Lifting weights is an incredibly scientific process. How much you lift and how often impacts whether you build muscle mass, body strength, or both. It all comes down to hypertrophy versus strength training.
Going to the gym is a form of therapy for many people. You can walk in and start training, boosting those endorphins, testing your capabilities, and building your muscles. For many newcomers to the gym, thinking about the science behind the movement is an afterthought, if it comes up at all.
Here’s what you need to know so you can determine which training style is better for your goals.
- What is Hypertrophy?
- What is Muscular Strength?
- How are Hypertrophy and Strength Training the Same?
- Hypertrophy vs. Strength: Which is Right for You?
- Hypertrophy vs. Strength FAQs
- Which is better, strength or hypertrophy?
- Should I do hypertrophy or strength first?
- Does hypertrophy make you bigger?
- What are the signs of muscle growth?
- How do you train for strength, not size?
- Why are my muscles getting stronger but not bigger?
- Can you be strong and skinny?
- Why are powerlifters not muscular?
- Is hypertrophy just for looks?
- Final Thoughts
What is Hypertrophy?
Hypertrophy has become something of a buzzword in the fitness world over recent years, and it’s often misused. Muscular hypertrophy refers to the adaptation of muscle fibers through recruitment during resistance training. The continuous cycle of damage and repair increases muscle mass.
With hypertrophy training, the goal is to make muscles bigger without focusing on maximal strength. In other words, muscle definition trumps how much you can lift. When training for hypertrophy, you should lift 6-12 reps at 70-80% of your one-rep max (1RM); this is a common training style for bodybuilders.
What is Muscular Strength?
Building muscular strength and muscle mass fall under the umbrella of strength training. However, building muscular strength means lifting heavier weights for fewer reps. Whereas hypertrophy training focuses on building muscle size, muscular strength training focuses on functionality.
When training for strength, reps tend to be lower, with 1-2 reps focusing on full maximal power (hitting your 1RM) and 4-6 at 85% 1RM.
How are Hypertrophy and Strength Training the Same?
It’s important to note that no matter how much you focus on one training style over the other, you’ll get a bit of each. There is an overlap between the two types of training, especially during the early days when newbie gains are a thing. If you focus on strength training, you’ll still notice your muscles getting bigger and more defined— they just won’t reach the same level of definition as they would with targeted hypertrophy training.
Conversely, your muscle growth won’t be all for show if you focus on muscle building. You will build muscle strength while doing bicep curls and lateral raises; you just won’t reach maximum strength potential.
Muscle growth and muscle strength also rely on the same principles to be effective. Increasing the training volume for progressive overload is a must for both hypertrophy and strength training programs. Getting adequate nutrition— protein for muscle repair and carbohydrates to fuel workouts— is also integral for success, as are rest and recovery.
Both forms of resistance training helps mitigate skeletal muscle loss with age, an effect known as sarcopenia.
Pros and Cons of Hypertrophy
- The overarching benefit of hypertrophy training is the increase in muscle mass.
The focus of this training is building size, which contributes to a muscular physique. This form of resistance training also tends to burn more calories during a workout than a strength and power-focused training program.
As you tend to use lighter weights for hypertrophy training, you can also adjust the training intensity to add in cardio or other accessory work as needed. Hypertrophy training is also better for isolation exercises and targeting and has shorter rest periods, making it easier to fit in a workout on a tight schedule.
- The main pitfall of hypertrophy training is that it offers limited strength-building opportunities.
Yes, you’ll naturally gain some strength by training your muscles, but you won’t reach your full potential for lifting heavier weights.
Pros and Cons of Muscular Strength Training
- Training for strength offers the obvious benefit of becoming stronger, supporting heavier lifts as well as daily activities outside of the gym.
The focus is on what your body can do rather than what it looks like. Many strength and power-oriented exercises are also compound exercises for better full-body training.
- On the other hand, you can become powerful without focusing on the other indicators of health, like nutrition.
This is a downside as the supporting pillars of wellness can become an afterthought. Additionally, a training session with heavyweights often takes longer to complete, which can be limiting for those on a schedule.
Hypertrophy vs. Strength: Which is Right for You?
Determining which type of training is right for you ultimately depends on your ultimate training goal. While building strength and training functional movement patterns will translate into more areas of your life, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to build an impressive physique.
Fortunately, you can incorporate both styles of training into your exercise program. Incorporate high-load training at the beginning of your workout with strength-building movements before shifting to low-load training assistance exercises afterward. You may opt to start with one style of training and then add the other training variables as you progress.
The best part is, if you end up changing your primary goal at some point, you can try the other training style without losing much progress. Muscle memory is a powerful thing.
Hypertrophy vs. Strength FAQs
Still have more questions about hypertrophy vs. strength? You’re not alone. Here are some of the frequently asked questions about choosing a training approach.
Which is better, strength or hypertrophy?
Neither is better; they’re just different. Strength training will carry over into other sports and activities more than hypertrophy, but it depends on your training goal.
Should I do hypertrophy or strength first?
If you choose to incorporate both strength and hypertrophy training, start with strength. As a beginner, strength training exercises teach compound movements, which is beneficial. Also, it’s easier to adjust lighter-load workouts than heavier load workouts, allowing you to get your full strength then exhaust the muscles after.
Does hypertrophy make you bigger?
Yes, an increase in size is one of the key measures of muscle hypertrophy. If muscular size is your main goal, use hypertrophy.
What are the signs of muscle growth?
It can be difficult to perceive progress in ourselves. You can measure muscle growth by how your clothing fits by taking progress photos or taking regular measurements.
How do you train for strength, not size?
If strength gains are your top priority, focus on heavy loads and lower reps. Your main lifts shouldn’t extend past six reps, and you should feel tired at the end of each set. If your muscles are big but not strong, you need to challenge them by progressively lifting heavier.
Why are my muscles getting stronger but not bigger?
If you’re gaining strength but not mass, you’re likely not doing enough reps. Drop the weight a bit, try more accessory exercises, and increase your repetitions. It’s also worth addressing your nutrition to determine if your muscles are growing, but hiding.
Can you be strong and skinny?
You can be strong without much body fat or muscle definition. However, how your body responds to strength vs. hypertrophy depends on your age, genetics, and other factors.
Why are powerlifters not muscular?
Many powerlifters are terrifyingly muscular; it just doesn’t show like it would on a bodybuilder. This is because powerlifters train for functional strength, not mass.
Is hypertrophy just for looks?
No, hypertrophy helps improve health, burns calories, maintains bone density with age, and can even improve endurance.
Try hypertrophy training if your main goal is to build muscle mass. Otherwise, consider a strength-focused training routine with heavyweights. Remember that other variables like nutrition, genetics, and recovery will impact your results and that you can always change your training approach if your priorities change.