This is the kind of info and set of facts I wish had many years ago, prior to even lifting my first set of weights.
There is so much confusion as it relates to the ‘best’ way to train in the gym to get bigger and stronger – part by design from the industry, and part because there are dogmatic folk who just believe in their method.
This short PT Corner micro blog lays down some solid foundational knowledge, so you can understand the difference between true Strength Training vs Hypertrophy training, including the benefits, distinctions, similarities, use cases and downsides.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Here’s the most important thing – resistance training has a spectrum of modalities that amplify certain benefits more than others, and deliberately working throughout that spectrum is how to keep making progress, year after year.
Strength vs Hypertrophy Training
Defining these two Training Modalities
Resistance training has a spectrum of training styles or modalities, that range from Power through to Muscle Endurance.
Strength Training – typically defined as heavy lifting where you can perform 4-7 reps max. The focus is on a few reps, but at near maximal loads. Lots of amping up needed before each set, followed by 2-3mins of rest.
Hypertrophy Training – considered as the 8-12 rep range, where you are for the most part you are stopping just short of technical failure. It’s still hard work, but the focus is more on controlled reps that brute strength. Easily mentally, and rest periods are shorter.
For a greater understanding of these rep ranges, their effects, and the other rep range modalities, then definitely check out the Which Weight Training Rep Range To Use article:
Differences in Benefits & Purpose
Your body will respond differently based on which style of training you choose. You’ll see differences in max strength, muscle endurance, recovery timeframes, mental fatigue and density/fullness of muscles.
This image below calls out the main functional and beneficial differences between the two:
Higher-rep lower weight training styles are usually associated with professional bodybuilders. There are many exceptions where people achieve incredible aesthetic results doing mostly strength work, but as training volume and frequency are king when you compete, you’ll find a strong bias to hypertrophy dominated training blocks.
- Accentuate – the primary training goal is develop specific muscle groups in isolation, and thereby sculpt the body one muscle group at a time. You can programme to accentuate certain muscles and shape more accurately than strength training alone.
- Pumped / Bubbly – With tons of hypertrophy volume, both in session and for a short while after the session, you’ll notice a greater pump and bubbliness of your muscles. More ‘aired up’. The pump doesn’t last forever unfortanately, but the overall bubbly look will when you get big enough.
- Muscle-Mind-Connection – The emphasis of hypertrophy training is to mentally and physically isolate the desired muscle group. To really feel that muscle fire and tightly contract. To burn. In applying this intense focus, you maximise mechanical tension and therefore growth.
- Targeted Growth – Another benefit of Hypertrophy Training is that it is often used to target or improve lagging body parts, both from a size and strength perspective. If your bench press is failing due to weak triceps, getting in extra tricep isolation work will help. And if you have small calves – time to focus on them and get lots of volume in!
- Muscle Endurance – We’re talking about managing fatigue better. Doing higher rep work will have good crossover into strength training and life in general, as your work capacity will be improved. This is different to aerobic or cardio endurance.
- Eccentric Focussed – as we’re looking to maximise muscle growth vs be as strong as possible in this training style, the eccentric (lowering) part of the rep is usually the focal point of each rep. By slowing the eccentric, more muscle damage occurs, followed by subsequent protein synthesis.
Previously, Strength training-dominant training programmes were reserved to those who prioritised getting stronger above all else. Think power lifters, strongmen and sports that require lots of strength. However, the world is waking up to the benefits of strength training irrespective of you goal, and it’s valuable crossover into everyday life.
- Proportion – If you check out anyone who is strong and manages their body fat, you’ll notice a solid proportional physique. No parts of their body will be disproportionately larger than the rest, but instead an overall quality of muscle groups.
- Hardness / Density – Instead of the bubbly look, Strength training brings density and hardness to the appearance of muscles. They are actually denser – they need to be to recruit such strong contractile forces. Think of granite sculptures, versus balloons.
- Mind-Over-Matter – The focus shifts from individual muscles to trying to summon the whole body, the central nervous system and your mind to get lit up like a Christmas tree. You’re attempting to turn on as many motor units as possible, and apply as much force and power. It’s absolutely a mind game where you need to get amped up.
- Function – a well-rounded Strength Training programme will do more for overall physical function than hypertrophy training or cardio-based activities. Moving well through full ranges of motion, under increasing load, and with good form carries through to life in so many ways. You are training your whole body to be functional, and not just isolated parts.
- Time Efficient – This is debatable based on the individual and the programme, but if you’re doing a pure strength workout, it will involve just a few exercises, 4-6 reps and maybe dozen sets max all in. Rest periods are longer, but generally speaking Strength training provides more bang for your buck per unit of time – due to the compound lifting focus.
- Concentric Focussed – Strength training is all about maximal force production. So, it’s focus is on the concentric (raising) part of the rep, where you are trying to contract as hard and fast as possible. The lowering portion is faster, so you don’t fatigue too soon.
Considerations on which Style to Do (First/Now)
Out of the gate, I want you know that neither Strength or Hypertrophy style weight training is superior in isolation. Doing one or the other exclusively for the rest of your life is less than optimal.
Irrespective of your goal – whether it be sporting, aesthetically, functionally or fitness, both training modalities have a place. Now, depending on your goal, one style maybe programmed more than the other, but neglecting to undulate between the two is leaving valuable progress on the table.
That said, the question of which style to choose based on your current circumstance is a valuable one. Whether you are just starting out with weights, or you’ve been weight training for a while, asking this question regularly is a good habit to get into.
The key considerations are listed within the infographic and below:
A – CONFIDENCE – Doing real heavy deadlifts, squats and pressing movements requires confidence from the lifter. Someone who knows the movements, has practiced a fair amount, knows their body, and does not panic under pressure. Confidence improves with practice, but if movement confidence is low, start with Hypertrophy training.
B – MOBILITY – This is big. The big compound movements require good mobility and the ability to comfortably move through large ranges of motion safely. When it comes to Strength Training, the last thing you want to do is load up to maximal weight if your movement quality and mobility is poor. That won’t end well. If you can move well, Strength training is great option.
C – ENJOYMENT – Check out the hugely popular Podcast Episode with Christian Thibaudeau on Neurotyping, as well as the introductory episode on Neurotypes. Some people love heavy strength training – grinding it out! Others prefer the pump and sweat of working hard with litter rest that comes with Hypertrophy training. Doing something you hate won’t last. So, predominately do what you enjoy, but don’t ignore the other modalities.
D – NOTHING WORKS FOREVER – We call them plateaus. Your body will plateau in terms of strength, muscle growth or function. It will happen many times throughout your training life! It sucks, but it’s reality. Nothing lasts forever. So to break plateaus, you need to systematically phase your training to different modalities to create new stimulus and force new adaptations. So if you’re a Strength guy, do some Hypertrophy and watch what happens to your strength and size!
E – SKILL ACQUISITION – This is really about how well can you move, and how well you need to move outside of the gym. Perhaps on the field. When learning a new movement your skill level is low, and as such it’s always better to practice with lighter weight so you can get in more quality and safe reps. So, Hypertrophy training but with the big compound movements may be a good place to start if you are just getting into training. Build you skill, that raise the stakes.
F – INTRA-WORKOUT ORDER – Quite often you will see people mix both Strength & Hypertrophy rep ranges into the same workout week, and often within each session. For the most part, I do this. What’s important though is the ordering. Always, always, always do your Strength lifts first, and expect to partition 70-80% of your overall training session to these 2-3 exercises. Then, and only then, do your assistance Hypertrophy work which is less taxing on your CNS and fatiguing at this stage is less problematic.
G – VOLUME PROGRESSION – Another consideration is Progressive Overload (listen to a podcast dedicated to this important topic). For the most part, that boils down to purposefully increasing your training volume each week, and you can do that with more reps, more sets or more weight across all your exercises. With Strength Training, once you get to your true strength limits based on your current size, making material jumps in volume from one week to the next becomes increasingly difficult. Whereas it’s much easier to increase your volume from week to week with Hypertrophy trainings. Hence the benefit of blending and undulating.
H – PLATEAU BUSTING – If you’re stuck, it’s time to introduce some new stuff. If your body is no longer responding, it’s because your body has acclimatised to the stresses it’s been subject to week-in-week-out. There is no longer a demand for increased strength or size, as the training style, exercises, volume and rep ranges are not changing much. However, introduce a well designed contrasting style to what you’re used to, with exercises variations that test you in new ways, and you will get things moving again. Hence the #HyperWorkouts Training blocks are max 8 weeks and varied in styles.
Eight Common Use Cases – Which to choose for each?
Lastly, to help bring this to life with some real world examples, then definitely check out the Podcast #64: Which should I do – Strength or Hypertrophy Training?, where we go through all of the above as well as providing recommendations based on these common situations and life conditions:
- Newbie Lifter
- 40+ Newbie Lifter
- Intermediate Lifter
- Purely Aesthetic Goals
- Primarily For Sport Performance
- Overweight or Obese
- Prior Injuries or Surgery
Follow this and other topic areas in our PT Corner as they unfold, as well as the AdapNation Food Diary for healthy meal inspiration and AdapNation’s #HyperWorkouts for free training plans. Comment if you have questions or ideas.