If you want to know the difference between hypertrophy training and strength training, what they have in common and where they differ, then give me a few minutes and I’ll explain more about it in this article.
Here’s what’s covered:
- What’s the difference between hypertrophy and strength?
- What is hypertrophy? And what’s the best way to make it happen?
- What are the 4 different types of strength?
- Why people with the biggest muscles aren’t necessarily the strongest
- How to train for hypertrophy vs strength
What’s the Difference Between Hypertrophy and Strength?
The goal of training for hypertrophy is to increase muscle size, while the goal of training for strength is to maximize the amount of force those muscles can produce.
In general, a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, and there is a degree of overlap between the two training methods.
That is, a hypertrophy training program will do more than just make your muscles bigger. It’s also going to make you stronger. On the flip side, one of the side effects of a strength training program is an increase in muscle size.
It’s not like a strength training program will generate strength gains but no hypertrophy, or that a hypertrophy training program will lead to bigger muscles with no increase in strength.
However, doubling the amount of weight you’re able to lift in a given exercise doesn’t mean that the muscles involved in lifting that weight have doubled in size.
Nor does it follow that increasing the size of a muscle by 50% will produce an equivalent gain in strength.
What’s more, gains in strength tend to outstrip gains in size when you first go to the gym and start lifting weights.
Put differently, beginners tend to get stronger far more quickly than they gain muscle. That’s because not all of those strength gains are driven by an increase in muscle size.
In fact, when you’re just starting out in the gym, the link between changes in strength and changes in muscle mass is relatively weak.
Over time, hypertrophy makes a progressively greater contribution to strength gains, and the relationship between the two becomes that much tighter.
What is Hypertrophy? How Does it Happen?
If you could take a closer look at a slice of muscle tissue, you’d see that it’s made up of many smaller muscle fibers.
Your muscles get bigger when these individual fibers become thicker, a process known as hypertrophy.
Inside each fiber are rod-like structures called myofibrils, which run parallel to one another. Each myofibril is 1-2 micrometers in diameter and runs the entire length of the muscle fiber. Myofibrils are the part of the muscle that contribute to force production.
There is also a fluid part of the muscle fiber, known as the sarcoplasm, in which the myofibrils are embedded. It’s filled with stuff – such as water, glycogen, and myoglobin – that doesn’t contribute directly to the production of muscle force.
The term myofibrillar hypertrophy refers to an increase in the volume of the myofibrils, while sarcoplasmic hypertrophy describes the expansion of the sarcoplasm.
Over a period of weeks and months, as the individual fibers inside your muscles grow, your muscles become bigger and stronger as a result.
Studies show that the process of muscle hypertrophy begins almost immediately after your first workout .
In fact, just three hours after you leave the gym, the rate of muscle protein synthesis – a key driver of muscle growth – has already increased.
Your body is busy repairing damaged muscle fibers, as well as laying down the new muscle protein that makes each fiber bigger than it was before .
What is Strength?
In technical terms, strength is the ability to produce force against an external resistance.
Broadly speaking, there are four different types of strength:
- Maximal Strength
- Relative Strength
- Explosive Strength
- Strength Endurance
For some, gaining strength means increasing the maximum amount of weight they can lift for a single repetition in an exercise like the deadlift or squat. This is known as absolute or maximal strength.
While maximal strength refers to the ability to produce force irrespective of how much you weigh, relative strength refers to your ability to produce force relative to your bodyweight.
Let’s say, for example, that you weigh 220 pounds, and you can squat 220 pounds for a single repetition, which represents 100% of your body weight.
Next, you go on a diet and lose 20 pounds. After losing the weight, you find that you’re able to lift 210 pounds.
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In absolute terms, your strength has declined. Prior to the cut, you could squat 220 pounds. Now, you can only lift 210 pounds.
But relative to body weight, your strength has actually increased. Before losing the fat, you could bench 100% of your weight. Now, you’re able to lift 111% of your body weight.
Explosive strength, often referred to as power, refers to the rate at which force can be developed.
The ability to generate force rapidly is important in many sports, particularly those involving jumping and sprinting. Even endurance athletes can benefit from incorporating some explosive strength training in their training plan .
Strength endurance is the ability to repeatedly exert force against external resistance.
In the realm of resistance training, it describes the ability to perform a number of repetitions prior to failure in a submaximal lift. If you’re able to do more reps with a given amount of weight, your strength endurance (sometimes referred to as repetition strength) has increased.
How Strength Training Makes You Stronger
One of the ways in which resistance training makes you stronger is by increasing the size of your muscles. Strength is the ability to produce force, and a larger muscle fiber will generally produce more force than a smaller one.
However, there are multiple factors other than hypertrophy that can influence gains in muscular strength, from an increase in tendon stiffness to changes in the activity of your nervous system.
What this means is that the people with the biggest muscles aren’t necessarily the strongest.
Bodybuilders, for example, are very strong compared to the average person.
However, the average bodybuilder isn’t as strong as the average strength athlete, such as a powerlifter or Olympic lifter, despite the fact they’re carrying around a lot more muscle mass.
In short, there’s a lot that contributes to strength beyond an increase in muscle mass, and maximizing the speed at which you gain size or strength will require different approaches to training.
How to Train for Hypertrophy vs Strength
For some, strength just means being stronger than the average person. You’re the one who gets the call when anyone needs help moving some heavy furniture from one place to another.
If it’s that type of general strength you’re after, most types of progressive resistance training will build it.
But it’s a different story if you’re talking about strength that is both specific and maximal, and there are several important differences between resistance training for strength and resistance training for hypertrophy.
- Training Intensity
- Training Volume
- Exercise Selection
- Exercise Frequency
- Exercise Technique
1. Training Intensity
One of the key differences between hypertrophy and strength training lies in training intensity. And by training intensity, I’m talking about the amount of weight you lift during a given set.
Intensity is typically defined as a percentage of your one-rep max, or the amount of weight you can lift for a single repetition.
For example, let’s say you can bench press a maximum of 200 pounds for a single repetition.
Prescribing a training intensity of 90% would mean that you train with 90% of 200 pounds, or 180 pounds.
In other words, training at a higher intensity means lifting heavy weights for low reps. And by low reps, I’m talking about sets of somewhere between 1 and 8 repetitions.
Training for hypertrophy, on the other hand, can involve a variety of rep ranges and loads, ranging from light to medium to heavy.
You can do sets of 5, 8 or 25 reps. As long as you train hard and push yourself, both higher reps and lower reps will stimulate a similar amount of growth. However, it’s the heavier sets of five that will lead to faster strength gains.
If you’re a powerlifter, for example, your aim is to do a single rep in the bench press, squat and deadlift with as much weight as possible. Training to improve your one-rep max is going to be different to the type of training you do to build muscle.
Training with lighter loads and higher reps may well form part of a program designed to increase one-rep max for a powerlifter. However, much of their training is going to revolve around lifting very heavy loads for fewer reps.
2. Training Volume
Research shows a dose-response relationship between training volume and gains in both size and strength [4, 5].
And by training volume, I’m talking about the total number of sets you do for a particular exercise or muscle group over the course of the week.
Because a strength-training program typically involves fewer exercises, your overall training volume will be lower compared to a hypertrophy-training program.
How long should you rest between sets?
In days gone by, it was common to recommend short rest intervals between sets (30-90 seconds) for hypertrophy, while training for strength involved longer rests, somewhere in the region of 3-5 minutes.
The idea behind using shorter rest periods revolved around increased levels of metabolic stress and a superior hormonal response to training, neither of which are as important for muscle growth as was once believed.
In fact, most of the research out there to compare short (60 seconds or less) with longer (2-3 minutes) rest periods shows superior gains in muscle mass and strength with the latter [6, 7].
Why do longer rest intervals work better?
As the rest intervals go down, the accumulation of fatigue goes up. This limits the amount of weight you can lift, and the number of repetitions you’re able to do.
As a result, the strength of the muscle-building stimulus generated by a given workout is weakened, and muscle will be built more slowly.
“Lifters who maintain a very short rest interval in order to ‘get a pump’ are ultimately short changing themselves when it comes to hypertrophy,” explains Lyle McDonald.
“A sufficiently high tension stimulus is required for growth and short rest intervals prevent that. Not only do they not help growth, they tend to actively harm it.”
3. Exercise Selection
Most strength training programs also center on a relatively small number of compound exercises, most notably the barbell squat, bench press and deadlift.
That doesn’t mean you do only those compound lifts and nothing else. An effective strength-training program will also include a number of accessory/assistance exercises based on the needs and goals of the individual.
But the barbell squat, bench press and deadlift are typically the compound lifts the rest of the program is built around. Think of them as the big rocks that go into your training bucket first.
If you’re training for hypertrophy, on the other hand, there’s no great need to lift very heavy loads, or do this or that particular exercise.
You have a lot more choice about the type of training you do. An increase in muscle strength is an added perk of having bigger muscles, rather than the end goal.
In fact, training for hypertrophy usually involves a much larger range of both compound and isolation exercises, which leads to more complete development of a muscle group.
The quadriceps, for example, is made up of four different muscles – vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius and rectus femoris. Barbell squats primarily work three of them. The fourth, rectus femoris, takes a back seat.
In fact, when Japanese researchers used MRI scans to measure changes in muscle size after 10 weeks of squatting, three of the four muscles that make up the quadriceps grew by around 5% . Rectus femoris, on the other hand, didn’t grow at all.
If squats are the only leg exercise you do, some parts of your quadriceps won’t grow as quickly as they would if you did additional isolation exercises like the leg extension [9, 10].
In fact, three months of leg extensions saw rectus femoris grow more quickly than the other three muscles in the quads .
If your main goal is to get stronger, and you’re not too bothered about maximizing the development of this or that muscle group, there isn’t so much of a need to include a variety of exercises in your training program.
4. Exercise Frequency
Powerlifters will spend a lot of time deadlifting, squatting and bench pressing, because those exercises are the ones they need to get good at.
Strength is a skill that is developed through repetition. Frequent training gives you the opportunity to practice that skill more often.
And the more often you practice, the better you get.
5. Exercise Technique
Whether you’re training for strength or hypertrophy will also affect the way that you do certain exercises.
Watch a powerlifter bench pressing, for example, and you’ll typically see a large back arch, the elbows tucked in and a wide(ish) grip. A powerlifting-style bench press shortens the range of motion, which in turn allows you to lift a heavier weight.
But if you’re training for hypertrophy, you want to work your muscles through a larger range of motion, mainly because larger ranges of motion typically lead to more muscle being gained.
You won’t be able to lift as much weight compared to the powerlifting-style bench press, but that doesn’t really matter if you’re training for hypertrophy. The amount of weight you’re able to lift is secondary to your goal of building bigger muscles.
Long story short, there is a link between muscular strength and size, and a training program focused on one will usually lead to an improvement in the other.
However, hypertrophy is not the only factor that contributes to strength, and maximizing strength gains will require a different type of training, most notably a focus on training with heavier weights and lower repetitions, and more frequent practice of whatever lift it is you’re trying to improve.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you train for strength and hypertrophy at the same time?
Most types of progressive resistance training will increase both strength and hypertrophy, particularly if you’re a relative newbie to weight training. That is, hypertrophy training will lead to an increase in strength, while strength training will lead to an increase in muscle mass.
But as time goes by, your training will need to get more specific, depending on what your goals are.
Want to get strong in a handful of compound lifts? There are better ways to go about doing so than training like a bodybuilder. On the flip side, if you just want bigger muscles, training for maximal strength will only get you so far.
Should I have a strength day and a hypertrophy day?
Incorporating a strength day and a hypertrophy day in your training schedule (known as daily undulating periodization) is one effective way to organize your workouts if you want a combination of size and strength.
For example, here’s what a 4-day upper/lower split incorporating both strength and hypertrophy days might look like.
- Monday: Upper Body Strength
- Tuesday: Lower Body Strength
- Wednesday: Off
- Thursday: Upper Body Hypertrophy
- Friday: Lower Body Hypertrophy
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
Should I mix hypertrophy and strength training?
You can mix strength and hypertrophy work in the same workout. Here’s an example of how that might look for the chest:
- Bench Press 4 sets x 3-5 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Press 4 sets x 8-12 reps
- Cable Crossover 3 sets x 15-20 reps
Is 5×5 good for hypertrophy?
Doing 5 sets of 5 reps is certainly one effective set and rep configuration when it comes to stimulating hypertrophy.
In fact, there are lots of good things to be said about sets of five. For one, you’re using a weight that’s around 85% of your maximum. That’s heavy enough to recruit large numbers of muscle fibers.
Compared to higher reps, fatigue is minimal, so exercise technique is less likely to go down the pan. And, you still get enough volume to stimulate hypertrophy.
However, there’s nothing particularly special about 5 sets of 5, as opposed to, say, 4 sets of 6 or 6 sets of 4, or even 3 sets of 8. You’re still doing around 25 reps in total, spread across 3-5 sets, using a relatively heavy weight.
If gaining strength is secondary to your goal of building muscle, you’ll often do just as well with higher reps and lighter weights. The amount of muscle gained will be much the same, but with the added benefit that your workouts will be shorter.
There was an interesting study published by scientists from Japan’s University of Tokyo, where they tested three different set and rep configurations during a 10-week bench press training program – 7 sets of 4 reps, 4 sets of 8 reps, and 3 sets of 12 reps .
While strength gains were largest with lower reps and heavier weights, subjects doing 3 sets of 12 reps built the same amount of muscle as those doing 7 sets of 4 reps.
However, the 3-set group spent a lot less time in the gym. They gained the same amount of muscle with fewer sets.
Is hypertrophy or strength training better for fat loss?
Neither one is inherently better than the other for fat loss. Losing weight is more a function of good nutrition than it is anything else. And by good nutrition, I’m talking about a diet that a) puts you in a calorie deficit and b) provides a sufficient amount of protein each day.
That being said, If I had to choose one style of training over the other during a cutting phase, it would be hypertrophy training. That’s mainly because combining hypertrophy training with a diet geared towards fat loss is going to have the biggest impact on your body composition.
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