There are some key differences between training for hypertrophy vs strength.
Hypertrophy refers to increasing the size of the muscle, which is done by increasing the overall volume of your workout (sets x reps). Strength training refers to increasing the ability of a muscle to produce force, which is done through lifting heavier weights (above 85% of 1 rep max).
In short, hypertrophy is how big a muscle is, while strength is how strong a muscle is.
Understanding the differences between hypertrophy and strength training is important to understand since it’s going to impact the types of workouts and protocols you do in the gym. And is particularly important if you are a runner or multi-sport athlete trying to blend Strength and Conditioning into your programme.
What Is Hypertrophy?
Hypertrophy is the physiological process of increasing the size of muscle fibers, typically in diameter, through resistance training.
There are two main types of muscle hypertrophy: sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and myofibril hypertrophy.
- Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is what most people mean when they refer to hypertrophy training. It is the physical increase of the muscle.
- Myofibril hypertrophy is when a muscle becomes more dense and compact.
These types of hypertrophy usually happen together, and so for practical purposes the distinction doesn’t really matter. But if you continue to read more about this topic, you’ll probably run into these terms, which is why it’s worth mentioning.
Benefits of Hypertrophy Training
Below are four benefits of hypertrophy training.
Note that many of these benefits can also be seen with strength training as well, especially in beginner lifters.
Builds More Muscle
While both hypertrophy and strength training build muscle, the general consensus is that hypertrophy based training allows for greater increases in muscle size and growth than heavier, strength based training.
Hypertrophy training allows lifters to train in higher volumes, for longer periods of time, which has been shown to be one of the most significant and effective variables for muscle growth.
Less Risk of Injury
Weight training entails lifting weights, and some injury risks are part of the process.
That said, hypertrophy training often has less risk of injury due to lighter loads and less injury risk when training closure to failure.
Increased Energy Expenditure
Energy expenditure can be increased by increasing your output. In other words, the more work you do (training volume), the more calories you burn.
Hypertrophy training is known to have higher levels of sets, reps, and overall volume, and therefore may be a great option for lifters who are looking to increase muscle while also burning a ton of calories.
This isn’t to say the heavier strength based programs don’t burn calories, because they certainly do. What it means however is that lifting with lighter to moderate loads, with more reps, will equate to more work being done (training volume), and that can increase calorie expenditure.
Improves Muscular Symmetry
Hypertrophy training allows you to back off on focusing on moving a load from point A to point B, and really learn how to engage muscles, attack lagging muscle groups, and correct movement asymmetries.
When training with heavier loads, it may be difficult to think about how the muscle feels or how to slow the moment down, as the load itself is one rep away from cruising you.
Hypertrophy training gives you the opportunity to build some more muscle awareness and improve muscle growth and symmetry, so that when it comes time to lift heavier loads you are in a more prepared and more injury-proofed state.
Drawbacks of Hypertrophy Training
Below are two potential drawbacks of hypertrophy training.
Note that these limitations are less significant with beginners, as they often can increase their strength at the same time they build muscle, and are often able to handle more volume simply because their absolute loading is often less than a more advanced lifter.
May Not Increase Strength as Effectively as Strength Specific Training
Research shows that the increases in muscle size (often due to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy) does not alway lead to increases in functional strength of force output.
This is especially the case with more advanced lifters, and is why most lifters will train hypertrophy the farthest away from a strength competition to allow them to train hypertrophy properly, then shift back into a more strength focused program.
By doing a program that progresses from hypertrophy to strength, the lifter is able to reap the benefits of both training programs.
Could Result in Overuse Injuries without Adequate Recovery
Training hypertrophy means you are often training in higher volumes, which may result in you training more than your recovery allows.
While this is often remedied by more sleep, more food, and a better training program that can track your progress and adjust as needed based on your progress, it is still something to be aware of.
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What Is Strength?
Strength can be defined as the ability to generate maximal force through a muscle contraction.
Strength is often demonstrated through heavy lifting and maxing out.
The ability to generate maximum levels of force is dependent on a few key factors, such as: the central nervous system, rate of force production, and neural fatigue.
Central Nervous System
The central nervous system is the control center for all movement and hard training. It’s made up of your brain and spinal cord.
When you train heavy, you train the nervous system to withstand heavier loads without inhibiting your ability to train hard.
The more your nervous system is prepared for heavy loads, the less likely you are to pick something up and feel instantly tired or drained.
This is one of the main benefits of strength training and one of the more specific outcomes of heavy training.
Rate of Force Production
Faster rates of force production equate to more force being produced at once, which can help you move heavier loads more efficiently, be more explosive, and break through sticking points.
You can develop this by lifting heavier loads, as well as lifting loads with more velocity (speed).
This occurs when the central nervous system does not have enough recovery time due to lifting too heavy, doing too many sets and reps, or training too much in general.
When neural fatigue occurs, you will often feel overly sluggish, have decreased performance and motivation, and will need to take often some time off, often weeks, from heavier training.
Benefits of Strength Training
While hypertrophy programs can offer some beginners these benefits, more advanced lifters or lifters who have not done a proper strength training program will find that a more strength specific training program offers them these benefits.
Increases Neural Drive and Peak Strength
Strength specific training increases the central nervous system’s ability to send impulses to the muscle fibers to contract.
These impulses can improve the rate at which the muscle fiber contracts (rate of force production) as well as how many of them contract at once (firing synchronization).
Both of these factors will allow you to move heavier loads more efficiently.
Can Maintain or Build Strength While Training Less
Heavier strength training can help you maintain strength when cutting, mainly due to the central nervous system being stimulated under heavier loads.
When people eat less, they often think they need to stop lifting heavy, but rather, they should keep some heavier lifting in as they can not lose as much strength during a weight loss phase.
This is very important for strength based athletes who are losing weight for competition.
Drawbacks of Strength Training
Below are two potential (and likely) drawbacks of strength training, especially when done in excessive volumes, poor recovery, improper form, or lack of a deloading.
Can Lead to Neural Fatigue More Easily Than Hypertrophy
Fatigue can happen during any period where you are training harder than you can recover from, however, neural fatigue often occurs during high volume, higher intensity (loading) strength programs.
While there are no clear guidelines on what constitutes something being too high in volume or intensity, as individual recovery rates can vary, it is often seen when lifters train too heavy for too long or for too many reps.
For example, doing 6-8 sets of 5 reps with 85% or more loads on things like back squats and deadlifts, and going to all out failure every set, multiple times a week, for weeks on end.
Since the nervous system becomes much more involved when heavier loads are lifted, it can also be fatigued more easily at higher intensities and higher volumes.
If you do overly tax your nervous system, the recovery process is much longer than taking a few days off of training, often several weeks until you feel fully recovered. Neural fatigue is often a more serious issue with more advanced lifters or lifters who also have high stressors outside the gym.
May Increase Risk of Injury and/or Overuse Injury
Lifting in high volumes and training hard, no matter the training program (hypertrophy vs strength) can result in some injuries if proper form and recovery is not prioritized.
Strength training, however, can increase injury risks and overuse injuries, especially with poor recovery, high stress, and high volume strength programs, as the loading is higher than that used in hydropathy programs.
7 Differences Between Hypertrophy & Strength
The 7 differences between hypertrophy and strength are:
- Training Volume Is Higher in Hypertrophy Than Strength Training
- Total Sets Performed is Not Significantly Different in Hypertrophy vs Strength Programs
- Reps Ranges are Higher In Hypertrophy Programs Than Strength Programs
- Loads Should Be Lighter When Training for Hypertrophy
- You Can Train Closer to Fatigue More When Training for Hypertrophy
- Compound Exercises Are Best for Strength Development
- Rest Periods Can Be As Long As Needed for Both Hypertrophy and Strength
Training Volume Is Higher in Hypertrophy Than Strength Training
One of the main differences between hypertrophy training and strength training is the total amount of work volume accumulated within a session and program.
Training volume can be calculated by multiplying sets x reps x load, and generally speaking hypertrophy training is higher in training volume due to the ability to perform more sets and reps with less loads than heavier, strength training.
This is not to say that you cannot train in higher frequencies with heavier loads, however, fatigue (neural) and overuse injury (strains, tendonitis, connective tissues) becomes much more of a factor when trying to do heavier loads in higher volumes.
Total Sets Performed is Not Significantly Different in Hypertrophy vs Strength Programs
Both hypertrophy and strength programs will have a lifter perform 2-5 sets of a given movement, however in some cases 5-10 sets may be programmed during strength training programs because of the reduced number of reps.
The total number of sets performed can vary greatly based on the program, and is often not a key differentiator between hypertrophy vs strength training, as reps and loading are often manipulated to a great extent.
Reps Ranges are Higher In Hypertrophy Programs Than Strength Programs
Hypertrophy rep ranges can vary greatly when compared to strength training rep ranges.
Hypertrophy can occur in a wide variety of rep ranges, as the key driver for muscle growth is often training the muscle to fatigue and getting the muscle burn, which can be done training in the 5-10, 10-20, and even 20-30 rep range; as long as the muscle is taken to failure.
If the muscle is not taken to failure after 25-30 reps, the loading is too light to bring about significant improvements in muscle hypertrophy.
Similarly, if the lifter fatigues prior to 5 reps, muscle damage is done, but not enough overall training volume can be accomplished often due to the lifter getting generally tired before the muscle itself has been fatigued.
This is why most programs recommend you to train in the 8-15 reps range to failure or very close to failure for best results if your goal is hypertrophy.
If you are looking to increase strength, your rep ranges will often be between 1-5 reps per set, as the loading is above 80% of your maximum (for example 5 X 5 workout @ 80% load).
If you are training more reps than that, you are certainly increasing muscle, however you may not actually be using heavy enough loads to increase your strength maximally.
Loads Should Be Lighter When Training for Hypertrophy
Training intensity refers to the load, more specialty how heavy it is relative to the lifter’s maximum.
Muscle hypertrophy occurs using loads between 30-80% of one’s one-rep max, whereas strength training typically occurs above the 80% of their one-rep max.
This is a key difference between the two, as you can have significant increases in muscle growth and size with lighter loads (30-80% of max), however you need to lift above 80% to bring about the neural adaptations that take place to increase strength output.
You Can Train Closer to Fatigue More When Training for Hypertrophy
When hypertrophy is the goal, you can often train close to failure as the loads are lighter and the failure is muscle failure rather than the body as a whole giving out.
When looking to increase muscle size and growth, local muscle failure (such as what you feel in your quads when you do a ton of seated leg extensions) is the name of the game.
Strength training is often more effective when you do not train to complete failure, as you run the risk of overtraining and injury as loading is much higher relative to your maximum.
Compound Exercises Are Best for Strength Development
During hypertrophy training programs, the goal is to train the muscle to fatigue, which can be done using a variety of loads, rep ranges, and movements.
When training to failure it is often helpful to use machines and isolated movement as you can truly push the muscle to fatigue and not be limited by other muscles giving out or form breakdowns.
However, if you are looking to increase max strength, you need to train movements that allow you to train with heavier loads.
Compound exercises are great for this, and the limiting factor for these will often be how heavy the load is rather than how much balance or coordination you need, or exercises that may not allow you to load up as much weight.
For example, doing back squats with a barbell is much easier to load up 315lbs than it is to do kettlebell goblet squats with 315lbs.
Research suggests that if you are training for maximal strength, you should prioritize movements that have you as stable as possible that are done with movements that allow you to load up with heavier loads, whereas things like bodyweight training, kettlebells, and isolation exercises may be best for hypertrophy or endurance programs.
Rest Periods Can Be As Long As Needed for Both Hypertrophy and Strength
Hypertrophy programs may have shorter rest periods than strength programs because the loading is less.
However research suggests that longer rest periods for hypertrophy programs may actually be more effective at allowing individuals to push to fatigue and increase muscle size, as shorter rest periods may not allow them to push as hard. They will feel tired, but the muscle may not be trained as hard directly.
Generally speaking, rest periods should take as long as it is needed for the lifter to push as hard as they need to on the work set (with the one exception listed above). If they cannot perform as well as prior sets, this is often due to not resting enough between sets (you will have some fatigue that sets in, however this drop off should not be drastic).
Who Should Do Hypertrophy?
Hypertrophy training goes hand in hand with strength training, and is a necessary prerequisite for optimal strength development and injury prevention.
Generally speaking, lifters who are concerned with gaining size and muscle mass, and who are less concerned with maximal strength developed during their current training block can focus more on hypertrophy training.
They will still build foundational strength, and will be in a good position to transition to a more strength focused training program following a few months of hypertrophy training.
Strength athletes can benefit from performing a hypertrophy training program as a period where they can build more muscle, decrease stress and loading on the body, and help their body recover from prior high intensity training programs.
This temporary shift in training focus could also lend itself to long term progress in strength development as well.
Who Should Do Strength?
As stated above, strength and hypertrophy go hand in hand and are critical phases of training for all lifters.
For lifters who are concerned with peak strength, whether for athletic reasons or competitions, then they need to train with heavier loads to have the nervous system adapt to heavier loads.
Strength-based lifters should however take a temporary break from lifting heavy loads every few months and enter a more hypertrophy focused training program to allow for more muscle tissue to be built and recovery of the nervous system and connective tissues to recover.
For lifters who generally do not lift heavy, entering a strength train program is a great way to add muscle and elevate your strength so that when you return to a more hypertrophy based training you will be able to continually progress, as at some point you will need to lift heavier to gain more muscle.
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