s all that was needed. However, things didn’t go as planned.

Sometimes, strength falters in the absence of endurance. I learned this the hard way.

Ok, let’s face it. Despite all the effort that we put into obtaining a strong and lean physique, we oftentimes find ourselves feeling weak.

Yes, we might see in increase in muscle mass. Yes, we might have visible abs. But, when it matters the most, our strong physique can fail us the greatest. For me, it happened on a quiet Monday afternoon at my local barbershop.

Beating the 5pm rush, I expected to be in, and out, rather quickly. However, I soon came to the realization that my fresh cut would have to be postponed.
As I stepped through the front door, I came across a most unusual sight: two men wrestling on the ground. One of these men was Gio – the master barber. The second – an unknown stranger.

Lost in confusion but yet fueled with curiosity, I motioned to Gio who quickly revealed the matter at hand.

A robbery was taking place and I walked right into it.

Kicking into crime-fighting mode, I made a mad dash towards the brawl and pinned down the bearded thief who reeked of alcohol at four in the afternoon.

Seriously…it’s 4pm…on a Monday…and you’re already wasted?

But I digress.

Gio took this opportunity to dial 911 and care for his injured wife. Unfortunately, she became a victim during the struggle.

I now had one goal: keep the intoxicated thief pinned to the ground until the police had arrived.

One problem: I was getting tired.

In fact, I was getting tired fast.

Every bit of struggle left me gasping for air.

While I had a strength and size advantage, and should have overpowered the petty thief with ease, it didn’t work out that way.

I was not able to sustain my strength, and soon, the roles would be reversed.

My Muscle Endurance Sucked, and So Does Yours

I did a good thing, but yet, I felt horrible. And I’m not alone.

When it comes to maximizing strength, most of us fail to see how the gains we make at the gym will translate over to daily activities.

We spend hours lifting heavy, with the goal of developing massive biceps, chiseled abs and the ability to harness the power of a Norse god. But when put under strenuous conditions that require more than sixty seconds of strength, many of us find ourselves tapping out way too early.

Sure, you’ll be able to swiftly open a jar of pickles. But what happens when you need to sustain that strength for a longer duration of time?

A lack of endurance hinders your ability to perform outside of the gym. This leaves activities such as helping a friend move furniture, playing through an entire pickup basketball game, or in my case, avenging my barber’s cash register, as an impossible task.

One of the most underlooked aspects of strength training is muscular endurance.

But what exactly is it?

Simply put, muscle endurance is the ability to sustain maximal force. Whereas power is geared towards creating maximum output force, muscular endurance allows you to sustain that force for a long duration of time.

Using the obligatory car analogy, power would be the supercharged V8 under the hood.

Stepping on the gas peddle and maxing out at 120 mph is not a problem. That is, for an engine powerful enough to handle the applied force.

But now, try to go all Dominic Toretto with an engine that lacks compression. Your vehicle is sure to burn out fast…and maybe furious.

In a similar way, without the proper muscular endurance adaptations, your physiological engine will burn out or fatigue sooner than you would like it to.

This is why no matter how much muscle you’re able to pack on, your performance still suffers.

Developing the Right Adaptations

As a survival mechanism, your body is designed to adapt to it’s environment.

You have a fever, your body sweats it out. Traveling to high altitudes? Your body adapts by providing oxygen to cells.

Training for muscle endurance has it’s own adaptations which include:

  • improved cardiovascular health
  • strengthened slow twitch muscle fibers
  • improved V02 Max (maximal oxygen uptake)

Looping back to the turbo charged V8 analogy, just as an engine requires oxygen to run efficiently, performing strenuous activities – such as lifting weights or lifting groceries – triggers a metabolic response for oxygen.

V02 Max is a measurement of the amount of oxygen your body is capable of utilizing during such activities.

A higher V02 level provides the proper metabolic pathways (mitochondrial respiration) with the energy (ATP) required to maintain muscle contraction during sustained strength. The higher the intensity, the greater the metabolic response. This results in a larger oxygen need for your muscles.

Not meeting this oxygen demand will lead to poor performance. Which, in turn, will make you seem less like a crime fighter and more like a pushover.

So how do you increase V02 Max for improved muscle endurance?

Hint: You don’t need to run a marathon

As mentioned at the outset, most of us spend the majority of our time on anaerobic (low intensity) training. This type of training requires less oxygen. But, while this is great for packing on muscle mass and creating brute force, it will not do much in balancing energy production with energy requirements.

But now, I bet you’re wondering: if low intensity is not the key, then wouldn’t that leave high intensity (aerobic) training as our only option? And if so, wouldn’t this have the opposite effect and hinder muscle gain?

Great question.

In fact, the top reason why many people lack muscular endurance is a fear of losing muscle and strength.

Endurance based training has long been touted as the killer of strength and hypertrophy. You must choose one, you can’t have them both.

This is the reason why many gym rats advocate staying within the low rep ranges while lifting heavy. Anything other than this will be detrimental to muscle gain.

Studies have even shown that too much endurance training, does, in fact, affect hypertrophy. However, the key word here is “too much”. You see, most of these studies have been conducted on pure endurance athletes such as marathon runners and cyclist.

These individuals need 3-4 hours of training per day which most of us don’t have the time for. So, unless you’re trying to be the next Lance Armstrong (did it for the lulz), then you shouldn’t fear losing your sweet muscle gains.

Start Building Muscular Endurance Today

To build muscular endurance, you need to break the metabolic threshold (the transition from anaerobic to aerobic). Doing so requires that you make adjustments in your current workout routine by using heavy weights, increased volume and decreased rest.

Weight selection for massive gains

To sustain strength, you must first have strength. As opposed to strict endurance based training, lifting heavy (80-90% of your 1RM) will help to build endurance without sacrificing your muscle gains.

Increase volume for increased endurance

Your body has to adapt to strenuous activities that require constant repetitions. Since you will be performing a limited amount of reps – because of the heavy load – you must compensate by increasing the number of sets. As a quick example: instead of doing 3 sets of 5 reps for a total of 15 reps, you’ll be performing 8 sets of 5 reps for a total of 40 reps. Now that’s some serious volume.

Short rest periods for improved oxygen consumption

The faster that oxygen consumption occurs, the quicker your body will be at recovering. Shortening your rest period will create the required adaptation for faster recovery. This will allow energy production to continue at a steady pace. Which, in turn, will prevent you from falling flat on the ground from exhaustion.

There is, but yet, one caveat when it comes to shortened rest periods: you may need to build up to it. So if you’re bench pressing 140lb for 3-4 reps, at first, you might need to take a 90-120 second break. This will prevent you from losing form on your next set and prevent injury. After several training sessions, the proper adaptations will be developed, allowing you to go below 60 seconds between sets.

Summing it up:

  • Keep weight at 80-90% of your 1RM
  • Perform 3-5 reps for 8-10 sets
  • Keep rest period under 60 seconds

Sample workout using a push/pull split

Barbell deadlift – 3 reps for 15 sets

Overhead Press – 3 reps for 10 sets

Barbell Row – 3 reps for 10 sets

Push-ups – 3 reps for 20 sets

Closing Thoughts

So, did I let the thief get away?

Of course not.

One quick jab bought me enough time to recover some energy right before the cops arrived.

But things could have gone horribly wrong. I should have been better prepared.

It’s during the unexpected moments in life when muscle endurance is needed the most.

Don’t allow life to catch you off guard. Start building muscle endurance today.

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Julio Hannibal Canario
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Julio Hannibal Canario

Web Programmer by day, fitness vigilante by night and lover of all things geek. When I'm not helping others to restart their bodies and health through proper fitness strategies, you can find me obsessing over 80's films, time travel, and superheroes, all while saving a puppy's life.
Julio Hannibal Canario
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