Programming: The Difference Between Strength and Endurance

When writing a training routine you should take into consideration what is your primary goal – strength, endurance or both.

While both strength and endurance have decent carryover to each other, training specifically for one of the qualities will make you excel at it the most.

What is strength?

Strength is the ability to apply force against high level of resistance.

What is endurance?

Endurance is the ability to perform an activity for prolonged periods of time.

What is strength endurance?

Technically, strength endurance is an oxymoron. Why? Because if something is so easy that you can train your endurance with it, you can’t call it strength training.

For example, many people would call a set of 100 push-ups display of strength endurance. However, it’s really not strength training because when something is so easy that you can do it 100 times, the resistance you’re fighting is low. Thus, your absolute maximum strength is not taxed.

Now, if you can only do a few push-ups, doing the exercise is strength training.

Does strength training carryover to endurance?

Yes. Let’s say that the first time you go to the gym you can squat 95 lbs for 5 reps and it feels heavy. You follow a strength program consisting of sets of 5 and you get your squat to 225 lbs for 5 reps. The increase of strength will automatically carryover to your endurance work and you will be able to perform squats with 95 lbs for sets of 20-30 reps.

However, at one point the carryover diminishes. If you only train for strength, after a certain percentage you will become more proficient at low reps.

In our case a 225 lbs squatter may have hard time squatting 200 lbs for 12 + reps while somebody doing high reps will do it without much trouble. After a certain point, you have to specifically train your endurance or strength depending on what your main goal is.

Does endurance carryover to strength?

Yes. Let’s say that you can do 20 dips with just your bodyweight. If that’s the case you will be able to perform weighted dips with 30-50 lbs for low reps the first time you try the exercise.

However, this carryover also has a limited life. Imagine that you have two people with different training goals. Person A wants to improve his high rep dips and performs sets of up to 20-30 reps. Person B works on strength and does weighted dips for low reps.

If Person A and Person B were to chance places, they would do worse at each other’s activities. The endurance guy will be able to lift respectable number of weight compared to somebody who is untrained, but it most likely won’t be as much as Person B who trains heavy and for low reps. At the same time Person B may be strong and the first dozen of dips will feel like feather. However, after 20-25 reps the endurance requirement will kick in, and the number will not be as impressive as the one of Person A.

I would say that almost anything over 20 reps is strictly endurance work while everything under 5 reps is strength work. Both have carryover to each other, but your goal should be to train in a way that suits your goals the most.

Benefits of endurance training

– mental toughness;

For many people endurance training is actually mentally harder that low rep work. A popular example would be a max out set of 20-25 barbell squats. It’s a brutal exercise and I would rather do sets of 5 squats that this torture. However, if you do mainly high reps, you will find maximum sets of 5 excruciating too.

– mass increase;

Unless we are talking about super high number of reps like 100, sets of 20 could be very beneficial for size, especially in the lower body and primarily the quads.

– less chance of injury;

What exercise has a higher chance of potential acute injury – 100 push-ups or a max on the bench press? This makes endurance training more suited for older people.

Benefits of strength training

– mental toughness;

Very few things can replicate the  feeling before a max strength attempt. A 1 RM deadlift requires mental focus and strength that high rep kettlebell swings, for example, can never offer.

– quality size gains;

I am not going to go into that sarcoplasmic versus myofibrillar hypertrophy debate, but real strength gains truly have a profound effect on your muscular tissue. You may not even gain weight, but your muscles and tendons would still become more rigid and thicker. I would say it like this: low reps make you hard. All REAL muscle gained from strength increases (don’t confuse it with fat) will be of exceptional quality and on deep cellular level.

What about combing both?

You can have cycles of high rep and low rep training. Below are two possible examples.

Imagine that you can only do 6 dips. This means that when you are doing the exercise you are still performing strength training. Your first set would be 6, your second 4 and your third most likely 2.

You could get that number to 20 reps, which would be endurance work, in order to build a base and then add weight and cut the reps to 5. That’s an example of how endurance/rep work is used as a mean to create a base for your strength work.

Another example would be a typical powerlifting peaking cycle. You start a squat cycle with really high reps like 20, and each week you add weight and reduce the reps until you are doing sets of 5,3,2. That way you get used to high and low reps.

In the end, however, the choice is yours and you can train anyway you want to. Just remember – anything over 20 reps is endurance and anything under 5 or so is pure strength.

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