Many sports and daily activities require you to use your muscles repeatedly over a long period of time, or even to hold a muscle contraction for a prolonged period of time.
The ability to sustain muscle strength over time in functional or athletic activities is key for being able to enjoy life and leisure. For instance, you can’t spend a day skiing or riding bikes with your family if you don’t have the muscular endurance to carry you through.
Improving muscular endurance has many benefits. It’s important to understand what muscular endurance actually is, why it’s important, and how to improve it.
Here are the answers to these questions, as well as some exercises to work on improving your muscular endurance.Getty Images/eclipse_images
What is muscular endurance?
Muscular endurance refers to the ability of a given muscle to exert force, consistently and repetitively, over a period of time (1Trusted Source).
It plays a big role in almost every athletic endeavor. You might think of muscular endurance as stamina.
Long-distance running is a sport that requires muscular endurance. During a race, a marathon runner’s body performs the same movement and stride, over and over again. This requires their muscles to have an advanced level of endurance to avoid injury or extreme fatigue.
But it’s not just elite athletes that benefit from good muscular endurance. There are many other real-life instances when you need your muscles to function well for a long time — like holding a small child as you rock them to sleep or walking up and down stairs carrying groceries.
Muscle endurance is the ability for muscles to exert force repetitively over a certain period of time.
Why is muscular endurance important?
Muscular endurance has been associated with a decreased risk of multiple health issues.
For instance, a 2014 study found that greater levels of muscular endurance were associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Higher muscular endurance correlated with lower levels of triglycerides, serum blood sugar, and decreased blood pressure (2Trusted Source).
In a 2017 clinical review, higher levels of muscular endurance were associated with lower risk of musculoskeletal injuries. There was strong to moderate evidence that lower levels of muscular endurance in pushups and situps were correlated with a higher level of injury (3Trusted Source).
Improved muscular endurance has been associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal injury, and it may even lead to changes in muscle size.
How to improve muscular endurance
Improving muscular endurance involves increasing the total time a muscle is contracted during an exercise. This can involve increasing the number of reps you perform of a specific exercise or for a specific muscle group (4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source).
A study that aimed to test and improve the muscular endurance of cross-country skiers suggested that an effective muscular endurance training session would include more than 20 reps, but less than 100 (4Trusted Source).
Similarly, when you try to improve your muscular endurance, completing high-volume sets may be an effective training strategy. Just remember that you may need to adjust the load.
For example, if you normally bench press for 3 sets of 8–10 reps, then you may change to 2 sets of 25–30 reps.
The caveat is that you will likely have to decrease the amount of weight you’re using. For example, if you use 155 pounds for 10 reps to failure, you might decrease to 110 pounds for a higher volume set.
For example, karate practitioners will squat in a horse stance (a squat position) for multiple minutes at a time. This works on the endurance of the hips and thighs.
The same idea can be performed with a plank, as described below. This will primarily work the abs and other core muscles. In fact, a 2014 study found maximum improvements in ab endurance when performing the plank 5 or more times per week (6).
The main goal, regardless of the method, is to constantly challenge your muscles as you progress — either by striving to perform more reps or to hold a position longer.
Improving muscular endurance involves increasing the total time a muscle is contracted. This may involve increasing the number of reps or increasing the amount of time a contraction is held.
Exercises for muscular endurance
Below are examples of five exercises that can help you improve your muscular endurance. They require no equipment, and you can do them at home.
To see improvement, you’ll want to work on these exercises 2–3 times per week, on non-consecutive days (8Trusted Source).
Remember, the goal is to perform these exercises to failure so that you improve your muscular endurance over time. That said, be sure to maintain proper form in order to reduce the risk of injury.
Pay special attention to the tips under each exercise to perform the movements the correct way.
- Begin kneeling on all fours, and then place your forearms down on the ground. Step one leg back at a time until you’re in a straight line from head to heel, keeping the spine neutral.
- Engage your abs to support the lower back, and imagine lifting your chest away from your elbows but without a rounded spine.
- Hold for as long as you can (aim for intervals of 30 to 45 seconds) and then relax. That completes one rep.
Tips: If you start to lose form (either your hips sag low or your buttocks starts to lift up), then it’s a good time to rest before performing another rep.
2. Body weight squats
- Start by standing upright with your feet placed apart in a position slightly wider than shoulder-width, with your toes pointed straight ahead.
- Bend your legs and sit back until your buttocks reach the height of your knees. Your thighs should be close to parallel with the floor, and your knees should track over your toes.
- Push yourself upright, squeezing through your glutes on the way up.
- Perform 2–4 sets of 25 reps. Adjust this rep number if you feel you can do more at the end of each set.
Tips: Maintain good form by keeping your head up, chest lifted, and shoulders back. Don’t let your torso become parallel with the ground.
Try a variation on this traditional squat by widening your stance and pointing your toes outward. This move will target the inside of your thighs.
3. Walking lunges
- Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- With your right leg, take a large step forward, then lower your body down so that your back knee either touches or comes close to touching the ground.
- Push down through your front foot and stand back up.
- Repeat the same motion with your left leg.
- Perform 2–4 sets of 30 lunges (15 on each leg, per set).
Tips: Keep your trunk upright as you perform this. As you lower your body, your lead knee should track in line with your shoelaces and your shoulders should be behind your toes.
- Begin in a full plank position with your hands slightly outside shoulder width and directly under your shoulders. Hold your body up with your toes and with your hands (not your forearms, as with the plank described above). Keep your spine in neutral, and try not to let your hips sag.
- Lower yourself down by bending your elbows at a 45 degree angle, aiming your chest to the ground.
- Promptly push down on your palms, and raise your body back to a plank position.
- Perform 5 sets of 15 reps (adjust as needed).
Tip: If this movement is too advanced for you, start with your weight on your knees instead of your toes, or begin with a wall pushup.
- Start by lying flat on your back, with your legs bent and your feet flat on the ground. Place your hands lightly behind your head to support your neck, with your elbows out to the sides.
- Engage your abs and curl your torso up, lifting your upper back and shoulders off the ground. Keep your elbows out to the sides rather than curling them around your head. Resist the urge to use momentum, rather than your muscles, to bring your body up. Keep a golf-ball-sized space between your chin and chest.
- Guide your body down in a controlled motion to maximize your muscle use.
- Perform 5 sets of 25 reps.
Tips: Don’t pull your neck or head with your hands. The work should come from your abs.
Talk with your doctor
It’s always a good idea to talk with your doctor before starting any exercise program, especially if you haven’t exercised in a while.
You may also want to consult a physical therapist or certified personal trainer if you’re new to working out. They can give you guidance on other exercises that might work well for you and make suggestions for ways to prevent injury while working out.
The bottom line
Muscular endurance is an important part of general health, as much as it’s a vital component for certain athletic activities. It’s important for function, decreasing your risk of injury and your risk of certain chronic conditions (such as heart disease).
Muscular endurance training involves increasing the amount of time a muscle is under contraction. This can be done with increased reps or isometric hold times.
If it’s a departure from your typical exercise routine, give muscular endurance training a try and see what the increased challenge can do for you.