Strength and endurance often come up whenever you’re talking about fitness. But what do each of these terms actually mean? And how do they relate to one another? We spoke with expert trainers and coaches to define muscular endurance versus strength, what goes into training for each, and why both types of training matter to cyclists. Here, the facts.
What is muscular strength?
The term muscular strength refers to the body’s ability to exert a maximal amount of force, usually during a short period of time. “Strength depends upon the size of your muscle fibers, as well as your nerves’ ability to activate these muscle fibers,” explains Hollis Tuttle, certified trainer and instructor for MIRROR.
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“[Muscular strength is] mainly improved as an adaptation to some form of resistance training,” says Yusuf Jeffers, strength coach at Tone House in New York City.
While you can use bodyweight to build strength, it’s more common to use some form of external resistance, whether that’s resistance bands, barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, or whatever else you prefer to pick up. “It’s the application of an external force, or stress, to your skeletal muscle tissue that causes them to adapt and become stronger,” says Tuttle.
By improving muscular strength, you can also reap other benefits. “Although they don’t all happen immediately or simultaneously, and are dependent on training load and volume,” explains Jeffers, “a person can generally expect to see increases in lean muscle mass and bone density, decreases in body fat, and increases in cardiovascular and metabolic efficiencies.” Building strength can also help with injury prevention.
Muscular strength also improves overall sports performance through increases in stability and strength in the prime mover muscles (or the muscles mostly in charge of motion in a joint), like your glutes and quads on a ride. This means you’ll be able to better maintain your form, ride faster, and avoid injuries, explains Jeffers.
How do you train to build muscular strength?
Muscular strength increases are made by continuously forcing the body to adapt to higher levels of stress or resistance. “You’d be following a resistance training program that uses low to moderate rep schemes, with moderate to high volume and intensity,” explains Jeffers. That means you might stick to reps below 10 when doing strength exercises, but you’ll lift more often and at a more challenging weight than you would if you were focusing on muscular endurance.
A good general rule for muscular strength: The goal with programming is to focus on heavy weights for fewer reps. Tuttle suggests completing two to five sets of one to six reps of each exercise in your program (though Jeffers says you can go up to 10 reps). “The resistance should feel challenging, yet doable,” she explains. “It is also incredibly important to include a rest of three to five minutes between sets.” That way, you can tackle the next set.
What is muscular endurance?
“Muscular endurance refers to a muscle’s or group of muscles’ ability to perform repetitive motions, lengthening and contracting, over an extended period of time, without becoming fatigued,” explains Tuttle.
In general, having greater muscular endurance, or being able to produce and maintain relatively low levels of force for a prolonged period, allows an athlete to improve performance in their chosen sport or activity. Cyclists, of course, need to repeat the motion pedaling over many miles—and their muscles need to be able to repeat this movement over and over.
When you’re training for muscular endurance, you’ll focus on things like bodyweight movements, resistance exercises, loaded exercises, or even plyometrics, performed for higher reps at lower intensities and often, lighter weights.
“Using this rep scheme and volume [of higher reps and lower intensity], you can improve neuromuscular connections and stabilization,” explains Jeffers.
Other benefits of building muscular endurance include improving the aerobic capacity of muscles, maintenance of good posture for long periods of time, and just like strength, injury prevention.
How do you train to build muscular endurance?
The goal with muscular endurance is to stick with a volume (reps, sets, and frequency) that you can maintain over a prolonged period of time. Tuttle suggests completing one to three sets of eight to 20 reps per exercise, with light to moderate weight.
“Take shorter rest breaks [than you would when training strength], about 20 to 60 seconds, between sets to get your muscles used to prolonged stress,” she says. “Circuits are great because the rest periods are as long as the time it takes to move from one exercise to another.”
Because cycling is an activity that involves highly repetitive movements, especially for long-distance cyclists, improvements in muscular endurance can really up your game. “The better trained an athlete is to move and dynamically stabilize the body, the better they’ll perform,” Jeffers says. You can ride for longer and recover faster with increases in this specific form of exercise.
Keep in mind that muscular endurance and strength while different, are also related, Tuttle says. “Endurance requires a certain amount of baseline strength in order to maintain continuous tension or perform numerous reps,” she says. “Likewise, some increases in strength may occur as endurance improves.”
In other words, even if you’re doing a program that focuses on strength in reps, sets, and intensity, you’ll still build some endurance and same goes for when you’re focusing on endurance in your training—you’ll still build some strength.
Muscular Endurance vs. Strength: How to Tailor Your Workout to Reach Your Goals
Not sure how to program your workout to hit your goals? Let this guide from Jeffers show you how it’s done. He gives the best exercise for those looking to build muscular endurance versus muscular strength and vice versa.
How to use this list: Choose your focus for your workout: muscular endurance or muscular strength. Then perform each exercise below for the recommended reps and sets. For strength, it’s smart to do each exercise for the listed reps and sets, resting about 2 minutes between sets, and then move on to the next exercise. For endurance, it’s smart to do each exercise as a circuit, performing each move with little rest between, and then repeating for the total recommended sets.
You’ll need a set of dumbbells, a barbell (or sub in heavy dumbbells), and a box or step. An exercise mat is optional.
Movement 1: Squat
Muscular Endurance Exercise: Box Step-Up
Stand directly behind box. Place right foot fully on top of box. Bend elbows 90 degrees and bring left arm forward. Drive right foot down and into the box to fully stand up. Drive left knee up toward chest, as you bring right arm forward. Lower left foot back down. Repeat. Then switch sides. Do 12-15 reps per side and 3 sets.
Muscular Strength Exercise: Barbell Back Squat
Stand with barbell racked on back, on top of shoulder blades, feet a little wider than hip-width apart, toes turned slightly outward. Send butt back and down to lower into a squat, hips reaching below knees (or as close as you can go). Push through feet to stand back up. Repeat for 10 reps and 2-3 sets. Go for a weight that’s about 80% of your max.
Movement 2: Hinge
Muscular Endurance Exercise: Single-Leg Balance to Toe Touch
Stand on left leg, slight bend in knee with right foot lifted, knee bent about 90 degrees. Hold dumbbell in right hand, elbow bent about 90 degrees at side. Hinge at hips, sending butt back, as torso lowers toward floor and right leg lifts behind you. Reach dumbbell toward left foot. Keep back flat, core tight, shoulders down. Drive left foot into ground to stand back up, right knee lifting toward chest and dumbbell lifting toward shoulder as you bend elbow. Repeat. Then switch sides. Do 12-15 reps per side and 3 sets.
Muscular Strength Exercise: Barbell Deadlift
Stand behind barbell on the ground, feet hip-width apart, toes pointed forward. Keeping back flat, bend knees slightly, and hinge at hips by sending butt straight back. Grab bar with both hands. Keeping bar close to shins and back still flat, drive through feet and squeeze glutes to stand up, still holding the bar. Slowly lower back into a hinge. Repeat. Do 10 reps and 2-3 sets. Go for a weight that’s about 80% of your max.
Movement 3: Pull
Muscular Endurance Exercise: Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Hinge at the hips, sending butt back, arms extended down in front of you, palms facing each other. Keeping back flat and core engaged, row both dumbbells to ribcage, elbows staying close to sides. Extend arms to lower weights back down. Repeat. Do 15-20 reps and 3 sets. Aim for a weight that’s about 60% of your max.
Muscular Strength Exercise: Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
You’ll perform the same move, but go for 10 reps and 2-3 sets. Go for a weight that’s about 80% of your max.
Movement 4: Push
Muscular Endurance Exercise: Push-Up
Start in a plank, hands on the floor stacked directly under shoulders, legs extended out behind you, body in straight line from head to toe. Bend elbows and slowly lower entire body toward the floor. Maintain a straight line the entire time. Go as close to floor as you can. Then press back up to plank. Repeat. Do 12-15 reps and 3 sets.
Muscular Strength Exercise: Barbell Bench Press
Lie faceup on bench with feet planted on floor, holding a barbell over chest, arms extended with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keeping feet planted and back flat on the bench, slowly lower weight down toward chest, close to sternum. Press it back up. Repeat. Do 10 reps and 2-3 sets. Go for a weight that’s about 80% of your max.
Movement 5: Press
Muscular Endurance Exercise: Standing Single-Leg Y Raise
Start standing on right leg, left foot held slightly out in front of you off the ground. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, down by sides. Keeping shoulders packed down and chest tall, lift arms up into a Y shape overhead. Slowly lower back down. Repeat. Do 15-20 reps and 3 sets. Go for a weight that’s about 60% of your max.
Muscular Strength Exercise: Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Sit tall in a chair or on a bench, knees bent and feet planted. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, at shoulders, elbows bent, palms facing each other. Press weights overhead, biceps by ears. Aim to stay upright, without leaning back and keep shoulders packed down. Lower weights back to shoulders. Repeat. Do 10 reps and 2-3 sets. Go for a weight that’s about 80% of your max.
Movement 6: Lunge
Muscular Endurance Exercise: Walking Lunge
Stand with feet hip-width apart. Step one foot forward and lower into a lunge, both knees bending 90 degrees and front knee staying over front ankle, back knee in line with hip. Lower until back knee almost touches the floor. Keep chest tall. Then, push through feet to stand back up, bringing back leg forward to step in front and lowering back into a lunge on the opposite side. Continue alternating as you walk forward. Go for 1 minute and do 3 sets.
Muscular Strength Exercise: Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
Stand in front of a chair, box, or bench, facing away from it and about two to three feet in front of it. Place right top of foot on chair, box, or bench behind you. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, down by sides. Lower into a lunge, bending front left knee 90 degrees, keeping knee over toes. Back right knee lowers toward floor. Drive through left foot to stand back up. Repeat. Do 10 reps and 2-3 sets. Go for a weight that’s about 80% of your max.
Movement 7: Core Stability
Muscular Endurance Exercise: Hollow Body Hold
Lie faceup on floor, arms extended overhead and legs extended straight out. Lift head, neck, shoulders, and legs off floor. Press belly button toward the floor. Hold for 1 minute. Do 3 sets.
Muscular Strength Exercise: Resisted Sit-Up With Dumbbell
Lie faceup on floor, knees bent and feet planted. Hold one dumbbell with both hands at chest. Sit up, keeping feet planted, chest tall at the top. Slowly lower back down. Repeat. Do 10 reps and 2-3 sets. Go for a weight that’s about 80% of your max.
Amy Schlinger is a health and fitness writer and editor based in New York City whose work has appeared in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, The New York Post, Self, Shape, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and more; The National Academy for Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer (NASM-CPT) is extremely passionate about healthy living and can often be found strength training at the gym when she isn’t interviewing trainers, doctors, medical professionals, nutritionists, or pro athletes for stories.