How to Break a Fitness Plateau by Building Strength-Endurance

Solving the Strength-Endurance Conundrum: Why Strength is More Important Than Endurance For Building Strength-Endurance (How to Build Strength-Endurance for Pull-ups and Chin-ups)

Kettlebell sport and timed sets, in general, are an example of strength-endurance in action. Photo credit:

I was having a little chat with Jeff Kuhland about pull-up training and something we discussed was that many intermediate trainees completely ignore their strength capacity when trying to build endurance in this exercise. They get stuck in this perpetual cycle, thinking that if they need more endurance, then the best thing to do is to only train endurance. But that’s not exactly true, and it could be a big mistake if your actual goal is to increase your strength-endurance.

strength-endurance: the ability to apply strength via muscular contractions over a sustained or prolonged period of time.

Obviously, this is a subjective term, and different people use it to describe different things. But when it comes to actually applying training methods to build strength-endurance, it seems that most people just don’t get it, especially outside of the realm of weightlifting.

So, today, I’m going to remind you that if you want to build your strength-endurance, then much of your focus should probably be on strength training.

Allow me to explain with an example.

Which of These Identical Twins Has More Strength-Endurance?

Let’s say that we have two identical twins. They are the same height, weight, body composition, and they even have the same exact birthday. Plus, they’re both from New England and say, “wicked smaht” a whole lot.

Now, for example purposes, let’s assume that these twins are exactly the same in every way, except for one critical difference. Twin A can deadlift 405 pounds for a single (i.e., his one-rep max). Whereas, Twin B can only deadlift 315 pounds (i.e., his one-rep max). In other words, Twin A can deadlift 90 pounds more than Twin B, and is stronger than Twin B, at least in this particular lift.

So, here’s the question of the hour: which one of them likely has more strength-endurance? In other words, if we loaded up a barbell with 225 pounds, who do you think could deadlift it for more reps?

Exactly. The stronger twin…Ding ding ding! If all things remain equal, Twin A would be much more likely to be able to deadlift 225 pounds more times than Twin B because he has a greater strength capacity. In other words, because he is stronger and can lift more weight, he should be able to lift less weight more times than a weaker, albeit otherwise identical, person.

And that’s why I think that if you want to build strength-endurance (i.e. to be able to apply strength over a sustained period of time or for many repetitions), then a good portion of your training should be spent on building overall strength capacity in whatever exercise(s) you’re trying to develop. And this is especially true if you’ve hit a plateau. But most people don’t do that. In fact, most people keep trying to do the same things over and over again, hoping for a different result (i.e., insanity by its very definition).

Take pull-ups and chin-ups for example. Many people hit a plateau and get stuck once they reach the 15-25 repetition range. They find it very difficult, if not borderline impossible, to keep building their repetition numbers beyond that, and especially if they’re only training with bodyweight repetitions (and not with some weighted pull-up variations).

They get to this point where they are stuck at 18 reps max, for instance, and they can’t-for-the-life-of-them get to 19 reps no matter what they try – sometimes, even by doing hundreds of pull-ups per day. Now, I’ve worked with many guys who have been stuck like this for months, and even years in some cases. And so far, one of the best solutions has always been to have them work on moderate to high intensity weighted pull-ups for a cycle and then retest their pull-ups. This effectively requires that the trainee start training pull-ups for low repetition sets (e.g. 1-5 reps range). It’s my go-to plateau buster for intermediate to advanced pull-up trainees.

Take-Home Lesson

You see, once you get past the 10-15ish repetition range (or 8-12 if you prefer the classic rep splits) in a particular exercise, you’ve moved beyond the strength and hypertrophy realm. And if you’re doing sets of 15+, then you’re primarily building endurance with those sets. Its just that when it comes to building strength-endurance, this usually isn’t effective in-and-of-itself. You still need the strength component, which tends to happen in the 1-5+ range and to a lesser extent in the 6-12ish range. We could debate the exact numbers, but obviously, the more reps in a set, the less strength-focused it is. And the less reps per set, the more strength focused it becomes (obviously, that’s assuming we’re dealing with near-max efforts regardless of the repetition range).

The point being that if you’re stuck at a plateau in a strength-endurance context, then building your strength capacity should probably be one of your first priorities. Now, this can be programmed many ways. For instance, focusing on some lower-volume, higher-intensity strength training for an entire cycle (e.g. 2-6 weeks), or including some strength sessions within a 2-6 week cycle that also employs endurance training (e.g. undulating periodization, AKA variable repetition training). The key is to build your strength capacity in your chosen exercise(s) to give you wider access to your strength-endurance in the future.

So, if you find yourself stuck in an endurance rut, and you need more strength-endurance, then maybe it’s time for some near-maximal strength training. Take a lesson from Twin A and build your strength.

Note: if you’re interested in getting better at pull-ups and chin-ups, then check out my system The Pull-up Solution, which helps you rapidly increase your pull-up numbers in three months or less.

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