“I can’t do the things I want to. I get too tired.” We’ve all heard it. We’ve all said it. This article will explain how to increase your muscular endurance and say, “I did it. No problem.”
To improve muscular endurance, you need to understand a little about your body’s energy systems. Energy systems are what gives you the energy to do the things you want to do.
Understanding Your Body’s Energy Systems
Your body stores energy. How hard you work your body depends on what energy system you use. During the first 10-seconds of anything you do your muscles use ATP-PC (adenosine triphosphate and phosphocreatine). ATP only lasts approximately 3-seconds before it’s depleted, and PC takes over for the remaining 7-seconds. Once your muscles are depleted of ATP-PC, glycolysis begins. Glycolysis is the breakdown of your carbohydrates without the aid of oxygen (anaerobic). This is the dreaded Lactic Acid “belief” of the burning sensation in your muscles and lasts approximately 60-seconds to 2-minutes. When you keep working your body after this period you hit your aerobic zone. This is when your body burns its energy (fats and carbohydrates) with the aid of oxygen. This is a very general explanation and everyone’s body is different and unique. Understanding your energy systems will help you increase your muscle endurance.
Types of Endurance
However, you also need to understand the different types of endurance: muscular and cardiorespiratory. Muscular endurance is the ability of your muscles to perform continuously without fatigue. Cardiorespiratory endurance is the ability of your heart and lungs to deliver oxygen and nutrients to your body during sustained exercise. Though both types of endurance depend on each other, in this article I’m going to focus on how to gain muscular endurance.
Lifting Weights for Muscular Endurance
There are three different reasons to lift weights: to gain strength, hypertrophy (size), or increase muscular endurance.
We’ve all seen the people in a gym who take seemingly forever on their rest periods and have heavy weight loaded which they do maybe a few times. Or the people whose rest is a little quicker and their weight load is still heavy but a little lighter and they’re doing a few more reps. These people aren’t after muscular endurance. They’re after strength or hypertrophy, and more power to them! But we’re looking for muscular endurance.
Muscular endurance comes from a short rest period counted in seconds not minutes, a lighter weight load or body weight, over an extended period of time or reps. Here’s an example of a muscular endurance workout: High Energy Aerobic Toning (HEAT™). HEAT™ “utilizes light weights and high reps choregraphed to today’s top 40 hits to ramp up heart rates and blast fat.” (Heatwave Fitness). During a HEAT™ class I use what I consider extremely light weight for me. I’m not after gaining strength or size when I take this class. I’m after muscular endurance.
The first time I took the class I questioned HEAT™ founder (and training partner) Crissy Mize on if I was going too light? She simply replied, “No.” The second time I took the class I asked my daughter (and HEAT™ certified instructor) Sydney Monkres the same question. Her response was a little more animated but the muscle fatigue after the class was the same. The combination of light weight, high reps, and very little rest over an extended amount of time burned every muscle I used and is highly effective in gaining muscular endurance.
Alternatives to Group Exercise Class
Do you have to take a group exercise class to gain muscular endurance? Of course not. You do have to keep the principles though. An easy self-designed workout would be combining major muscle groups into one workout. For example: a couple of sets with high reps of any exercise working your upper body, immediately followed by the same with an exercise for your lower body. Now that you’ve hit, and hopefully began to fatigue, your major muscle groups in your upper and lower body, you’d pick an exercise for your back and then for your core. Then you repeat. And repeat. And possibly repeat. Think about it, you picked 4-exercises hitting every major muscle group and because you used light weight or body weight with high reps and little to no rest in between sets you’ve begun building muscular endurance. It’s that’s easy.
Other Endurance Activities
But maybe going to a gym or lifting weights isn’t something you like doing. Maybe you aspire to be a runner, or a cyclist, or do any long-distance sport or activity. Even in long-distance sports and activities there’s different training styles to produce a specific goal. Do you want power or endurance? Training for power (short bursts) is different than training for endurance. Endurance training requires the continued use of the muscle group over an extended period. You gain endurance the same way as lifting weights: little or no rest (fatigue out).
For example, take training for a 5K run. When you start maybe you can only do half the distance. Given enough training time, one way you can steadily increase your distance (endurance) is on every training day go a little farther until you reach your goal. By doing this you fatigue your muscle groups each time but build on it each training day. Don’t stop just because you get tired. Push through “tired” and fatigue out.
Muscular Endurance & Overtraining
What about working out or training the same way every time? This is a question I hear a lot. It’s easy to find one type of workout and not stray from it. You may be hitting your endurance goal, but the problem becomes overtraining. Overtraining is working only the same muscle groups repeatedly and not others. Overtraining can produce a variety of results that aren’t always readily linked to exercise: injury, hard to fall asleep, decreased sexual desire, lethargic, loss of appetite, depression, or just the overall lack of energy. This is a way your body screams at you to slow down, or give it a break, or change up what you’re doing.
One way to combat this is to train outside the box. Do something different. Alternate what you do but not how you do it. For example, let’s say you want to increase overall muscle endurance in a non-sport specific way like my friend Keith did for a raft relay. He changed his workouts to incorporate rafting while keeping the principle of high reps, little rest, over an extended amount of time. In doing so he increased his muscular endurance without overtraining.
As a personal trainer, I’d want you to workout “most days of the week.” Not every day all week and not in the same way. Do 2-3 different type of workouts during the week. You’re still hitting your entire body each time but you’re not doing the same exercises each time. You aren’t overtraining.
Muscular Endurance and Nutrition
The last way I’ll touch on to increase muscular endurance may be the hardest one to do: you have to eat right! Eating becomes “eating for fuel” rather than eating for pleasure. Fueling your body with junk food, celebratory-food, or feelings-food won’t cut it. When you put your body through high reps and little rest for “any” amount of time you must have the nutrients to feed your body.
Now I won’t tell you what to eat but I will tell you you’ll burn more calories in an endurance workout than you thought possible. My daughter (the certified HEAT™ instructor), works out hard! She can burn 500+ calories per workout! Think about that! That’s a lot of calories! To do that she must eat properly. If she didn’t her body couldn’t sustain itself; it couldn’t feed itself. If you eat a steady diet of fast food or dessert or that tub of ice cream or that package of chocolate chip cookies… you’ll crash and burn before you even get off the ground.
You Can Gain Muscular Endurance!
Anyone can gain muscular endurance. You don’t have to be an elite athlete. You just have to train correctly for that goal. With a little understanding of your body, increasing your muscular endurance is easy: do light weight or body weight exercises with high reps and little to no rest; train major muscle groups; fatigue out (don’t stop just because you get tired); change up your workouts; and fuel your body (eat for fuel not pleasure!).
Train how you play so you can play how you train. And remember, age means nothing!
Rusty Monkres is an ACE certified personal trainer who incorporates Strength Cardio and Core (SC2™) in his training to achieve strength, hypertrophy, or muscular endurance.