How do you improve strength endurance?
Before we get into the meat and potatoes of how to actually train for strength endurance, we have to go into what the heck strength endurance actually is. Think of strength endurance as doing a prolonged activity that requires a large amount of muscular tension but we want to see a minimal decrease in efficiency for that muscular tension. So the efficiency has to be maintained at a high rate. Good examples for means of strength endurance for a rower, boxer, or swimmer centers around focusing on that strength endurance later in the race or rounds. Fighters in MMA have to tap into their strength endurance by the end of the first round and onward. Wrestlers must continue to execute skills at the end of the first period and into the next two periods. Lacrosse and other field sport athletes need to have good speed and solid endurance in the latter half of the game.
A lot of this goes back to how the body handles CO2 and lactic acid both globally and locally in specific muscular groups.
CrossFitters and Strongmen need some sense of strength endurance. Even power-based sports like throwers and weightlifters need a little bit of strength endurance within their own training sessions because they may have training sessions that last over an hour into two hours.
The main focus here is if we have muscular tension in a movement, athletes need to have a minimal decrease in muscular efficiency and muscular coordination throughout that prolonged activity.
Theory Behind It
Let’s start by understanding fast-twitch muscle fibers and their strong relationship to maximal power output. Think about executing a vertical jump. Slower twitch muscle fibers are related more to longer endurance activities. Think of a 10k run.
Understand that there are some instances where we have to have fast-twitch muscle fibers and slow-twitch muscle factors working together. Think of a sport like wrestling where athletes have to have a large amount of power output coupled with a large amount of aerobic capacity. Same thing with CrossFit.
In 1990, Brunner and Tabachnik realized, understood, and recognized that there is a hybrid style of muscle fiber. The third fiber is a little bit of a combination between a fast-twitch and a slower-twitch fiber. This is typically where we will want to work most of our efforts with sports that require a large amount of strength endurance. Sports like boxing, fighting, CrossFit, swimming, wrestling, and all the others out there.
We have to have really, really potent muscle fibers, but we also have to find the easiest ways and means of training the aerobic, slower twitch muscle fibers.
I like to look at it from a larger magnitude from a global perspective and a little more time involved. I also like to look at it from a smaller magnitude, digging down into a specific area.
From a large magnitude, we use on-the-minute cleans with our football players because the sport requires strength endurance. It mimics what is done on the field from a play-to-play perspective with a shorter rest period while the training happens cyclically. Another aspect with the larger magnitude that occurs is that after developing the motor and as a strength coach identifying that an individual has great aerobic capacity but can really increase their dynamic power output, we can train the dynamic power output while recognizing and understanding that the athlete still needs to maintain that aerobic capacity. This all comes back to training for sport play. So in the weightroom we can focus on the dynamic and aerobic capacity being built up in the weightroom. But there is also the specific transfer from getting minutes on the mat, in the pool, kilometers on the legs. Other examples of means to increase that large magnitude can be achieved by doing interval based training on a rower or a bike, performing jumps or throws over a longer period of time. Training athletes properly with jumps and throws, we can actually increase their strength endurance. Finally, doing specific round of something, like having an athlete do an all out push on an assault bike for ten seconds before backing off into a rest period before going all out again.
There is a point where technical work needs to be done under fatigue. We want strength endurance to transfer very well to whatever sport is being done so there is points within the weightroom where athletes need to get into a high level of fatigue and perform technical work. A little bit is okay.
The small magnitude is localized to specific muscle groups. Most of the time with strength endurance in sports, the local areas revolve around the quads, calves, biceps, triceps, deltoids, lats, and the trunk. Depending on the specific sport, we can start to localize areas that are weak and strong, focusing the training on the local weaknesses by training through specific means of strength endurance. This where we can get into isolating specific muscles using isolation movements, drop sets, and contrast methods.
Ultimately, one of the best ways of training both a large magnitude and small magnitude is incorporating isometric action. The isometric actions are a unique way that help increase overall strength endurance without beating the body up too bad.
Let’s get into examples and tools we use to increase strength endurance for our athletes.
On The Minute Drills
For great carryover to sport specific play, on the minute drills with movements like a power clean, snatch, front squat, or trap bar jumps can be used. Athletes might do ten doubles with forty-five second reps using 65-70% of their best lift in the movement being used. This can be done over the time period of ten to fifteen minutes. It is a way to drastically increase strength endurance and power endurance.
If the sport being trained for involves long duration periods of contact or muscular tension, like a wrestler or CrossFitter, high powered endurance is a must.
Rest Pause Method
This is similar to the OTM. It can be used to increase overall power output and maximal strength. Later on the rest pause can be used locally with say bicep work.
A way to do the rest pause method with back squats is to do a set of four reps, rest thirty seconds, do another set of four reps, rest again for thirty seconds, and over and over again until the body feels like death. This can be done at 80-85% of max. Not only will this improve strength endurance and maximal strength, the rest pause method will drastically improve mental acuity because it is extremely challenging.
Mechanical Drop Sets
This is a great way to train the large magnitude and small magnitude. A mechanical drop set example involves doing a big movement first, like a back squat, and then the next movement that is easier, like a goblet squat, and then third movement will be more isolation based, like doing backward sled pull or leg extensions for a large amount of reps. The mechanical aspect gets easier each exercise. This is similar to pre and post fatigue.
Mechanical drop sets can be used to really train globally but also to target a specific area like the lats. For example, start with a rope climb, followed by a weighted reclining row or a neutral grip pull up, and then finish with a sled pull with a rope.
Power Work With Intervals
This can be a little bit more of an undulation of an entire session. Say we spend the first thirty-five minutes focusing just on max power output and maximal strength, and then take a five to ten minute break to recruit, and then we can hit the interval based training. I learned this directly from Phil Daru. Power output will be trained and overall strength endurance so athletes will get stronger and increase their strength endurance.
Long Duration Steady State
I think this is one of the easiest ways to increase an athlete's gas tank. I have found this to be the best means. Have an athlete get on an assault bike and hold a specific RPM. Hold a hard number for thirty to thirty five minutes that is hard but not overly challenging. The athlete should still be able to have a conversation or listen to an audiobook while training but be challenging enough so that the athlete gets their wind going to teach the body how to process CO2 more effectively.
I like to do this on a rower, a ski erg, or an assault bike because it doesn’t beat you up, it is cyclical based and helps athletes focus on their quads or lats.
There is a lot of science around the efficacy of stimulating heat shock proteins. Getting in the sauna four to five days a week for twenty to thirty minutes at a time at 130 degrees Fahrenheit will help strength endurance. It is not a magic bullet that will allow you to stop training. Training is still news to occur. It is a supplemental means.
Finally, the absolute best means comes from isometrics. For instance, take a wrestler who struggles with their strength endurance through their biceps and grip. Have the wrestler perform a sled pull or rope climb. Then in the period between while they rest, have them hold a barbell isometrically at 90 degrees.
Another example could involve doing a sled pull forward, a sled push back, and then a sled pull backward. Then hold a lunge for ninety seconds on each side at ninety degrees. This is a way to drastically increase strength endurance.
The main goal is to have some ability to do some type of technical work while fatigued. That might mean visualization, shadow drilling, or anything that has a lower level of intensity but still stimulate the mind to execute technically while under fatigue because that is the main goal. This concept is mainstream in bodybuilding, but if we are going to train strength endurance we need it to transfer to the specific sport.
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.