Endurance Training for Bodybuilders

bodybuilder posing
Endurance Training for Bodybuilders
by: Victor Lasato

Competitive bodybuilders and figure competitors usually aren’t too worried about muscle endurance or functionality beyond the ability to perform an extended posing routine (which is a feat of endurance in its own right). However there are a few competitors who realize that bodies should perform as good as they look. For an example of this philosophy, think Bruce Lee. At a mere 135 lbs, Lee had one hell of a physique, and generated more force with his strikes than men twice his size. The reason for such an anomaly is that Lee understood the concept of holistic training: he addressed speed, strength, flexibility, and most importantly the mind-muscle connection in all aspects of his often unconventional training techniques. For combat or martial arts enthusiasts, there’s an excellent description of Lee’s training routine on Mike Mentzer’s website: http://www.mikementzer.com/blee.html .

In addition to Lee, there exists a veritable army of fitness enthusiasts who follow this same creed. Some enter bodybuilding competitions, others simply enjoy the many benefits of weight training, one of which being an enhancement of overall performance in other sports. However, those training simply to look good naked or possess sheer, freaky mass are more likely to hinder athletic performance.

This concept presents bodybuilders with the difficult task of balancing both the appearance and functionality of their muscles. One New Jersey bodybuilder who understands this balance with scientific precision is Anthony Monetti Jr. of Brick Township. Having recently turned pro as a NPC competitor, Monetti is the creator of DrivenFitness.com™, a web site dedicated to all aspects of the fitness lifestyle. However unlike the rest of the hulking, chiseled physiques on stage, Monetti can hold his own in other competitive sports, such as running. In addition to sheer determination, his success comes from balancing the priorities of appearance versus function. Monetti comments, “An endurance event for me is a 5k run. To a runner a 5k run (3.4 mile) is a simple warm up but to a 205 lb. bodybuilder this is a challenge. And I accept.”

Priorities are of paramount importance for bodybuilders engaged in endurance training. Knowing Monetti, there’s no doubt that he could train for, and complete a full marathon, but why would he want too? Bodybuilding is his passion and first athletic priority. Yet there is a good reason he runs competitively. “The more conditioned I am [aerobically],” says Monetti, “the better I perform when preparing for a bodybuilding event. My lungs, heart and the functions of the body are in better shape which only results in more effective weight training sessions

Why it’s so Difficult…A Quick Anatomy Lesson

Without getting into the anatomy of muscle fibers too much, as that would be an article unto itself, there’s a very good reason football players are big and muscular, cyclists and distance runners are skinny, and sprinters, wrestlers and boxers are somewhere in between. There exist three different types of muscle fibers with three distinct functions: Type-I (slow-twitch) provide energy through the aerobic pathway, Type-IIB (fast-twitch) provide contractile power through the anaerobic pathway, and Type-IIA (“red” fast-twitch, due to high myoglobin content) bridge the gap between the two (1,2).

It is the IIA fast-twitch fibers that are the MVP’s of overall athleticism. Type-IIA fibers take the best attributes of the other two fiber types, which explains why athletes such as boxers and sprinters whose training targets IIA fibers tend to have incredible physiques. For a more in depth understanding of muscle fiber function, see Jacob Wilson’s three-part series on muscle fibers.

A simple search of any fitness forum will yield page upon page of arguments about the nature of muscle fibers. Do Type I fibers hypertrophy significantly? Or are other components of muscle tissue responsible for increased size from endurance training, such as genetically pre-disposed levels of androgen receptors, glycogen, or mitochondria?

There is however one aspect of the fiber debate that most agree on: elite endurance athletes are born with a high concentration of type I fibers, while elite strength athletes on the other hand are born a high concentration of type II fibers. Lastly, elite weight lifters “exhibit large percentages of type IIA fibers,” and contrary to what many think, weight lifting performance is not dependant on type IIB fibers (3).

Endurance training relies on a combination of aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways. With a few exceptions such as circuit training, weight training for the most part is anaerobic. Different endurance events however require different types of endurance. For example, a 200m sprint requires only 5% aerobic and 95% anaerobic capacity. A 1.5k run has a breakdown of 55% aerobic, and 45% anaerobic capacity, and uses roughly equal amounts of both energy pathways. On the other end of the spectrum, a full 38k (26mi.) marathon, utilizes 98% aerobic and 2% anaerobic pathways (4). This is obviously not well suited for post-workout cardio.

Although the above guidelines apply to running, the figures can be extrapolated for any sport. The different percentages above relate to the different types of endurance: aerobic endurance for the distance runner, speed-endurance for athletes requiring short bursts of energy, and strength-endurance for sports that demand “sustained quality of muscular contraction,” utilizing an equivalent balance from both energy pathways (5). Strength-endurance is probably the most efficient means of achieving both muscularity and functionality, (read: type IIA fibers) while addressing the endurance requirements of most recreational sports. A few examples of strength-endurance training are plyometrics, sprinting, and even the “strength” settings on various cardio equipment. One particular unit that has an excellent strength program on it is the Cybex® Arc-Trainer.

Getting the Jobs(s) Done

A successful combination of bodybuilding and endurance training lies in the ability to balance training protocols, thus harmonizing the development of each muscle fiber type. While difficult, this task is not impossible. Tom Walsh of Howell, New Jersey began weight training twenty years ago, weighing 128 lbs and suffering from a hyper-active thyroid. Roughly fifteen years and 30 lbs. later, Walsh got hooked on the “runner’s high,” and since then has competed in numerous distance races including seven full-marathons. “The endurance athlete is all about performance” says Walsh, “even if it means looking ‘skinny’. This was also very hard for me to accept, having always equated weight with strength. But my times over the past 18 months have continued to improve, despite losing over 15 pounds this last training session [while] qualifying for the Boston Marathon. It’s important to include strength training into my endurance training… The body can only go so far with what you have if you don’t do strength training.”

Interval Training for Strength-Endurance

Most of you probably know it as HIIT: high-intensity interval training. In the 1930s, it was called “Fartlek Training” (really). Fartlek comes from the Swedish phrase for “speed play” (1) and is simply a combination of interval and continuous training. While HIIT concentrates mostly on sprint/jog intervals to burn fat, its 1930s predecessor addresses interval training for all fitness levels, and goals i.e., march/walk, jog/march, ½ sprint/jog, and so on (3).

While Plyometrics, HIIT, and Fartlek are great for burning fat and increasing V02 Max and lactate threshold in the legs and lower back, sports such as martial arts, mountain climbing, basketball, and rugby require strength-endurance throughout the entire body. When the upper-body needs to perform as well as the lower, the training equation needs to shift as well. In addition to the “tread climbing walls” (climbing walls low to the ground that spin on a track) certain gyms have, elliptical machines with rowing attachments and medicine ball work are also excellent options. For detailed medicine-ball training programs, click here.

Another excellent and often overlooked approach to full-body strength-endurance is circuit training. That’s right: it’s not just for senior citizens and depletion workouts. If performed correctly, keeping the principles of progressive load in mind, circuit training will do wonders for strength-endurance. While you probably won’t make any size or strength gains, both V02 max and lactate threshold will improve (6), making your maximal effort near the end of a grueling game, climb, or tournament a lot more, well, “maximal.”

Seasonal Considerations

For a good deal of athletes, endurance sports are seasonal. Even if you train for these sports year round, the “off-season” period is an excellent time to shift your priorities from sport-specific training and drills to adding strength and speed at the gym. As your season draws nearer, you can slowly re-prioritize training to address specific needs. Colonel Tom Endres of West Point, NY is the “Chief of Course” for the Okemo Mountain Racing Team, and former head coach of the U.S.M.A. Lacrosse Team. In addition to his credentials, the man’s built like a tank and can hold his own with skiers half his age, which he attributes to the correct balance of strength and endurance training.

Over the past decade, Endres has seen the importance of strength training in ski racing. “The difference between the waitress in town and the U.S. Olympic competitor is one or two seconds,” comments Endres, who added that bulking up in the off season, while tapering upper body training down to one or two times a week as the season draws near is a smart approach. Endres also added, “trunk work is paramount; you’ll never see a skier with a belly.” (I can think of a few IFBB pro’s who may benefit from some “trunk work”). Torso development is important for any sport that requires rapid leg movement and a high degree of balance. Seasonal sports are much easier to train for in terms of not compromising bodybuilding goals. After all, altering training regimens for only four months out of the year is a lot less detrimental than having to balance two separate goals year-round.


Those of you who have read my previous articles know I don’t believe in broad-spectrum, “one size fits all” sample workouts. For the most part they’re ineffective for the majority of readers and too often used to fill pages, so I’ll spare you. Anyone interested in the specific programs I use, or used by any of the experts I interviewed can feel free to start a thread in the Avant forums on the topic posting your stats and goals. The basic, take-home message of this article is to find the proper balance of strength and endurance training that works for you. The successful combination of strength and endurance training is perhaps one of the most elusive aspects of fitness, more so than simultaneously burning fat and gaining muscle (at least since the inception of LeptiGen).

Finally, I’d like to thank the Avant Forum members who helped with the concept of this article: Colonel Tom Endres, and select members of Team Driven, including Anthony Monetti Jr., Tom Walsh, and Karen Walsh, a pro figure competitor whose insight will be seen in Part II of this series dealing with diet, nutrition, and supplementation.

Questions or comments on this article? Post them in the Avant Labs Forums for live feedback from Victor Lasato, as well as the Mind and Muscle staff and fellow readers!


“Skeletal Muscle Structure and Function.” National Federation of Professional Trainers. Archives. Online: November 17, 2004. Available: http://www.nfpt.com/Library/Articles/muscl1.html

Wilson, Jacob. “Muscle Fibers: An In Depth Analysis: Part II”. Journal of Hyperplasia Research. Internet Archives. Online: November 17, 2004. Available:http://www.abcbodybuilding.com/magazine/musclefiberspart2.htm

“Muscle fiber characteristics and performance correlates of male, Olympic-style weightlifters.” Journal of Strength Conditioning Research. 2003 Nov; 17(4):746-54. Online: November 20, 2004. PubMed, Available: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi

Mac, Brian. “Endurance Training.” Internet. Online: November 18, 2004. Available:www.brianmac.demon.co.uk/enduranc.htm

Connelly, Pat. “Training Note From the Coach: Fartlek.” October 2, 2002. Internet. Online November 19, 2004. Available: www.secondwindrunning.com

Shepherd, John. “Concurrent Training.” Peak Performance. Internet. Online: November 20, 2004. Available: http://www.pponline.co.uk/encyc/concurrent-training.html

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