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April 19, 2021
Do you want to be the strongest guy in the gym? Or do you want to build muscle mass? Here lies the dilemma between strength vs hypertrophy. Training for strength and size are the two main goals for a good portion of the gym-goers. Unfortunately, training for them doesn’t necessarily look the same. If you are trying to train specifically for either muscle hypertrophy or strength, you need to understand the physiological differences between the two adaptations. More importantly, you need to know how to alter training variables to get optimal progress.
This article will give you a clearer understanding of why these two adaptations are different and how programing looks differently for strength vs hypertrophy workouts.
Strength training is weight training with the primary purpose of increase one’s strength. The best way to think about the goal of strength training is taking the muscle you have, and making it work better together.
This is often one of the more misunderstood concepts when trainees first begin lifting as they associate getting stronger with increasing the size of the muscle. A muscle with increased volume and a cross-sectional area indeed has more “potential” to be stronger. Also, a larger muscle can create more torque through an improved mechanical advantage (study). However, if you were to only concentrate on hypertrophy training, you would miss out on a lot of strength that could be gained by including some strength workouts in your program.
Strength training is primarily done by improving various functions of the neuromuscular system to make the existing muscle able to produce more neural strength. A few of the alterations are discussed below.
1. Increased Firing Rate: The force production of a muscle fiber is controlled by what is known as the firing rate. Every muscle fiber is controlled by a motor unit which “fires” to activate the muscle. To increase the force generated by that one fiber, the motor unit will fire faster. This process continues until the maximum firing rate is reached. By training correctly, trainees can increase this firing rate, resulting in more force production by the same fiber.
2. More Force Production: Everyone is quite literally stronger than they think they are. The problem is that they just can’t access it. Our body’s muscles are never fully activated 100% except under certain conditions. This basic premise is why there are stories of ordinary men or women performing amazing acts of strength under dire consequences, such as lifting a car to save someone. There are theories as to why this mainly revolves around it being a safety mechanism or just preventing us from pure exhaustion.
3. Selective Recruitment of Motor Units- Our muscles are controlled by little centers known as motor units. These motor units range in size. Small companies control smaller muscle fibers (capable of less force production) and larger motor units containing larger muscle fibers (capable of more force production). When we perform an action, all of our muscle fibers don’t activate at once. That would make it impossible to go to shake someone’s hand. If all your muscle fibers fired, you’d wind up hitting the person! Under normal conditions, our body starts by firing the smallest motor units and then gradually (yet in a very fast manner) recruits more motor units from smallest to largest. However, after advanced training, your body will learn to skip the smaller muscle fibers and directly start using the larger muscle fibers, thus generating more force quicker.
Everyone who has gone into a gym experiences these adaptations. In fact, this is what gives rise to “newbie gains” which is where your strength can increase dramatically when your first hit the weights. One study found that during the first 24 weeks if training, you may only increase your muscle size by 5% but can increase your strength by 21%.
To address one common misconception in the world of fitness. The singular term “hypertrophy” is often used when talking about training to increase muscle size. This isn’t necessarily wrong when said in an understood context, but technically, “hypertrophy” simply means “the enlargement of an organ or tissue”. Therefore, the correct terminology would be “muscle hypertrophy” to separate from other conditions such as hypertrophy of the heart. Not a huge deal, but it never hurts to know more!
So, what is “muscle” hypertrophy training? It’s simply training with the sole intention to create a larger muscle. In contrast to strength training which improves the efficacy of the neuromuscular system, hypertrophy training actually produces structural changes to the muscle to make it larger.
There are three main training variables which increase hypertrophy:
1. Total Volume: Total volume is by far the main driver (study) and your primary concern. This is calculated but the total amount of weight you loft with the equation:
Load X Sets X Reps= Total volume
In order to grow, you want in to increase your overall volume as you move forward.
2. Mechanical Tension: Muscle tension simply refers to your muscle actively contracting. The more time your muscle has tension means more growth. Theoretically. This is the reason behind tempo reps.
3. Metabolic Stress: This refers to causing the accumulation of metabolites and cell swelling in the muscle during exercise. Metabolic stress is thought to be the main driver for blood-restriction training (study).
1) Myofibrillar Hypertrophy
A muscle fiber is composed of chains of components known as “myofibrils”. These myofibrils are then composed of the main contractile units known as myosin and actin. It is the interaction of myosin and actin that pull on one another responsible for a muscle contraction and generating force.
Myofibril hypertrophy is the process of the body actually creating more myofibrils which include increasing the number of these contractile units. In short, myofibrils hypertrophy is the process of increasing the muscle size with the potential of being stronger.
2) Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy
On the other end, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy merely refers to the increase in muscle volume with no additional strength gains. This occurs when the sarcoplasmic fluid of a muscle increases resulting in a “bloated” muscle. This is generally seen in bodybuilders and what most people think of when they speak of “muscle hypertrophy” (study on sarcoplasmic hypertrophy).
How these two are interrelated and affected differently still aren’t entirely understood, but it doesn’t make much difference for a trainee. The goal remains the same in that you want to create a bigger muscle for aesthetic purposes. This interest in aesthetics is what creates the difference between strength vs hypertrophy physiques.
Obviously, the adaptations for increased strength are vastly different when training for muscle hypertrophy, but now let’s talk about how altering training variables can affect these differently.
The overlaying theme of these two different training styles lies in the purpose. This is illustrated in these two sentences;
“Bodybuilder train to grow their pecs. Strength athletes train to increase their bench press”
Simple, yet this illustrates how two trainees can be doing the same movement with drastically different goals.
Best Load/Rep Range For Strength And Muscle Hypertrophy
The “load” used for an exercise refers to the percentage of your 1RM for that exercise. This is either of a true 1RM or an estimated 1RM. For example, if your 1RM for the bench press is 100kg and your program has you use a load of 85% 1RM for a particular rep scheme, you would use 85kg. (100 X 85% = 85). Simple.
Interestingly enough, different loads produce optimal results depending on if you are training for strength or hypertrophy. This is generally seen in what’s known as the 1RM or “Load Spectrum” which prescribes the best load (rep range) for different variables:
This is a very general and basic explanation that can be used, but some important caveats must be understood.
In the past, and even still today, it was believed that these are absolutes. For example, you will often hear bodybuilders claim that using heavy loads, those of 85% 1RM or more, are useless for hypertrophy. This has been debunked.
Remember, the main driver of hypertrophy is volume, and it does not seem to matter where that volume comes from. This was illustrated in a study that compared the muscle hypertrophy when using a heavy load and light load with volume equated for. Specifically, one trained performed 7 sets of 3 reps while one trained 3 sets with 10 reps, but the total overall volume was equal. The result was that muscle growth was similar for both groups, but the strength group had greater strength gains.
This means hypertrophy can technically be achieved with any load, BUT improvements in strength require heavier loads (85% or greater), closer to maximum intensity on an RPE scale, using a rep range of 3-6. However, you should still use a moderate load (70-80% 1RM) with 6-12 reps for muscle hypertrophy (study). Why? Because it is a much more efficient way to get in a high amount of volume with a sufficient load to train the type II fibers.
Now, let's go over the differences between strength and hypertrophy training in regards to reps and sets, rest time, exercise selection, volume, how to progressive overload, and best splits.
There is a relatively big difference in the optimal amount of sets one uses when training for strength vs. training for hypertrophy. Strength training generally involves a higher number of sets than training for hypertrophy.
The goal is strength training is to teach the muscle how to work more efficiently. One way to do this is through repetition. However, heavier loads allow fewer reps, therefore, making more sets optimal when training a movement pattern. For hypertrophy, the goal is to create as much volume as possible while using a much more extensive exercise selection to hit the muscles from different angles.
For general purposes, someone training for hypertrophy will usually use 3 sets for their main exercises while performing maybe only 1 or 2 sets with very high volume for smaller exercises.
Strength trainees can use anywhere from 3 sets all the way up to 6 sets, sometimes even more. These higher sets are used for the main movements at the beginning of their session. Further, the higher number of sets also generally contain a small number of reps. For example, you might go in and perform 6 sets of 2 reps using 95% 1RM for deadlift.
The rest time for hypertrophy training is much shorter than for strength training which goes back to the emphasis on total volume. This means a trainee will ideally rest just long enough to be be able to get in their reps again. Having shorter rest periods allows them to do this with the least amount of time. For this, trainees will rest anywhere from a full 2 minutes for some of their larger exercises, going all the way down to 30 seconds for smaller movements.
Strength training requires a bit more rest time with 2 minutes usually the minimal amount of time between sets. Rest times can go all up to 5 minutes with 2-3 minutes being the average time needed. A strength athlete’s goal is to get the number of reps, so if that means they need to wait an extra 30 seconds or a minute, then so be it.
Check out this article for a more in-depth (study-based) take on rest time between sets for hypertrophy and strength training.
There is a bit of an overlap of some exercise selection, with the main difference being the loads used.
Pure strength training almost exclusively uses free weights, specifically compound lifts, as they use a large amount of muscle mass which is superior when training the neuromuscular system. This makes sense as you want the muscles to learn how to work together to create the largest amount of force. Further, compound movements are much easier to load with heavy weight, where it can actually be quite dangerous to do with many isolation movements. The most common machines used by strength athletes are for the lower body, such as leg presses and belt squats.
A list of common strength exercises are:
Some strength athletes will still use some isolation movements, but this is usually either for hypertrophy or mobility work.
When training for hypertrophy, trainees will still use the same compound movements as strength athletes to an extent. However, trainees will also utilize a much broader range of exercises, including isolation movements and machines. They also use more variations of an exercise in the same session. For example, a trainee of hypertrophy may train flat bench, incline bench, and decline bench back-to-back. They will use 3 sets for each exercise, increasing their volume AND variation to hit the muscle from different angles for optimal growth.
Another difference is that hypertrophy training will favor similar movement patterns that cause greater muscle activation in the muscles. This is seen with the deadlift and Romanian deadlift. Hypertrophy training will usually favor the Romanian deadlift as it elicits more activation in the glutes and hamstrings.
The Purpose Of The Exercises
It’s also important to point out the reason for why the trainees perform their exercises. As mentioned, strength athletes will still use some smaller exercises and even perform them with higher reps. Many may confuse this with hypertrophy training. While there is definitely overlap between the two, the key determinant in identifying what the type of training is can be found by asking “Why are they performing this movement”?
For a strength athlete, their purpose is almost always to increase their strength of lagging parts for their other main lifts. For example, a strength athlete may perform skull crushers to increase their triceps strength for the bench press. Compare this with a bodybuilder who may be doing skull crushers because they want to increase the size of their tricep. Alternatively, certain body types, like ectomorphs, are better served to train for strength as it can help them add more mass to their tall, lanky frames.
In this sense, it is useful to think of strength training as being much more specific with their exercise selection. If it’s not going to increase their lifts or performance, they probably won’t do it.
Your average hypertrophy session is going to have more exercises than a typical strength training session. This is primarily due to the build-up of fatigue that occurs with lifting heavier loads. Further, strength training involves more sets with longer rest periods. This can add up quickly. For example, if you perform an exercise with 5 sets and a 3-minute rest interval, you’re already at 12 minutes of just rest. In short, it just takes longer to train. Therefore, a strength session will usually sit around 4-6 exercise; some even just use 3.
Conversely, a typical hypertrophy program will always have more than 6 exercises with 12 being at the upper end. This is because these exercises have fewer sets, shorter rest periods, and may even involve supersets, command sets, or circuit training.
Both styles of training rely on progressive overload to improve. What differs is where that progressive overload comes from. For hypertrophy training, progressive overload increases the total volume of work you place on the muscle. This is can come from increasing weight, adding reps, adding sets. This can also come from performing harder, putting more tension on the muscles through things like tempo reps or performing sets to failure and forced reps.
For strength training, you still will use progressive overload, but it comes from placing weight on the bar for a specific rep range. The real difference is that the total weekly volume for strength trainees will often fluctuate week to week. For instance, a popular strength scheme is 5/3/1 where you perform an exercise for 3 X 5 one week, 3 X 3 the next week, and 1 X 3 rep the third week. The next cycle, you will try to use more weight when you perform 5 reps, more weight when you complete 3 reps, and more weight when you perform 1 rep. Even though the volume is decreasing, you are placing more weight on the neuromuscular system. Something like this seldom happens when training for hypertrophy other than for planned deloads.
One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between a strength program and a hypertrophy program is how the sessions are numbered. While not always true, a hypertrophy trainee will often refer to their days by the body part, i.e., “I’m working chest and shoulders”. A strength trainee will refer to their days by the movement “I’m going train pressing movements today”.
That being said hypertrophy trainees will typically train more days during the week than a strength athlete. For one, a strength athlete uses much heavier loads that can really tax the body to a greater extent, requiring more workout recovery time. Further, they are usually doing less exercise so there’s not as much variety to spread out. Compare that to a hypertrophy trainee who may split each day into one body part or do 3 exercises for just the biceps.
We can take all of this info and look at two training sessions; 1 for strength and 1 for hypertrophy.
Front Squat: 4x4
Romanian Deadlift: 3x6
Barbell Hip Thrust: 3x10
Glute Ham Raise: 3x10
Romanian Deadlift: 3x8
Stiff Leg Deadlift: 3x10
Leg Press: 3x10 (last set is a drop set)
Bulgarian Squat: 2x12 (per leg)
Leg Curels/Leg Extension: 3x15 (superset)
Calf Raise: 2x20
First, you should not worry about training for ether one specifically until you have been training for at least 6 months. When you first start going to the gym, you will get stronger and add muscle mass regardless of what you do, assuming you are following a progressive training program. Your body is so new to these stresses that you will be able to grow relatively consistently in with both variables for a decent amount of time.
How Long? That depends on the person, but when first beginning, you should follow a basic linear progressive program that mainly utilizes big compound movements when you first start. Linear progression simply refers to a program where you use the same rep scheme and gradually increase the load every week. A person should do this for at least 3 months with 6 months being a more realistic time frame. Again, this is considering you are following a structured program with adequate recovery time and your sleep and nutrition are on point.
Once this begins to stall you will need to start thinking about what you want to focus on as your training will need to become more specific to continue progressing. In reality, it only really matters what you want to achieve with your training. If you wish to be strong or train for performance, strength training will be the way to go. If you are merely interested in general fitness and aesthetics, muscle hypertrophy will be your primary focus. If you want t to compete in bodybuilding, you will obviously want to concentrate on training for hypertrophy.
SPECIAL NOTE: One point of concern is that many trainees find real strength training a bit boring. This is mainly because you wait a lot and aren’t engaged with as many exercises. This is part of the process, but it is often a deterring factor for some people.
Absolutely! And in fact, this is probably the best option for the vast amount of the population who are going to the gym. Over the years, a new form of training has come through with the label “Powerbuilding” which is the mixture of powerlifting and bodybuilding. An athlete will train some of their main strength movements during the first part of their session and then move into a more traditional bodybuilding rep scheme for the second half of their session.
Some powerlifting schemes have you concentrate on strength training on certain days and concentrate on hypertrophy training on others. This is seen in Dr. Layne Norton’s PHAT training (Power Hypertrophy Adaptive Training).
Powerbuilding is very useful for strength and hypertrophy training for a couple of reasons:
1) While strength and hypertrophy training are vastly different, the two different adaptations benefit from one another. A muscle with a larger cross-sectional area (increased hypertrophy) can become stronger. In return, a stronger muscle can then lift more weight to increase volume.
2) The second benefit is that this is basically a form of periodization known as daily undulating periodization (DUP). DUP is used to constantly alter the volume and load used in an attempt to produce constant progression while also mitigating burnout.
Here is a brief summary of the differences. Keep in mind these are general guidelines and by no means absolute. This just reflects what is seen most common in the real world.
|Load||85-95% 1RM||70-80% 1RM|
|Reps||3-5, 6 (on lighter side)||6-12+|
|Rest||2-5 minutes||0:30-2:00 minutes|
|Exercises per session||Around 6||8-12|
|Type of movements||Compound lifts||Compound, Isolation, Machines|
|Program Split||3-4 Days/week||5-6 Days/week|
Neither! It just depends what you want. Always remember that the goal is the actual difference between the two styles and there just so happens to be differences in the most optimal way to get reach there. And remember, you are not married to any style. Just because a strength athlete trains for strength, it doesn’t mean he can’t throw in some hypertrophy for aesthetics. Just because a bodybuilder wants to grow his muscles, it doesn’t mean he has to be weak. In fact, you rarely find people at the extreme ends of these styles where they disregard the other.
Rather than looking at these training styles as opposition to one another, they should be viewed as complementary. Now that you know how to train for each, it’s time to put get strong and put on some mass!
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