Strength vs Hypertrophy Training: Which One Should You Do?

by Evelyn Valdez

Lifting weights is known to help enhance endurance, muscular size, and strength, but overall it can help improve your general health! People have their own reasons to lift weights, but the most common reason is to build muscle strength. And the most popular type of training that helps with that is known as strength training! Almost every gym-goer (yes, even you) already knows at least the basics of strength training, but in case you need a refresher... It involves using your own body weight or free weights, like dumbbells, barbells, to build muscle mass and strength. But aside from that, it has several benefits like it helps improve bone and joint health, can lower the risk of health-related diseases, and can even help develop better balance and coordination. The thing about strength training is that there are different styles of it that help specify your training to exactly what it needs to be to help you attain certain training goals. Basically, if you want to specifically increase muscle size as opposed to just building strength you can focus on a different style of training known as hypertrophy training.

Wait a minute, doesn't strength training already help increase muscle size and strength at the same time? Well, it does, but strength training routine places a greater focus on strength, meaning the exercises and technique used will be focused on building better strength, opposed to bigger muscles. Muscle building still occurs, but certain techniques like the ones used in hypertrophy training places a greater focus on that to achieve better results. These two are very similar, but they have distinctions that might interest you in integrating hypertrophy in your current workout routine. With that being said, we're here to give you the all the details on what hypertrophy training is, the differences and similarities it shares with strength training, and how to integrate hypertrophy in your current strength training program!

What is hypertrophy training?

Muscle hypertrophy is a term to describe the growth and increase of the size of muscle cells, it can be thought of as a thickening of muscle fibers. So the idea of hypertrophy training is to train in a manner that promotes muscle growth or hypertrophy. To make that happen, two things have to occur - stimulation and repair. You do that by causing the body physical stress, like weight lifting, in just the right amount that it signals the body to create larger, stronger muscles that can tolerate heavier loads. We won't bore you with the scientific details, but basically, you want to train in a way to stimulate muscle hypertrophy, which generally means placing that load on a specific muscle in order for it to be stimulated to grow.

What does hypertrophy training look like?

Just like strength training, it requires lifting weights but increasing the training volume (number of sets and reps) while keeping the intensity at a moderate level, and with a 1 to 3 minute rest period between sets. Training with lighter weights and more reps (along with other techniques) will help stimulate muscle hypertrophy.

Hypertrophy Training vs Strength Training

Now that we understand how to achieve muscle hypertrophy, let's take a look at strength training to achieve better strength. To achieve maximal strength (the ability to lift a really heavy weight for one rep max) you'll need to train differently as to someone trying to bulk up using hypertrophy techniques. It involves reducing the volume while increasing the intensity, so low rep and heavy weights, and longer rest periods in between sets, typically around 3-5 minutes. The rep ranges are the biggest difference and to happen naturally with hypertrophy and strength training because of the workout techniques used to achieve greater strength and muscle. So let's take a closer look at the technique differences and similarities to further understand these two training styles...

Differences

Hypertrophy training involves a high reps and lighter weight training style, opposed to strength training that focuses on lower reps and heavier weight. Aside from that, here's a closer look at their differences:

  • Targeted growth opposed to overall strength: Hypertrophy training involves compound movements, but it also involves isolation exercises, more so than a strength training program does. That's because isolation movements are highly effective at targeting muscle growth since they isolate one muscle group at a time. This means a hypertrophy training program allows you to accentuate certain muscles and shape more accurately than strength training does. Strength training's focus is on strength which is why the focus is mainly on compound movements.
  • Appearance/pump: With a higher training volume, hypertrophy training results in a greater pump and 'bubbliness' of your muscles. Although the pump doesn't last forever, the overall 'bubbly' look will stick around once you're big enough. Strength training results in a more hardness appearance of the muscles. They have a much denser appearance because the muscles recruit strong contrile forces.
  • Mind Connection: Since hypertrophy focuses on isolation desired muscle groups, there is a greater need for mind muscle connection. That just means to apply intense focus to maximize mechanical tension (aka fire up the muscles and tightly contract) in the given muscle to produce greater growth. Strength training is about applying as much force and power in order to lift the heavy weights, so instead of focusing on one muscle group, you focus on summoning your entire body.
  • Focus: There are two ways to place your focus on an exercise - concentric and eccentric. Strength training is about maximal force production which makes the focus on the concentric part of the rep, meaning the raising part. The lowering portion of the exercise is faster than the raising part so you don't fatigue too soon. Hypertrophy requires the focus to be on the eccentric, or lowering, part of the rep. Slowing down on the lowering part of the movement causes more muscle damage followed by protein synthesis thus experiencing better muscle growth.
  • Exercise Selection: Strength training requires a consistent approach when selecting exercises, meaning doing key compound lifts regularly with a few isolated moves to increase muscular strength continually. On the other hand, hypertrophy requires more variety of exercises more frequently to cause muscle confusion which will ensure steady growth.

As you can see, there are a few important distinctions between the two. Hypertrophy style of training places a focus more on isolating muscle groups by performing a variety of compound and isolation exercises and placing an eccentric focus when exercising. Opposed to focusing more on overall strength, consistently performing key compound movements, and placing a concentric focus when exercising.

Similarities

We can't look at the differences without looking at the similarities! Here's how these training styles are similar...

  • Compound exercises: Hypertrophy focuses more on isolating muscles and exercises that do so, but compound lifts (like deadlifts, bench press, pull-ups) work best for hypertrophy and strength. So, any good hypertrophy and strength training routine requires the same key compound exercises. 
  • Training splits: Having a training split is ideal for both training styles because it allows you to have enough rest in between your upper and lower body workouts. Splitting your upper body workouts even further using a push/pull training split will be even better because you can workout 5x a week with enough rest in between each muscle group being worked. Whatever the case is, a training split is ideal, no matter which way you decide to implement it.
  • Strength and size matter: That's true for both training styles! Although hypertrophy places more of a focus on growth instead of strength, you can't have one without the other. So, whether you train for strength or hypertrophy you're guaranteed to increase in size and power!
  • Progressive overload: Both training styles utilize this fitness principle. It involves graduating increasing the weight or reps overtime to enhance muscular fitness.
  • Dedication: Muscle building and increasing overall strength takes years of hard work and dedication, so both training styles require the same consistency and dedication.
  • Nutrition: Whatever your goals are and whatever training style you practice, there's one thing that always has to be on point... Your nutrition! Following a healthy balanced diet filled with high quality protein, leafy greens, fruit, good fats, and complex carbs is needed for anyone training! Everyone's macro needs will be different, but nonetheless, the diets will be similar because these foods carry the nutrients your body needs to ensure that the damaged muscle tissue recovers and grows, and that you have enough energy to power through your workouts.

Which one should you do?

Well, you have to ask yourself  "what are my training goals?". Although some do have one particular goal, either build muscle or strength, some are more lenient and just want to build both! There really is no right form a training, one is not more superior in isolation than the other. If you want to build better overall strength and muscle then incorporate both styles of training into your routine to get the best possible results. 

Below we'll give you three ways to add hypertrophy training into your current strength routine:

  • Unilateral exercises: Exercises like lunges, split squats, single arm presses, etc., are a great way to increase muscle activation, hypertrophy, and also address any muscle imbalances. They challenge you to perform the exercise utilizing only one side of the body which puts an emphasis on coordination, proper technique, and joint mechanics. So, if these aren't a part of your routine consider adding some towards the end of your workout.
  • Isolation exercises: Single-joint movements like hamstring curls, triceps extensions, and chest flyes are examples of isolation exercises. They help you address specific weak points by targeting and isolating the muscle in order to grow it. Since you're isolating the muscle you naturally won't be able to lift as heavy, so the rep ranges fall between 8-15 reps.
  • Compound lifts: Compound movements are great for strength and muscle hypertrophy. You should continue doing them as usual, but if you're going to place your main focus on hypertrophy then keep them light and remember to focus on mind muscle connection, and the eccentric part of the exercise. Just be aware that certain movements, like deadlifts, can create higher amounts of systemic and nervous system fatigue which is not ideal for hypertrophy due to the overall stress it promotes. In this case, we suggest doing deadlifts for strength, and finishing off later with a less stressful exercise like barbell good mornings to target the hamstrings. So you can either do lighter weight, higher rep or continue doing compound moves for strength, but finishing off with other isolated or single-joint movements to target specific muscles.

Obviously, if you do have a specific training goal like hitting a one rep max on deadlifts then you should focus more on strength training techniques opposed to hypertrophy and vice versa. But if not, or you've already reached your strength goal, or you've hit a plateau that you just can't break, then switch things up and implement hypertrophy techniques using the above three suggestions. If you plan to integrate both training styles, remember to always do your strength lifts first (usually compound lifts), 2-3 exercises, then do assistance hypertrophy work like isolation exercises, unilateral exercises, or machine equipment at the gym, towards the end of your workout!

Bottomline is, choose the training style that fits your goals best! You can either dedicate a training phase to more hypertrophy-focused training for 6-12 weeks (still includes strength movements, just not as much), and then transition to a more strength-focused period. Or integrate both as we mentioned earlier, but if you do so, be aware that your hypertrophy training should support your strength goals, not impede it. So, if you're noticing more muscle soreness, joint pain, or any decline in recovery then take a step back and allow your body to recover by deloading (a short planned period of recovery).

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