Gain strength endurance in one session per week

The nature of humans is to be unbalanced. We like black and white but not grey. We speak of people who are good or bad or place those labels on our food. It’s rare that we have a moderate stance on much.

The thing about training is that the moderate stance is probably the one that will get you the furthest provided you’re prepared to keep working at it. As it turns out moderation is quite a powerful training plan provided you give it enough time to work. Because the reality of most people is that they’ll kill themselves for a few weeks – most Internet training plans are twelve weeks – and then on day eighty-five they’ll fall in a heap having exhausted themselves mentally and physically.

The alternative is to work steadily along for your entire life. Now, who is going to be in better shape long term? The person who works very hard for short periods or the person who always works out, just not as hard? It’s the classic tale of the tortoise and the hare and I’ll place my money on the slow and steady to win that race every time.

Within training people are most often concerned about two things. The two that always get the prime attention are maximal strength and anaerobic fitness and/ or power. They’re sexy. They create good images and videos for social media and people get fired up when they get swole or sexy.

On the other hand there are two things that aren’t often sexy in the strength and conditioning world and they are strength endurance and aerobic fitness. The long duration type training, whether in the gym or outside, just isn’t sexy. It’s hard, painful, and often done solo. It takes genuine toughness to get through many of these sessions. I can say with my hand on my heart that I have had days on a bike where I wanted to cry they’ve been so bad. Even the worst day in a gym with the heaviest weight just can’t create the same kind of deep-seated suffering that endurance work can.

Because of how uncomfortable much of this style of training is it often gets skipped by many, which is a great shame. Older trainees, for instance, will discover that the lighter weights necessitated allow their joints to deal with training far better. Suddenly the elbows, knees, and spines that used to complain during training won’t be a problem. The added benefit for them is that current research is showing that the number of reps per set done doesn’t actually matter for muscle hypertrophy as long as you reach failure. So strength endurance work for older trainees will be helpful not just for their joints but also for their muscle mass. One of the best ways to avoid the pitfalls of aging is focus on muscle preservation and strength endurance work can help while sparing the joints.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of strength endurance work is its real world carry over. Forget tire flipping and standing on wobble boards. The truest test of functional fitness is helping a friend move house and not being crippled the next day. While there is an element of maximal strength involved in moving a couch you won’t be very helpful if you can only lift a single item and then be done. Far better to be like a pack mule and able to work at high capacity for an entire day or more.

Taking cues from typical military training you can see how highly prized this facet is. The Romans used to have to carry heavy bronze armor into battle and for a long time modern soldiers moved relatively lightly. Those days are long gone with the use of helmets, body armor, load-bearing vests, personal comms, plus water and ammunition. Standard load for a modern soldier starts at about 60lb before mission specific gear is added. If you’ve ever walked up a steep hill with a heavy load you have a deep appreciation for how important strength endurance work can be.

Not surprisingly then the military has long prized strength endurance because it is such an important quality in successful operations. Of the best known military style workouts Murph is probably at the top of the tree with it often being performed out of respect for the fallen on Memorial Day (or ANZAC Day in Australia). For the uninitiated, Murph consists of running, pull ups, push ups, and squats, with a bonus run. In full it is:

  •  1mi run
  • 100 pull ups
  • 200 push ups
  • 300 squats
  • 1mi run

Men – done with 10kg weight vest/ women – done with 6.5kg.

No kipping pull ups.

For someone just starting to look at strength endurance work as a good addition to their training for long term success this appears quite daunting. So let’s break it down into manageable chunks to begin with:

If you’re not already running I suggest you purchase Run Strong, which I believe to be the best beginner running book available on the market. It’s got a plan in it which will help you go from not running at all to pain free running for up to an hour – far more than needed for Murph.

Secondly, you can opt to begin without weight. For anyone who hasn’t been around high-level strength endurance athletes/ military some of these numbers may seem a bit over the top but a well-conditioned athlete should be able to do the entire thing, unloaded, in five to ten sets total.

To build up to that I suggest starting with the simplest progression of 5 x pull ups, 10 x push ups, and 15 x squats for 10 sets – half of what is required. If necessary you can walk or run/ walk the running portions but I do suggest you perform them as the workout is very different without the running. If you have some kind of issue that prevents you from running (other than laziness) then you can row 2km instead of the 1mi runs.

  •  Week one – perform 10 sets of 5/10/15
  • Week two – perform 12 sets
  • Week three – perform 15 sets
  • Week four – perform 18 sets
  • Week five – test week for unloaded Murph.
  • Week six – begin pattern again but this time with the correct weight.

SEALFit use a 70min cut off as their test time for Murph. The addition of strength endurance work like this into your training will help you become even better in your other lifts. The extra work capacity and fitness will be a boost in terms of helping you recover as well as add some size to arms and back thanks to all the reps you’ll be doing. And as much as running gets demonized as a gains killer, running with some weight, or rucking as well, will help to keep your legs thick and strong.

Murph has been one of my favourite workouts since I first read about it. The differences it made to my overall strength and fitness when I first started it have been amazing. People who know its history know that the workout was essentially a battle test for one of the most heroic warriors of modern times. Lt. Michael Murphy felt that when he could get through this quickly and easily he was ready for combat. I have a friend in the SEALs who has completed this in 33min – 5 minutes faster than the winner of this event at the Crossfit Games in 2015. At 41 he exemplifies what a tough, strong warrior should be. Most of us will never get close to that kind of time but a sub-70min Murph is possible for all of us and will offer a host of benefits.