Why Building Muscular & Aerobic Endurance Is A Key Part of Foundational Fitness
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The pillars of fitness can be whittled down to three categories: power and strength, speed and agility, and balance and flexibility. Endurance is the thread that connects all of the above, and it’s an essential part of being healthy and fit. This is true even if you’re not planning to run a marathon or play intense sports.
“Endurance is important for a well-rounded fitness plan because it helps to improve cardiovascular health, increase overall energy, and increase physical and mental resilience,” explains certified personal trainer Daury Dross. “Endurance activities can help to improve coordination, balance, and agility. All of these benefits can help enhance overall health and well-being.”
Engaging in a couple of endurance workouts here and there won’t automatically improve your endurance, or the amount of time your muscles can perform an action. It takes real work and consistency to increase endurance, so think of it more as a journey toward improved health.
Personally speaking, I remember the first time I hit the treadmill after years of not exercising. I was intimidated by the digital display and rolling platform, but told myself this was just a starting point. I meditated on the idea that every day moving forward would be better than the last, and that’s all that mattered. I started my light jog and within that first quarter mile became pretty winded. I pushed just a bit farther and ultimately gave out around a half-mile. As much as it stung to face the facts, I used it as inspiration to change.
Two months later, after daily HIIT and strength training, I climbed back onto the treadmill for the first time since that last encounter. An entire mile went by and I felt great. Then another, and another. I ran a 5k without stopping and was absolutely gobsmacked by the transformation.
That is the power of slow and consistent exercise, and proof that your body can do amazing things weeks or months from now even if you’re feeling defeated in the moment.
Ready to increase your endurance? We asked top trainers for their very best endurance workouts and how to do them correctly so you can build both muscular and aerobic endurance.
Muscular Endurance Exercises
In a nutshell, muscular endurance is the ability for a muscle — or group of muscles — to sustain engagement without becoming quickly fatigued.
Below are five exercises you can use to assess and build muscular endurance. Many of these only require your own body strength.
Push-ups are an easy and effective way to gauge current muscular endurance for your chest, shoulders, core, and triceps.
“Do as many push-ups as possible in the proper form in one or two minutes,” says Gina Newton, NASM-certified personal trainer and holistic body coach. “Continue to ‘test’ yourself in that time frame and watch how your push-up numbers increase with practice and consistency.”
An alternative approach is to do as many push-ups as you can until you’re fatigued, says Dillan Foss, a board-certified athletic trainer. He says to rest for 30 seconds, then do another set of push-ups. Repeat as desired.
“My guess is that you wouldn’t be able to perform the same amount, and each round the amount you could do would slowly go down until you couldn't do any,” says Foss. “If you repeated that concept two times per week for four weeks, your ability to do more push-ups initially — and every set thereafter — would improve because your muscular endurance improved.”
Planks are one of those exercises that seem simple enough, but they’re notoriously challenging. They’re also a great way to assess and develop muscular endurance since they simultaneously work different muscle groups, says Newton. This includes your legs, arms, and shoulders, plus your core: abs, back, and hips.
Get into a plank position, start the clock, and see how long you can maintain good form. Practice at least every other day and watch your endurance grow.
Squats are an excellent addition to any strength endurance workout plan. This exercise focuses on your lower half and works the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. Hold good squat form for as long as you can, rest for 30 seconds, and repeat as many times as you’re able. Practice two to four times per week and you’ll build endurance.
To make squats more challenging, you can incorporate weights and/or pulses.
Bench presses are an excellent strength training option if you’re able to do your endurance workouts at the gym or have access to a barbell, weights, and bench (you can do them on an exercise mat on the floor, too).
Place weights on either end of the barbell and secure. Don’t go too heavy. While lying flat on your back, you should be able to smoothly press the bar upward until your arms are completely extended, then lower it down toward your chest. Your back will likely arch up a bit naturally, especially with your feet on the floor. That’s OK; don’t try to force a flat-back-on-the-bench-or-floor position. (As an alternative to a barbell, you can use dumbbells in either hand.)
Do 10 reps, rest for 30 seconds, then repeat two or three more times. The goal is to fatigue your pectoral, bicep, triceps, and deltoid muscles. Over time, you can add more weights and/or do more reps to build muscular endurance.
Pilates & Barre
Along with the singular exercises above, consider taking fitness classes that push your muscular endurance, such as Pilates and barre. “These modalities really focus on the core, hip flexors, and glutes,” says Rachel Lovitt, certified personal trainer. These muscles are super important when it comes to any physical activity, particularly everyday activities like sitting, standing, and walking.”
Aerobic Endurance Workout Plan
Also referred to as cardiovascular endurance, aerobic endurance refers to how much activity your heart, lungs, and muscles can endure without running out of steam. Newton says: “Aerobic endurance is vital for cardiovascular health. It’s what allows the body to meet higher demands for oxygen during intense exercise.”
Aerobic exercise is typically categorized into zones based on how much your heart is working. To determine which zone you’re in, you need to first determine your maximum heart rate (MHR).
Use the Tanaka formula to determine your MHR by multiplying your age by .7, then subtracting that number from 208.
Zone 1 (easy or recovery pace): 50–60% of MHR
Zone 2 (aerobic base): 60–70% of MHR
Zone 3 (push the pace to build speed): 70–80% of MHR
Zone 4 (your max sustainable pace): 80–90% of MHR
Zone 5 (anaerobic, or without oxygen): 90–100% of MHR
Your heart will enter different zones depending on how hard your body’s working. Generally speaking as a beginner, aim for zones two to three during most of your cardio workouts, with one workout every other week where you strive to hit zone 4 for work intervals and zone 1 for recovery intervals. You’ll use zone 1 for warm-ups, cooldowns, and recovery.
Our bodies can’t sustain the intensity of zone 5 for longer than a few seconds to a few minutes (depending on how well-trained you are). When you first begin exercising, you’ll likely get into these zones very quickly with light exercise. Over time, you may need to increase your intensity to get into targeted zones.
Developing aerobic endurance takes time. If you’re new to cardio, start slowly and build your endurance over time. That said, it’s important to challenge yourself — that discomfort is where change happens.
Here are some examples of excellent aerobic endurance workouts, which you can do at home, at the gym, or by taking fitness classes.
Though walking is one of the simplest forms of exercise, it’s one of the best things you can do for your body. Push your endurance by speeding up your pace, hitting hills or the incline on a treadmill, and going farther.
Swimming is kind to your body since it minimizes impact, but it still provides a great opportunity for increasing aerobic endurance, Newton says. Like walking, you can build intensity by increasing your speed or going a longer distance. Swimming is a great way to build lung health since breathing well is such a core component. This can improve overall aerobic endurance.
“Cycling is a mid-range exercise because you’re stationary, but also can provide an opportunity to improve aerobic endurance by increasing resistance,” says Newton. Experiment with inclines, speed, and distance to build stamina. You can even take cycling classes, which incorporate additional movements into the workout that can really get your heart pumping.
Jogging or running takes walking to the next level. If you’re new to running, ease into it by jogging and walking in intervals. “Work at an easy effort for 30 seconds at a time while taking 15-second breaks,” suggests trainer and running coach Emily Hutchins. “This allows you a bit more recovery time between your efforts.”
She says the idea is to start easy and build your intensity, if necessary, over the course of a 30-minute workout. Try this a couple times a week, and each week try to add time to your intervals by at least 15 seconds.
“Before you know it, you’re running a 5k without stopping,” says Hutchins.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
Interval training involves alternating between medium- and high-intensity cardio and low- to medium-intensity cardio during a workout. HIIT classes take this concept to the next level by keeping your heart rate at 80 to 90% of its MHR, notes Lovitt.
How to Put it Together
Now that you’re familiar with different types of muscular endurance and aerobic endurance exercises, let’s look at what a weekly regimen might look like that involves both. Note that everyone is on their own fitness journey, so your workout plan to improve endurance might look a little different. When in doubt, consult with a trainer.
2 sets of 10 push-ups (modified as needed)
3 sets of a 30-second plank hold
20 minutes of run/walk, or run intervals that alternate between Zone 3 and Zone 2
15-minute barre or Pilates routine; here’s a great one from Cassie Ho
2 sets of 30-second plank hold
2 sets of 30-second squat hold
HIIT class that gets your heart pumping into Zone 3 or Zone 4
Alternatively, 30- to 40-minute walk/run
3 sets of 30-second squat hold
3 sets of 10 bench presses. Choose a weight that’s heavy enough so the last two reps feel hard, but you can still do them with good form. Keep track and aim to improve your bench press weight each week.
20 minutes of swimming or cycling in Zone 2
3 sets of 10 push-ups
3 sets of a 30-second plank hold
3 sets of 30-second squat pulses
10- to 15-minute walk
15-minute barre or Pilates routine
1-mile run/walk. Record how long it takes. Each week, work to improve your pace
Yoga class. Yoga with Adrienne offers great flows to improve your flexibility
A Few More Words to Motivate You
If there’s one thing you take away from this article, let it be that building endurance takes time, and it’s not meant to be impossibly difficult.
“As with new habits and growth, building endurance takes time, patience, and dedication,” says Newton. “You won’t go from a walker to a seven-minute mile in a week, so honor and respect your body for where it is and where you want it to go. Dedicate your time, effort, and mindset to your practice — whichever means of movement you choose.”
In other words: Don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling or you don’t like the starting point. It’s just the beginning, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly your body changes.
“I have clients who forget they couldn’t do five push-ups for three sets when we started or couldn't complete 500 meters on the rower in under two minutes,” says Foss. “Change takes time, but time will pass whether you decide to change or not.”
We promise it’s worth your time.