When gym goers head to the rack to lift weights, there’s normally a number of reasons why they’re doing it. It could be to enhance their general health, to increase their speed, or to enhance their endurance and explosiveness.
However, out of all the possible reasons listed, there are usually two prominent ones: To increase their muscle size, or to get strong.
And that is where strength vs hypertrophy training comes in.
Put simply, the goal of strength training is to increase muscular strength, whilst the goal of hypertrophy training is to significantly grow muscle cells through specific targeted exercises.
Depending on your overall fitness and lifting goals will depend on whether you should be favouring one over the other, or whether you should be combining both. But it’s something you should know before you next hit the weights room, so let’s get into it.
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What is Hypertrophy Training?
Let’s start with some basic definitions.
Muscle hypertrophy is the term used to describe the growth and size of muscle cells. Hypertrophy itself simply refers to the thickening of muscle fibers which occurs in certain types of exercise, such as powerlifting.
So with that in mind, hypertrophy training is the process of following a particular workout programme that solely focuses on promoting the stimulation and repair of muscle fibers.
What does hypertrophy training look like?
Within hypertrophy training you’ll cause your body just the right amount of physical stress so that it signals your muscles to get larger and stronger in order to tolerate heavy loads. To do that, the load (the weight) must first be targeted toward a specific muscle to encourage it to rise to the challenge. A good example is a bicep curl, which is an isolation exercise designed to grow the biceps.
Hypertrophy training programmes follow these types of targeted exercises, but at a moderate level with an increased training volume. For example, 5 sets of 10x repetitions at a manageable weight, with 1-3 minute rests between each set. Training with manageable weights but performing more repetitions is what helps kick off muscle hypertrophy.
What is Strength Training?
Strength training is the movement of any weight – including body weight – against resistance.
In strength training, you can either use free weights like barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells, or your own body weight to build muscle mass and strength by performing a number of different exercises.
What does strength training look like?
Strength training focuses more on the body’s overall strength and resistance, which means it doesn’t target specific muscle groups but focuses on movements, such as a squat. Each movement tends to work multiple muscle groups so that a person’s overall strength is improved when it comes to lifting heavy weights.
A good example is a loaded squat. In a loaded squat a lifter will hold a barbell across their back whilst they perform the squat. That one exercise alone will work the glutes, quads, calves, abdominal and back muscles whilst increasing the amount of muscle mass and strength.
Another versus conundrum: Leg Press versus Squat. Which one should you do?
Another identifier of strength training is something called progressive overload. Progressive overload is where someone will either lift heavier, or do one more rep than their last training session the next time. The idea of doing this is that your ability to lift more weight will increase over time because your muscles are being forced to adapt and rebuild themselves.
What’s the difference between hypertrophy and strength training?
The best way to think of the differences between hypertrophy and strength training is that when we’re talking about hypertrophy we’re talking about getting bigger muscles, and when we’re talking about strength training we’re talking about our overall body strength (not just limited to certain muscle groups).
Real life examples are those of bodybuilders, who prioritise hypertrophy in order to get the biggest muscles possible, and powerlifters who prioritise strength training so that they can lift more weight in competitions.
More differences and some similarities can be seen below:
- Consistency vs Variety: Strength training follows a more consistent exercise selection to increase overall muscle strength whereas hypertrophy training will favour regular variety to promote steady growth.
- Compound vs Isolation: Strength training will favour compound exercises (exceptions include assistance exercises), whereas hypertrophy training will require compound lifts but will favour isolation exercises for more targeted muscle growth.
- Lower vs Higher reps: Strength training includes fewer repetitions per set, whereas hypertrophy will focus on all repetition ranges and will often favour higher reps at lower weights.
- Both are good for beginners: Whether a beginner starts on hypertrophy training or strength training they’ll still benefit from what are called “newbie gains”, where the muscles instantly stimulate hypertrophy and strength due to the exercises being brand new.
- Compound lifts suit everyone: Deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses, squats and rows are applicable for hypertrophy and strength training lifters.
- Strength and size still matter: You can’t grow big muscles without being strong first, so both hypertrophy and strength training improve a person’s strength (they just go about it in different ways). Likewise for size, if you’re getting stronger, you’re getting bigger so whatever training programme you follow you may have to change your wardrobe.
What are the benefits of hypertrophy training?
- Targeted growth control: Hypertrophy training relies on isolation exercises, which means that muscle groups are grown and strengthened one group at a time. This gives a lifter much more control over which muscle group they want to target first, and ensures they can grow muscles at an even rate so there’s no disproportionate sizing.
- Significant volume: Hypertrophy training provides a much bigger “pump” (that is, how large the muscles look after a session) than strength training. Whilst it may fade out quite easily at first, the overall look will remain once a lifter gets big enough.
- Improved Muscle Endurance: Hypertrophy training can help to better manage fatigue. Performing higher repetitions will crossover into both strength training and general day to day life because the muscle’s work capacity is increased.
What are the benefits of strength training?
- Muscle Density: Whereas hypertrophy may give lifters a more rounded look to their muscles, strength training is more subtle in its appearance. Muscles will be denser, making them harder in both feel and look.
- Improved range of motion: A strength training programme that is balanced and comprehensive will have major benefits for overall physical fitness in our day to day lives. A better range of motion results in training the whole body to be functional, rather than just isolated parts.
- Better muscle proportion: Though hypertrophy does give lifters the opportunity to choose which groups they grow, it’s likely that to begin with they will appear to have more muscle in certain isolated groups than others. In strength training, that’s less likely because the movements are more ‘full body’ and muscle is increased all over.
Which one should you choose?
With all of the above information it might be hard to know which one to go for, if it’s just one in particular. The main thing to consider when deciding whether to follow a strength or hypertrophy training programme is to remember your goals. What do you want to achieve?
If it’s to look and feel bigger, perhaps hypertrophy is the programme for you. If it’s to improve your whole body lifting strength, then maybe it’s best to follow a strength training programme. But if it’s to do both: There’s absolutely no harm in doing that too.
- Brand new beginners who want to get stronger initially may be best suited to a hypertrophy programme. That’s because they’ll get bigger and stronger quickly at first, which will result in them being able to put more weight on the bar sooner.
- Athletes who are wanting to improve their overall strength or range of movements for competitions should stick to strength training programmes. Hypertrophy programmes will likely unevenly distribute muscle and strength, which could prove detrimental in the long run.
- On the other hand athletes or lifters who just want to gain size and get as big as they can should stay with hypertrophy mostly, but switch to strength training programs throughout the year for around 10-12 weeks at a time. This will help break through plateaus.
Ways to Combine Both
- Use unilateral exercises: Unilateral exercises like lunges and split squats increase muscle activation, promote hypertrophy, and also take care of any muscle imbalances so they’re a must for a combined program.
- Include isolation exercises: Isolation exercises like bicep curls and tricep extensions, target and isolate weaker muscles to help promote growth. Remember that because the muscle is isolated you won’t be able to lift as heavy, so keep the weight moderate and the repetitions high.
- Consider compound lifts: Compound lifts like squats are great for both strength and muscle hypertrophy. Lifters who are predominantly focusing on hypertrophy programmes should make sure to keep the weight light and the repetitions high however due to the increased amount of stress compound lifts place on the body.
The long and short of it is that neither one is better than the other, and it shouldn’t necessarily be a case of only preferring one over the other unless it aligns with your specific fitness goals.
Doing a healthy balance of both hypertrophy and strength training programmes will increase your strength and grow your muscles, so it’s worth changing up programmes now and again if your focus isn’t specifically aligned to one goal.
At Strength Ambassadors our Strength Classes are designed to help lifters of all abilities achieve their fitness goals. Our Building Strength class will teach you EVERYTHING you need to know, from mastering the perfect technique, to knowing exactly what type of programme you should be following. Find out more, or book your session today.
Great article! Many people struggle with the differences between strength and hypertrophy and you did a great job of explaining it. It’s always great to find high quality resources like your website.