Strength Endurance - the key to Old Man Strength

When I was younger I would always watch my father in the garden. He just had this amazing ability to work non-stop all day long. It’s not like he was a lumberjack or worked on a road crew though. He was a normal 9 to 5 office worker. But he came from a different generation that did more manual work around the home and had spent years and years doing it. He had tough hands and a work ethic built on years and years of hard work in the Aussie sun.

In comparison, most men these days have hands so soft it’s doubtful many have ever even held a shovel. My neighbour doesn’t even own a mower or a saw for basic yard maintenance.

How do we reclaim that old man strength and the ability to go all day?

The problem for most is adequately identifying the best place to start. There are many strength groups on the internet who will tell you that chasing max strength is the most important quality because all the other qualities of strength are built from it. For people who don’t know there are many different types of strength – relative strength, absolute strength, speed strength, starting strength… and even strength endurance. To a degree maximal strength does impact the other qualities but at some point it will actually detract from it. For example, I bet the person you know who has the biggest bench press isn’t the person you know who can do the most push ups. At some point the max strength work has detracted from strength endurance and seen their performance get worse. When these groups joke that “anything over 5 reps is cardio” you know they aren’t really taking their endurance work seriously. And that all turns up in testing when guys fail military PT tests or they’re on a hike somewhere and just run out of gas.

Strength endurance is probably the most important factor in being able to enjoy yourself outside. It’s the thing that allows you to carry a pack for hours on end or ski run after run without your legs turning to jelly. It’s a bike ride in the morning and then a run up a hill in the evening to watch the sun set while on holidays. It is the thing that is going to allow you to keep doing all the fun things outside as you age.

At this point it usually all falls to pieces and people start doing all kinds of crazy circuit work trying to mimic the non-stop nature of strength endurance activities with their training. But that’s a mistake too. Circuit training is usually too low load to have any real impact on strength gain. What you end up with a series of workouts that leave you tired and sweaty but that don’t have any genuine impact on long term performance.

So what’s the answer?

To find the answer we need to break down what is involved in strength endurance. The strength side has a few components – max strength, strength endurance, and maybe even power and power endurance. The endurance side has aerobic fitness, muscular endurance, and anaerobic endurance (which can also be split into two sides). It’s no wonder people get lost.

So what’s the priority? Can we just skip to strength endurance work and get the best benefit? The answer is no. To develop a deep reserve of endurance of any kind takes an enormous amount of work – something missing from the world in general today, but especially from the fitness world. People are encouraged to do less as if doing less ever brings a greater result anywhere in life.

The beginning of this process is something called general strength and is best categorised by something normally scoffed at in today’s fitness world – 3 sets of 10 reps of a whole body program performed 3 times a week. Yes, this looks like every old school beginner routine ever written. That’s probably a clue – when a workout method stands the tests of time it’s worth investigating further. While this might look like a beginner routine imagine the kind of beginner you’d be if you could squat and bench bodyweight for 3 sets of 10. That’s a pretty impressive beginner. While you’re developing that kind of general strength base it’s time to get to work on aerobic development. The easiest way to do this is with Maffetone based running/ cycling/ rowing and lots of walking. (A daily walk should never be removed from your program even as exercise volume goes up). This process is slowed by the tissue adaptation needed for running and may take up to two years if the person was not used to running prior. For my clients I usually have a goal of them being able to run for 3 x 1hr sessions each week with no next day muscle soreness. The entire purpose of this period is to slowly build work capacity and get the body used to the new strains being placed upon it.

Many of the strength groups will focus solely on the strength side but they’re doing their clients a great disservice. The biggest killer in the world isn’t a weak bench press. It’s heart attacks. And, with 70% of the world overweight or obese the biggest overall problem facing people is lack of movement and an unhealthy heart led by that. So the best way you can train someone is to give them a healthy heart and work on their diet with them. As a trainer now I spend far more time on those two things than I do on strength. I am not downplaying the importance of strength at all but getting a diet and fitness improvement is something I will chase preferentially over increased strength any day of the week.

The next thing they’ll tell you is that you can somehow combine their much loved strength work with the MAF system to get improved fitness. Except you can’t really. One of the keys for increased fitness (which is more about how well your body can use oxygen) is that the body needs to suck more oxygen out of the blood. This forces the body to learn how to use it better and increases a thing called your VO2max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use while working aerobically. But when muscles are tense, like when you lift weights, blood won’t flow through the muscle. No blood flow, no oxygen uptake. No oxygen uptake, no increased VO2max. In fact, at a given heart rate your oxygen use is no better than 70% of what it would be if you had the same heart rate while running or cycling. There’s just no way around it – if you want to actually get fit you need cardio.

But, because we’re chasing strength endurance we need strength too. It makes sense then to combine some kind of traditional cyclic activity to some kind of strength work. Most people here will again revert back to crazy WODesque workouts that leave them gasping and sweaty but the for maximum aerobic improvement the number we’re looking for is something around 60-70% of your max HR. The MAF formula fits perfectly here for most and should be used as a guideline. The basic rules for cardiac output training are that you want between 120-150bpm and for a minimum of 30 minutes.

The workout:

Set a timer for 30mins. Perform 2mins of any type of moderate cardio like rowing, running, or cycling. Then perform 2-3 strength exercises working at 70% of your max effort. Make sure HR stays within your MAF range the entire time. If you can perform more than 7 circuits in 30mins you’ve gone too easy. If you can only perform 6 you’ve gone too hard and are having to rest too often. Either slow down your cardio slightly or drop the weights/ reps used so you need less rest between stations.

What’s the power of strength endurance work? I have clients in their 40s, 50s, and 60s able to run 100 mile ultra marathons and out work younger men half their age. That’s real old man strength.