Mountain Strong Part 4: Muscular Endurance, the Money Workout

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As mentioned in the earlier articles of this series, muscular endurance (ME) is the ability of a muscle to produce a relatively high percentage of its maximum force for many repetitions without fatiguing. We use the terms relatively and many because they depend on the event being trained for. Muscular endurance is a combination of strength and endurance, and the workouts outlined here will help you develop it for your chosen mountain sport. 

Interested in a broader overview of strength training as it applies to mountain athletes, including more on muscular endurance? Visit the Uphill Athlete strength training landing page—Strength Training for the Mountain Athlete—for a full rundown of how to target both general and specific strength.

What Is Muscular Endurance?

In the weight lifting world, 15 repetitions is considered “endurance.” In many mountain sports, 15 hours is endurance. So the definition of what constitutes ME is event dependent. Whether we speak of a rock climber’s ability to climb a difficult (for her) route without getting “pumped” and falling off or the skimo racer’s or mountain runner’s ability to sustain moderate power output on long climbs without getting dropped, we’re referring to manifestations of ME.

We can view ME along an imaginary physiological spectrum that runs from the 15-rep range of the weight lifter, where the strength qualities predominate in determining ME, all the way to the other end, where the muscular forces are rather low but the repetitions number in the many thousands. Here, the metabolic qualities of the muscle dominate in determining ME. This explains why the strongest athletes are not the best at endurance: the aerobic metabolic qualities of their muscles are not optimized for endurance. Even though max strength plays a role in ME, it is less of a factor the longer the duration of the event. 

For mountain endurance athletes, ME is one of the more event-specific forms of training. These workouts typically mimic the movement of the sport very closely but with added resistance. This added resistance can come in the form of steeper rock climbs, steeper hill grades, or additional weight added to the athlete. 

Why Train Muscular Endurance?

ME is the most trainable of all endurance qualities, so it should not be overlooked. More conventional training methods get their ME training effect when the athlete does high-intensity intervals. However, this imposes a global (combined cardio and muscular) endurance load rather than one localized in the propulsion muscles. Dedicated ME training as described below can and should be a part of every endurance athlete’s base training. Improve your sport-specific ME and you will increase the benefits from global endurance training like intervals. 

For many endurance athletes, ME training will be the predominant form of strength training in their programs, whether unwittingly as part of an interval training program or in targeted ME workouts that support later intervals. There is plenty of evidence to support this approach as the best way to improve endurance performance in the short term. Even athletes with general strength deficiencies will see gains using these methods. In the previous articles in this series, we hope our “big picture” arguments have been persuasive in convincing you of the need for adequate general strength. 

Sample Muscular Endurance Workouts 

Muscular Endurance Workout for Mountaineers and Alpinists

Your event often involves carrying a heavy pack steeply uphill for thousands of feet. A very effective workout we have used for many years with many athletes is described here and here.

For the mountaineer or alpinist, this workout is the “intensity” workout in the final preparation phase leading into the goal climb or climbing season. It can also serve as base training to build less sport-specific ME for the mountain runner/ski mountaineer who, after six to eight weeks, would progress to more sport-specific interval training. 

Gym-Based Muscular Endurance Workout for Runners and Skiers

This muscular endurance workout is appropriate for mountaineers, mountain runners, ski mountaineers, and any athletes who lack easy access to steep hills. Anyone who needs to go steeply uphill faster for longer will see gains from this gym-based ME program. It has been well tested and proven effective even for elite-level athletes. However, it is crucial that you maintain your volume of easy base aerobic work when doing this type of training. ME is a supplement to your aerobic base training, not a replacement for it.

The beginning workout is laid out here. If this is your first time going through this ME progression, you should use body weight only for the first two to three workouts to learn the movements and avoid severe muscle soreness. The progression shown is a suggestion that should work well for most people. However, variations in individual starting strength will mean that some people will progress faster than others. Expect to get mildly stiff and sore for two days after doing this workout, so allow for some easy recovery workouts. Most people will not need to do this workout more than once per week to see significant gains. Because it can be easy to overdo this kind of work, start slowly and progress at your own rate.

Warm-up

5-minute dynamic stretch routine
20x air squat
10x Turkish Get Up
10x burpees

Core

Pick 4–5 of your most challenging core exercises. You can select from this group or some others that you like. Do 2 sets and add enough resistance that 4–6 reps of each exercise is all you can manage.

Workout

Complete all sets of each exercise before moving on to the next exercise. Do not speed through these. Use a tempo of 1 rep/1–2 seconds.

1. Do 4 sets of 10 reps on each leg of split jump squat. If unsure, start with small split stance of 30 centimeters. Work to deepen your split as you gain strength. 

1. Split jump squat start

2. Split jump squat middle

 

3. Split jump squat end

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Rest 2 minutes.

3. Do 4 sets of 10 reps of squat jumps.

1. Squat jump bottom

2. Squat jump top

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Rest 2 minutes.

5. Do 4 sets of 10 reps on each leg of box step-ups with minimal rear leg assist. Use a box/step that is 75 percent of the height of the bottom of your kneecap. Watch this video demonstration for proper technique.

Box step-up

6. Rest 2 minutes.

7. Do 4 sets of 10 reps on each leg of front lunges. If new to the lunge, start with this for the first two or three workouts. Once comfortable with that you can progress to this stepping front lunge.

8. Cool down with 10 minutes easy aerobic exercise. 

Workout Progression

Workouts #1 and #2: Most people will use body weight (BW) only. Rest about 60 seconds after each set of an exercise. For the box step-ups and front lunges, do all right leg reps then all left leg reps, and rest only 30 seconds between sets. Do 1 time through the circuit.

WO #3: Increase sets to 5 sets of 10 reps of each exercise.

WO #4: May add weight, ideally using a weight vest. Start with no more than 10% of BW. Do 5 sets of 10 reps, and add the following new exercises:

5 sets of 10 reps of goblet squat/overhead press: Rest 2 minutes after last set.
5 sets of 10 reps of two-hand kettle bell swing: Rest 2 minutes after last set.

WO #5: Add 10% BW. Do 6 Sets of 10 reps. Cut rest to 45 seconds, except for box step-ups and front lunges, where you’ll stick with 30 seconds.

WO #6: Add 10% BW. Do 7 sets of 10 reps.

WO #7: Add 15% BW. Do 7 sets of 10 reps.

WO #8: Add 15% BW. Do 7 sets of 10 reps. Cut rest between sets to 30 seconds for all exercises.

WO #9: Add 20% BW. Do 7 sets of 10 reps. Go back to 45 seconds rest/set, with 30 seconds rest/set for box step-ups and front lunges.

WO #10: Add 20% BW. Do 8 sets of 10 reps with 45 seconds rest/set. Continue to rest 30 seconds per set for box step-ups and front lunges.  

-by Uphill Athlete co-founder Scott Johnston


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