To Top

Building Endurance in the Weight Room, Part 1

People usually fail when they are on the verge of success.
So give as much care to the end as to the beginning;
Then there will be no failure.
—Lao Tzu
Tao Te Ching

Being able to finish strongly is a huge advantage in every sport, whether on a highly competitive level or in a recreational activity. The wrestler who’s trailing on points and who can dig down deep and summon up a final spark of energy to help him pin an opponent at the very end of a match. The lacrosse player who, somehow, manages to dodge and weave the length of the field and still put something extra into his shot to win an overtime game. The Olympic weightlifter who, almost miraculously, cleans and jerks 20 more pounds than he’s ever attempted and captures the gold medal. It occurs all the time because some athletes know how to build endurance into their training regimens.

Sports contests are determined at the end of the game, and every athlete dreams of doing something remarkable that determines the outcome of a competition. I grew up making the field goal that won the Super Bowl for the Baltimore Colts and dropping in a 50-footer for the Baltimore Bullets to take the championship away from the Knicks. All kids do it in their own way.

In all sports the strongest do survive, so building the type of strength that endures to the very end of a contest is a great advantage. Having an entire team that can be running full tilt and still use all its skill expertly when the clock is counting down spells a winning season in any sport.

Sports coaches are fully aware of endurance and greatly desire it, yet the majority think of endurance from only one standpoint, running—typically, a combination of sprints and long distance. Why? Because running in some shape or form has always been a part of conditioning for nearly every sport, even when it isn’t a critical part of that activity. Athletes must run to develop more endurance. That’s the credo of sports coaches and has been since time immemorial.

Football is a prime example. The players, regardless of position, are expected to do a lot of running in-season and during the off-season, as well as during summer training camp. To me, much of that is wasted energy. What good does it do for a football player, particularly an interior lineman, to run three or four miles three times a week in February? Or even in the spring or early summer? My answer, very little in terms of developing a strong endurance base for the season.

It would be far better for him forgo running and use the energy to improve overall strength by attacking the weights. Increase hip and leg strength considerably—say by 40 to 50 percent—and that athlete is going to be able to run farther and faster. I’ve always believed that any athlete can improve endurance better by lifting weights than by running long distances. Sprints I don’t mind that much, for they help the athlete maintain stride and don’t drain as much energy as long-distance runs.

I’m not, of course, including long-distance runners in that group. They belong to a different category. How often does a football player, other than a wide receiver or defensive back, run more than 15 or 20 yards on a play? Very seldom. Some linemen never run that far during an entire game. In addition, football is not a continuous game. There are innumerable breaks between plays: huddles, substitutions, coaches’ challenges, injuries on the field, quarters, halftimes, time-outs, two-minute warnings, and 200 commercials. A game now lasts three hours, and only a third of the time involves actual playing. So how do long-distance runs help the athlete? They don’t.

In the final analysis, running is more about hip and leg strength than it is about cardiovascular fitness. Build a strong foundation of lower-body strength, and improving cardio is quite easy. I’ve pushed that idea for a very long time, although I’ve seldom had the opportunity to put it to a test, other than for myself. That’s because those engaged in collegiate and professional sports are obligated to follow the programs laid out by their coaches—and coaches embrace running like a 19-year-old mistress with money.

Every so often, though, I find someone who’s willing to give my theory a try. One winter I stayed with Lani Bal in Carmel, California. We were brought in by a friend to work on a project that involved a mountaintop overlooking Big Sur. At that time I was lifting weights four times a week and running two times. As I was getting ready for my Sunday six-miler, Lani said he was going to join me. He lived in Maui and often led tours through the lava tubes below the Haleakala crater and then on to Hana. It was a demanding trek that definitely required endurance, and Lani wanted to improve his cardio fitness for when he returned home.

I usually ran on the shoulders of the highway but suggested that we use the track at Carmel High School. That way he’d know exactly how far he could run. I maintained a slower-than-usual pace so he could get the feel of running—a new activity for him—but he went only a half mile before the pain in his side forced him to stop. He was stunned that he was in such bad cardio shape. He asked me to set up a running program for him.

Instead, I said I wanted him to start going to the gym with me to lift three days a week. In addition, I told him that I didn’t want him to run again for at least a month. I explained that in four weeks he could greatly improve his overall strength and that it would help him run longer. Although he was skeptical, he had faith that I knew what I was doing and agreed with the plan. At Bailey’s Gym he did the Big Three on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The only auxiliary movements he did other than the bench press, full squat and power clean were straight-armed pullovers and calf raises.

Lani proved to be a good athlete and picked up the necessary technique on the exercises quickly. He also possessed excellent determination. Within a month he’d increased his overall strength by 40 percent and his squats by 60 percent. He wasn’t using any heavy weights yet, but his rate of increase was the important factor. We both liked to cook, so we ate well and got plenty of rest.

We decided it was time to go back to Carmel High School and test my theory. He covered two miles at a brisk pace and was breathing as easily as I was. He could have gone twice that distance, but I had him stop. I knew from experience that knees, ankles and hips need time to adapt to the new form of stress and that he should make slow increases from that point on. Cardio was no longer a factor; it was simply a matter of preparing those joints for the workload.

The only thing that he’d done differently between the half mile that had exhausted him and the second run of four times the distance was get stronger. The principle is so simple that it’s almost always overlooked. Yet everyone agrees that movement is based on strength. What must toddlers do to become toddlers? Get their hips and legs strong enough to support the body in motion. What must someone do after any kind of lower-body surgery before he or she can resume walking? Get those muscle groups involved in the action more strongly.

Here’s another example to show that running long distances is not necessary for running long distances if athletes have very strong hips and legs. I was in Wichita Falls, Texas, helping Dave Anderson put together the first hardcore gym in the city. Mark Rippetoo was helping us. Rip was an aspiring powerlifter, and we trained together at either Midwestern University or the Downtown Y before Anderson’s Gym became a reality. We were hanging out on Sunday when I announced that I was going to get in my run before it got too dark. He said he’d run with me, even though he hadn’t done any running for several years. What he had done was move tons and tons on back squats, and his hips and legs were plenty strong. Stronger than mine, in fact. We covered six miles, and Rip talked the whole time and wasn’t the least bit winded—and we sprinted the final hundred yards.

It wasn’t cardio conditioning that enabled him to run that far, only above-average hip and leg strength. Yet it’s damn near impossible to convince any sports coach of that idea. Every year I did battle with coaches, especially football coaches, to delay the running in the off-season strength and conditioning program until the athletes had built a solid foundation in their hips and legs. What I really wanted was for them to forget about running altogether until July, but I knew they’d never buy that. Usually I got them to hold off for a month or six weeks; then the running would invariably tap into their squats and other exercises. Those who’d been through my program for several years fared far better than the rookies. About a month after running was inserted into the program, their squats starting moving upward once again, but their overall strength would have been much greater at the end of the conditioning program if they had skipped the distance running altogether. What coaches don’t factor in is that the athletes do a great deal of running anyhow, playing basketball and racquetball and practicing their skills on the field.

When the hips and legs are superstrong, cardio comes easily, and short-distance speed greatly increases. Some readers might not know the story of Billy Newsome in The Strongest Shall Survive, so I’ll encapsulate it. Billy was one of the hardest-working members of the Baltimore Colts I trained in the off-season of ’71. He trained with me for five months, moving his squat to a deep 385 and improving his overall strength by 50 percent. He also increased his bodyweight from 235 to 270. He kept asking me when he should start running, and I told him three weeks before training camp—and then only sprints to loosen his stride.

The coaches were stunned at his new bodyweight and predicted the worst when he was tested in the 40-yard dash. Then their jaws dropped when he cut .25 off his time while weighing 35 more pounds than he had the previous year. With his new strength and bodyweight he was dominating the scrimmages. While that should have ended up as a success story, it didn’t because of the defensive coach’s attitude toward weight training. He told anyone who would listen that he thought lifting weights was a stupid idea and declared that Billy was carrying too much bodyweight. So he had him drop 20 pounds by running him into the ground, and what could have been a sterling year ended as just a fair one.

I think the only top-line football coach who might use the notion that less running and more strength work would result in a more productive program is Mike Leach of Texas Tech University. He shuns the conventional: no playbook, no huddle, only two dozen plays that are practiced over and over till they’re done perfectly—and no wind sprints after practice. Every other coach seems to be wondering, “What would the Bear do?”

Athletes in every sport would make greater strides if they spent the necessary time getting a lot stronger and practicing the skills needed in their sport rather than using up energy running long distances. I realize that sports such as soccer and basketball require a sound cardio base, but that can be gained by playing the sports.

All that said, however, not every strength program enhances the endurance factor. Just being strong isn’t enough. If it were, the rosters in professional football would be filled with powerlifters, and we know that’s not the case. Powerlifters are, indeed, quite strong, but they have not built endurance into their training for the simple reason that they really don’t need it to excel in their sport.

In contrast, Olympic weightlifters and many bodybuilders have programs that do boost endurance. They do it because it’s a positive in their sports. Endurance enables them to train longer and at a much higher level, and in both sports the athletes who can work harder than their opponents have a definite edge.

It’s a process that takes time to develop. It really cannot be hurried. The first step is to build a solid foundation of strength and learn how to perform all the exercises correctly. Only after that is accomplished are athletes able to expand their workload and put more and more energy into every exercise in their routine, even those at the very end of the workout.

The longer an athlete has trained diligently with weights, the easier it is to enhance endurance. Those who went through my off-season strength program two or three times made much faster strides in that direction than those doing it for the very first time. Yet, as with Lani, the weight work did help quite a bit.

I said that endurance cannot be affected to any great extent until form is learned and a solid strength base is laid down, but there is something athletes can do to get a jump on the process. Learn to move through a workout at a faster pace. While athletes are getting the feel of the various exercises in my program, which are the Big Three in almost every case, I want them to take their time with each set. Then after three weeks, sometimes less time, I have them move twice as fast as normal on their light days. They can do that because the weights are so much lighter than on the heavy and medium days, and they quickly find out that they can move the weights even when they’re winded. They also discover that they can elevate their pulse rate considerably in the weight room, something few beginners think possible.

As athletes become conditioned to the routine I give them, I encourage them to move at a decent pace—not fast but no loitering between sets either. That’s often built into most scholastic and collegiate strength programs because the facilities are limited and many sports teams want to use them. Typically, a segment of a team is allowed only an hour in which to train, so trainees must move quickly out of necessity. Learning how to cram a lot of sets into a relatively short time is a good thing. It teaches that you don’t need a long rest between heavy sets. In fact, having to do a max set when breathing is labored teaches you that the body is capable of such a feat.

When I trained with the York Barbell Club, all the lifters there drilled on hitting top-end poundages with very little rest between attempts in preparation for a big contest. We all found that the shorter rest periods actually worked in our favor. We were more focused, and our bodies were primed and ready because the blood and all the beneficial nutrients were flowing to the muscles being used in that particular lift. On many occasions I found that I could elevate my pulse rate more when doing a series of sets in the weight room than I could when running. I no longer run, but the same thing applies to my weight training and walking.

The bodybuilders understood that working at a fast clip built a different sort of muscle than when they took long rest periods. I trained with a few: Val Vasilef, Bill St. John, Bob Gajda and Sergio Oliva, who went through their respective workouts in superset fashion, never taking any breaks except to load and unload the bar. While most competitive weightlifters were training for only 90 minutes, tops, the best bodybuilders could go on for two hours and still be able to produce results from the final exercises in their programs. They built up their stamina through many hours of hard work, and, of course, they understood their bodies very well. By being able to work longer and harder than their competition, they achieved a sizable advantage.

After form has been mastered and the base made solid, the athlete needs to start increasing the workload. Workload to a strength athlete is what mileage is to a long-distance runner. Runners know how many miles they must cover in their weekly training runs in order to make a certain time in a 10K race or a marathon. That’s done over a long period of time; runners who try to rush the process will become overtrained, and that will cause them to slip backward.

The same idea applies to the strength athlete. Increases in volume must be small. Large jumps may seem to pay off for a short while, but then reality sets in, and progress comes to a halt. Long-distance runners use a 10 percent rule to determine their mileage increases. That’s 10 percent a month. It doesn’t seem like much, yet when it’s done for a full year, it amounts to a rather large improvement.

I don’t use the 10 percent rule right away, for beginners are typically able to make gains very rapidly in the first few months of training. Some have moved some exercises up by 50 percent in four weeks, so I wait until they’ve come to the point where the gains come more slowly before I insert the 10 percent rule.

The first step in increasing the workload comes in the form of adding other exercises that are more demanding than the original three. Or for those that are less demanding, more sets or reps will also expand the overall volume in a workout. For example, after athletes have completed their five sets of five on the power clean on a heavy day, I have them do three sets of clean-grip high pulls right behind the power cleans. Let’s say a lifter did 135, 155, 175, 195 and 215×5 on the power clean. That would be followed by 235, 255 and 275 for three on high pulls, which will add more than a ton to the day’s workload.

Later on, when the athlete has moved to an even higher level of strength, I prescribe deadlifts on a heavy day instead of power cleans and high pulls. That elevates total volume even more. Some of the exercises that I insert into a program actually lower the overall volume for that day, such as good mornings, which I substitute for power cleans on Wednesday, the light day. At first, because the athlete has to start out using rather light poundages on good mornings, there will be less work for the back than there would be on power cleans. That changes rather quickly, however, and within a month the volume on the good mornings exceeds what would otherwise be handled on power cleans, partly because you do good mornings in higher reps—eights and 10s.

The workload for the shoulder girdle will also be lower when I switch athletes from doing flat benches to incline benches on the light day—but again, not for long. Keep in mind that throughout the process the heavy, light and medium principle must always be adhered to, regardless of an athlete’s strength level.

On Friday, the medium day, the workload will jump appreciably when I substitute heavy shrugs for power cleans. It’s a different story on squats. While the overall volume is slightly less than it was on the heavy day, the intensity is higher. That’s because the athlete will do heavy triples on Friday and heavy fives on Monday. Even so, it still fits into the heavy, light and medium concept.

Another simple way to increase workload is by using back-off sets. When I see that an athlete is ready for more work, I call for one back-off set of eight or 10 reps on the heavy- and medium-day squats and all shoulder girdle exercises. I don’t use them for any pulling movement. If I want to work those groups harder, I add more work sets at the top. I’ve found that it isn’t a good idea to do back-off sets on any high-skill movement. When the muscles are fatigued, form will suffer, and almost every pulling exercise I use is high-skill.

Next time I’ll get more specific about how to slowly but steadily increase both workload and intensity without falling into the pit of overtraining—how an athlete can eventually train hard and heavy for an hour and a half or even two hours and make improvement on the final exercise in a routine. That’s when you know you’re building endurance that you can use in any other athletic activity.

In the meantime, buy a notebook and start writing down how many sets and reps you do on every exercise in your program, plus the amount of weight you use. If you’re serious about building the kind of endurance that enables you to perform at the highest level at the very end of a competition, you’ll need that information.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit IM

Instantized Creatine- Gains In Bulk

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply

More in Features