In recent years, muscle endurance training has suffered the same criticisms as steady-state cardio exercise in the mainstream press. With the mantra “go big or go home” ringing in our ears every time we hit the gym, we’ve bought into the idea that light weights, like light cardio, is a waste of time. In so doing, we’ve lost many of the benefits of endurance training, including improved resistance to muscular fatigue and improved efficiency on the bike.
What is Muscular Endurance?
Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to continuously exert force against resistance over a prolonged period of time. The most basic strategy for increasing muscular endurance involves reducing load and increasing repetitions, whereas strength and hypertrophy workouts that are designed around heavily-loaded sets and lower repetitions , do little to build muscular endurance (though they still have many benefits). In addition to increasing reps, incorporating isometric exercise and changes in tempo to each strength exercise has the potential to increase muscular endurance.
Types of Muscle Contraction
Isometric muscle contraction involves holding a position that requires muscle activation but involves no movement at the joint. Some good examples include planks and static wall squats. Concentric and eccentric contractions involve shortening or lengthening the muscle relative to the joint. Biceps curls are a good example of both concentric and eccentric contraction because the biceps shorten as the elbow bends and the weight is brought toward the shoulder (concentric) and then lengthens as the weight is lowered (eccentric).
Muscular endurance training should involve isometric, concentric, and eccentric contractions. However, when our weight training sessions are hurried, it’s easy to focus solely on concentric contraction. One way to ensure that isometric and eccentric contractions are maximized is to focus on tempo. For example, a squat could be performed with a distinct tempo to focus on one or more distinct types of muscle contraction. To highlight eccentric and isometric contraction, the tempo might look like this:
- Lower for two counts (eccentric contraction)
- Pause for two counts (isometric contraction)
- Rise for one count (concentric contraction)
Although lighter weights are an obvious choice for muscular endurance training, the weight will need to change as your body adapts. You’ll be surprised at how little you can lift when you make these tempo changes. The National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends lifting 50 to 70 percent of 1RM for 12 to 20 repetitions for endurance training (1).
Ultimately, changing load, repetitions, and tempo can all produce adaptations that can result in improved muscle endurance. Using weight training to improve muscle endurance can assist in enhancing your performance on the bike, both in the gym and on the road. This form of training can also help to offer a cross-training method to decrease your risk of over-training that can come by long periods of time on the bike.
Clark, M.A., Lucett, S.C. & Sutton, B.A. (2013). NASM Essentials of personal fitness training (2nd Ed.) Baltimore, MD: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.