Strength vs hypertrophy.
What’s the difference? Should you focus on one or the other?
After reading this post, you’ll learn:
- How to include both strength training & hypertrophy training in your routine,
- If you should do strength or hypertrophy first, and
- The most important thing you can do to maintain long term progress.
These are the strategies that I have used to add over 25 lbs of muscle to my frame, and almost triple my strength.
Let’s get started!
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Okay, let’s get started.
What Is The Difference Between Strength And Hypertrophy?
Hypertrophy training refers to exercising with the intent of growing bigger muscles (i.e increasing muscular size).
Strength training on the other hand, refers to exercising with the intent of getting stronger (i.e, being able to lift more weight).
While they might sound similar, you can tailor your training program to bias one or the other. This is done by changing the number of sets, reps, and amount of weight you lift.
Does Hypertrophy Increase Strength?
Do bigger muscles mean more strength?
A bigger muscle always has the potential to be a stronger muscle. So yes, hypertrophy training will make you stronger to a certain extent – but never to the same degree as strength training.
This is why powerlifters and olympic weightlifters tend to be much stronger than bodybuilders, despite being much smaller.
More on that later.
Will Training For Strength Build Muscle?
On that same token, yes, strength training will also build muscular size… to an extent.
Getting stronger requires you to teach your nervous system to recruit more motor units at any given time.
In fact, many would argue that strength training is building your central nervous system more so than your muscles.
Once you reach a certain level, strength training won’t continue to increase the size of your muscles.
Should A Beginner Train For Strength or Hypertrophy?
So what should you do as a beginner? Strength or hypertrophy first?
If you are a beginner, you should always train for hypertrophy first.
By using the hypertrophy rep range in your early career, you will be building muscle AND gaining strength.
Take your time to develop some muscle mass, learn the proper technique, and gain confidence under the bar.
The loads required for strength training can challenge your technique, and cause lead to muscular and joint injuries if not used properly.
With that said, once you become an intermediate- you can train for both strength and hypertrophy in the same workout.
This is a strategy that I use often.
This is how:
- Your Primary Movement of the Day is trained heavy in the 4-6 rep range.
- This has to be the biggest compound exercise of the day (such as squats, deadlifts, bench press, shoulder press etc)
- Your secondary exercises are then trained in the hypertrophy range, usually in the 8-10 rep range
Hypertrophy Vs Strength Sets & Reps
According to the research, lower loads with higher volumes tend to lead to higher amounts of muscle growth.
That’s because the amount of time your muscles are under tension (aka longer sets) appear to be the biggest factor in causing muscle growth.
By the way, understand that I am not referring to getting “bulky.” I am simply referring to developing the muscle tissue to a respectable, natural size.
The Optimal Training Volume For Hypertrophy
- Performing 7-12 repetitions per set have been shown to be the most conducive to muscular growth.
- When it comes to sets, 3 is generally a good place to start. 3 sets of 7-12 reps equate to a total of 21-36 repetitions per exercise per day.
- Since we recommend that you train each major movement pattern twice a week, you’ll be doing 42-72 total reps, per muscle group, per week.
It is extremely important that you focus on movement patterns, rather than individual muscles. Movement patterns represent compound exercises, and these hit multiple muscle groups simultaneously.
For example, let’s say you:
- Front Squat 3 sets of 8 repetitions once a week
- Goblet Squat 3 sets of 10 repetitions later that week
- And Reverse Lunges 3 sets of 12 repetitions once during that week
That is a total of 9 sets and 90 repetitions of Quadriceps Work per week, WITH the added bonus of hitting your glutes and your hamstrings for 9 sets indirectly as well.
It’s also important to note that different movement patterns may respond better to more or less volume what I have described above.
For me, my lower body responds better to higher volume in the form of a higher number of repetitions and multiple sets, whereas my upper body tends to respond better to a lower number of repetitions per set.
Everyone is different, therefore it is important to experiment and see which range works best for each of the Big 6 Movement Patterns.
Why Should You Train For Hypertrophy?
- Hypertrophy causes your muscle fibers to grow in size.
- More size means more potential strength and athleticism.
- More muscle size means more metabolically active tissue. More metabolically active tissue means more fat burning potential.
How Often Should You Train For Hypertrophy?
- I recommend that you train in the Hypertrophy range for most of your early training career.
- At least 2/3rds of your exercise programming should be dedicated to hypertrophy.
Alright that’s all for hypertrophy for now.
Let’s move on to strength.
- Hypertrophy training is dedicated to development of muscular size
- It requires the use of low to moderate loads with high repetitions
- Dedicate 2/3 of your total training towards hypertrophy training
Size Vs Strength – Why They Don’t Mean The Same Thing
To reiterate- the biggest person may not necessarily be the strongest person.
In fact, the people with the most amount of muscle mass (professional bodybuilders) are no where near as strong as the strongest athletes (powerlifters and strongmen) despite being “bigger.”
Why is this the case?
This is a byproduct of the way you train.
If you want to develop strength, then you must dedicate a portion of your workout routine to strength training.
Strength training is different from hypertrophy in that it requires you to lift heavy weights.
Strength Training Sets & Reps: Volume Vs Intensity
Since strength training requires you to lift heavier weights, you will not be able to perform as many sets and reps as you can with hypertrophy training.
Volume and intensity are inversely proportional. The heavier the load you are lifting, the less volume you will be able to do.
The weight that you use for strength training must be heavy enough to induce muscular fatigue at around 5 reps or less per set.
So How Do You Train For Strength?
My absolute recommendation is that you only train for strength after you have developed a decent baseline of strength and comfort with the basic functional movements.
The Optimal Volume For Strength
- Performing 4-6 repetitions per set is most conducive to muscular strength
- Because the load on the bar increases, the repetitions per set decreases.
- This means that strength training often requires more sets than hypertrophy training. Usually 3-4 sets per exercise.
Most importantly, the weight needs to be challenging.
How heavy should the weight be?
The weights should be at least 80% of your one rep max.
Your one rep max is the most weight that you can lift for one repetition with good technique.
- For example, let’s say you can squat 200 lbs for one max rep.
- In order to be at 80%, most of your volume should be done with weights of 160 lbs or more for sets of 4-6 repetitions.
It’s not always possible to know what your one rep max is (especially if you are relatively new to lifting).
For experienced lifters, it is Ok to use estimations.
Again, this bears repeating…
It is important to note that the really heavy weights should be reserved for experienced lifters who have developed great technique on the various lifts.
Use your judgment.
If you cannot maintain good form when performing the exercise, it’s probably a good idea to decrease the weight.
Why Should You Train For Strength?
Strength is one of those characteristics that are useful for anyone in any situation. When you train for strength you
- Train your central nervous system to recruit more neural motor units to lift more weight.
- Stronger muscles will also let you break through plateaus you may experience during hypertrophy training, which inevitably happens if you only train in the 7-12 rep range.
- Lastly, you never know when you may have to save someone who is pinned under a car.
- In total, you should perform around 12-24 repetitions per exercise, per day when training for strength.
- Each major movement pattern should be trained ~twice a week, totaling 24-48 total reps per week.
- The weight must be at least 80% of your 1 Rep Max
If you aren’t an experienced lifter (at least 2-3 years of consistent exercising), you should spend no more than 1/3rd of your training on strength.
The more experienced you are, the more strength training you can and should do.
In addition, I must emphasize that you should always listen to your body. Never train through pain, and do not ignore aches and pains that do not go away with conservative treatment.
How strong should you be? Check out our strength standards for busy people so you can set some realistic strength goals for yourself.
- To train for strength, use weights that are ~80% of your 1 rep max
- Do 3-4 sets of 4-6 reps
- Strength training should make up 1/3 of your total training
What About Muscle Fiber Type? Does That Influence Hypertrophy & Strength?
There are three different muscle fiber types, which is beautifully described in this video.
The leading theory is that Type 1 (or slow twitch) muscle fibers respond best to hypertrophy training, aka high reps low weight, and that Type II (fast twitch) respond best to strength or power training, aka low reps high weight.
However, it appears that most muscles are composed of both types of muscle fibers, and aren’t all type 1 or type 2.
In addition, it is impossible to tell whether your particular muscles are predominantly type 1 or type II. Therefore, trying to train each muscle based on its type should not be your priority.
The bottom line?
All muscles should be trained through a variety of different rep ranges.
The Most Important Strategy To Make Long Term Progress in Strength & Hypertrophy Training
Now that you have an idea for the appropriate amount of training volume you need for muscular size and strength, let’s talk about long-term progress.
As we discussed in Part 1, the training stimulus must be progressive or increasing over time.
The easiest way to do this is to increase the weight you are lifting over time, or to increase the repetitions you are doing at a particular weight over time.
In short, you must do a little bit more than you did before.
This is the entire concept of Progressive Overload.
Obviously, this cannot go on forever. If you try to do this continuously, your body will plateau, or you will get injured.
So how do we bypass this?
The easiest way to circumvent this problem is to keep rotating the exercises that you are performing every 8-12 weeks.
That is why we are such strong advocates of having many different variations of the same exercises in your tool belt. Constantly doing the same exercise over and over with increasing weights or increasing reps will lead to overuse injuries and pain.
Focus only on 1-2 variations of an exercise at a time, and then switch them every 8-12 weeks.
- Week 1-8: Bench Press and Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
- Week 9-19: Close Grip Bench Press and Wide Grip Push-ups
- Week 20-28: Incline Bench Press and Dumbbell Bench Press
- Week 29-36: Weighted Push-ups and 3-count paused Bench Press
- Week: 37: Restart
And for the Squat Pattern
- Week 1-12: Squat and Reverse Lunges
- Week 13-20: Box Squats and Leg Press
- Week: 21-32: Front Squat and Step Ups
- Week: 33-40: Paused Back Squat and Goblet Squats
- Week 41: Restart
By rotating the exercises, you are training your muscles in different ways and forcing them to adapt to new stimuli every 2-3 months. You build better overall strength and keep your training fun and engaging.
Keep track of your progress for every exercise in a journal or electronic notepad.
Every time you return to a variation you have previously done, compare your new levels of strength to where you were before.
Get stronger in every variation possible. Keep the long-term picture in mind.
Common Muscle Hypertrophy Myths
There are a lot of misconceptions out there regarding the best ways to use resistance training to build muscle.
If muscle building is your goal, these are things you need to avoid:
Thinking That You Need To Train Each Muscle Individually
One of the most common misconceptions about building muscle is that each one of your muscle groups needs to be trained individually.
This is when you see people training Chest on Monday, Back on Tuesday, Arms on Wednesday, Legs on Friday etc.
As we discussed in our post on exercise principles, isolation exercises are not the best way to build muscle mass.
You simply cannot stimulate your muscles enough when you train them one at a time.
While Biceps look good, they don’t necessarily improve your fitness
We occasionally do isolation exercises, but they only constitute a minority of our exercise selection.
You can certainly get more for less if you stick to compound exercises: particularly the Big 6 movement patterns described in here.
When performing compound movements, you don’t need to do a lot of exercises nor train your muscles until exhaustion.
This leads us to the next misconception…
Thinking That You Need To Spend Hours At The Gym To Get Results
If you train correctly, (using large compound exercises for most of your training) then you do not have to spend a long time exercising.
Compound exercises always give you the biggest bang for your buck.
They allow you to lift heavier weights then you could with isolation exercises, and stimulate your muscles a lot faster. As a result, you don’t need to do endless sets and reps.
In short, we want to stimulate our muscles, not annihilate them.
We only workout for 30 minutes a day.
And lastly, my favorite misconception…
Thinking That You Will Get Bulky Easily
Another common misconception is that lifting weights will get you bulky.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a woman (and some men) say that she doesn’t want to lift weights because she doesn’t want to get bulky, my student loans would be paid off.
Gaining any noticeable muscle mass is extremely difficult.
Most men will never get bulky, even if they tried. If all you had to do was lift weights to get really muscular, everyone would be jacked.
You generally don’t have high enough levels of testosterone to get large muscles. The women who are “bulky” lift for a living, and center most things in their lives around exercise.
Brittany can Squat >200 lbs and Deadlift > 300 lbs and she is not ‘bulky’
Ok, so now that we have those out of the way, let’s get to the meat and potatoes.
Other Related Questions
What Is The Difference Between Sarcoplasmic & Myofibrillar Hypertrophy?
According to some theories, there are two types of hypertrophy.
- Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy refers to growth of the sarcoplasm, or the fluid surrounding the actual muscle cells.
- Myofibrillar hypertrophy refers to an increase in the actual number of muscle contractile proteins, aka the myofibrils
As such, the theories state that sarcoplasmic hypertrophy makes your muscle look bigger, whereas myofibrillar hypertrophy is what makes you stronger.
It is often thought that sarcoplasmic hypertrophy can be obtained through using lighter weights, higher repetitions, and more volume and vice versa for myofibrillar hypertrophy.
At this time, there does’t appear to be any scientific evidence that sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, actually contributes to actual “real” visible hypertrophy in the long run.
Muscular growth is a natural adaptation of your training, and using different volumes and intensities is what will contribute most to your progress.
What About Strength vs Hypertrophy vs Endurance?
Similar to strength and hypertrophy training, you can change your sets and reps scheme to focus on endurance training.
In general, endurance training requires
- Higher volume (which could be more sets and/or more reps)
This will keep the time under tension of your muscles as well as your oxygen requirements high. This will ultimately induce a cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning benefit to your muscles.
Building muscle endurance is what will allow you to not fatigue during long distance events.
Check out my post on HIIT to learn more.
And Strength Vs Hypertrophy Vs Power?
Power refers to how fast you can move a weight across a certain distance.
In general, power training generally uses sets in the 1-3 rep range, as these type of explosive exercises are mentally and physically draining.
Power training more closely resembles strength training, and has very little overlap with hypertrophy training.
Which is Better- Hypertrophy Vs Strength For Fat Loss?
All things being equal, hypertrophy training is better than strength training for fat loss. That’s because you can perform more overall volume doing hypertrophy, which in turn, will burn more calories.
With that said, exercise alone will never help you burn fat. Your diet is a necessary factor that you must optimize if your goal is fat loss.
I go over more details in Diet Vs Exercise- Whats More Important?
A Complete Hypertrophy & Strength Program
Now that we have covered all of the important topics related to gym workouts, you can go and check out the WCT Strength Program For Busy Professionals.
It is a ready-made 15-week training template that uses all of the principles laid out in this article and more.
And the best part?
The workouts are designed to be completed in 30-35 minutes a day.
Be sure to check it out here.
Or You Can Check Out Our Free Workouts
The Bottom Line On Creating A Strength & Hypertrophy Split For Long Term Progress
Any health and fitness professional would agree that improving your lean muscle mass percentage is extremely beneficial for just about everyone.
In order to reap the maximum benefit of your exercise program, it is ideal to increase your muscular size and your muscular strength.
- You can train for strength and hypertophy by using the right number of sets and reps in your exercise program.
- The majority of your training should be dedicated towards hypertrophy training, especially if you are a beginner.
- Strength training should also be included in your routine, but after you have developed confidence in the major functional movements
- Lastly, do not forget the importance of being well rounded. Rotate the exercises you include in your training every 2-3 months while still improving all 6 movement patterns.
Next you should read
- The Best Workout Template For Busy Professionals
- The Ultimate List of Compound Gym Exercises
- The Ultimate List of Calisthenic Bodyweight Exercises
Now we turn it over to you:
Have you used these strategies to gain muscle in the past?
Have you primarily trained for hypertrophy or strength?
Do you rotate your exercises or always keep them the same?
Comment below and let us know.