You might see two people at the gym, both lifting weights. But what seems like two similar workout routines may actually have very subtle but clearly different goals.
Hypertrophy training and strength training are often lumped into one. Yet in order to get the ideal results from your training, it’s important to know the difference. That way, you can craft your workouts in a way that aligns with your goals.
Read on to learn all you need to know about hypertrophy vs strength training, and which you should be focused on.
Hypertrophy vs. Strength: What's the Difference?
Hypertrophy is when you train to increase muscle size. While strength training is done to increase the maximum power or force output the muscles are capable of.
The two are fairly closely related, and hypertrophy training will generally increase strength somewhat as well, and vice versa. However, optimal results only come if your training is dedicated towards one of these specific goals.
We’ll break down hypertrophy and strength training in more detail ahead.
What is Hypertrophy?
Hypertrophy refers to the process by which muscles increase in size.
More specifically, it means an increase in cell size. Hypertrophy is not exclusive to muscles - the term can be used when the cells in any organ or piece of tissue grow. But generally, when we say hypertrophy, we’re talking about muscle cells.
There are actually two different types of hypertrophy: myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
Myofibrillar hypertrophy is when the contraction parts of the muscles grow. As a result, increased myofibrillar hypertrophy leads to an increase in the force with which your muscles can contract, and therefore greater strength and speed.
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, on the other hand, is the increase in glycogen storage in the muscles. This provides a boost in energy storage and endurance the muscles are capable of, more so than strength and power. Yet both myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy also satisfy what many peoples’ workout goals are - bigger muscles.
How Do Muscles Get Bigger?
To truly understand hypertrophy, we need to understand how muscles get bigger.
There’s a lot of science involved here, but to simplify it, we can say that muscle growth happens when the muscle fibers sustain lots of tiny tears, and get rebuilt to be bigger and stronger.
You essentially do structural damage to the muscles. The body responds by repairing this damage, filling it in with proteins and amino acids that make the muscles bigger than they were before.
Training and Nutrition to Support Recovery
We could get well into the science of how mechanical damage and metabolic fatigue happen, stimulating a repair response and leading to increased muscle size (i.e. hypertrophy). But it’s more helpful to explain the process in practical terms. I.e, what do I have to do to increase muscle size?
It starts with training. You want to put resistance on the muscles (such as a heavy weight), then get your muscles to generate enough force to overcome that resistance (i.e. lifting the weight).
This process - force vs resistance - is when the structural damage to the muscles happens, which is the first step of hypertrophy.
The next step is recovery, which is just as important as the training aspect. You need to support the body’s repair response, by providing what it needs to adequately rebuild these torn muscle fibers.
That comes from nutrition. Imagine you’re rebuilding a crumbling brick wall - you need concrete or mortar to fill in the gaps. This comes from your diet, primarily getting enough protein. This protein is what the body uses to rebuild muscle fibers and complete the hypertrophy process.
How to Design Workouts Specifically for Hypertrophy
Many different approaches to training can stimulate hypertrophy. Remember, you just need to put the muscles under resistance, generate force against that resistance, and cause enough structural stress in the muscles to kick off the repair process.
However, if you really want to optimize for hypertrophy, the best results are likely to come from lifting around 75% of your one-rep max (1RM). Using this number, you should aim to do 3-5 sets of 6-12 repetitions for each exercise.
This is the sweet spot for increasing hypertrophy from your workouts.
In between sets, you should aim for a shorter rest period - around 60-90 seconds - to keep your muscles in a state of fatigue.
Also, try to work on each muscle group twice a week. As long as you’re giving yourself enough time to recover, studies have shown more regular training has a superior effect on hypertrophy.
Benefits of Hypertrophy Workouts
Here are some of the key benefits of focusing on hypertrophy in your workouts:
- Increased muscle growth.
- Better physique - lean muscle and more symmetrical, all-round muscle gain.
- Energy expenditure - hypertrophy workouts use more reps than strength-focused workouts, meaning you burn more calories.
- Less risk of injury, compared to lifting heavier weights closer to your 1RM.
How Are Strength-Based Workouts Different?
So how about strength training? How is this different from training for hypertrophy?
The difference isn’t huge. To the untrained eye, strength and hypertrophy workouts may look the same. But strength workouts are focused more on increasing the amount of force your muscles can generate, rather than stimulating the muscle damage and repair process.
Strength workouts do involve some of the same things going on with hypertrophy. You’re going to build bigger, denser muscles capable of lifting more.
But a large part of strength training is focused on the central nervous system. Strength workouts train the nervous system to be able to take heavier loads, and to produce the energy needed to lift these heavy weights.
So while this may lead to some similarities in terms of workouts and results, the underlying goal is a lot different for strength training.
How to Perform Strength Workouts
With strength workouts, you want to focus on lifting heavier weights. You’re also going to do fewer reps and sets, with longer rest in between.
That’s because you’re not focused on keeping the muscles in a state of fatigue. Instead, you want to maximize the overall weight you’re able to lift.
If you’re starting out, don’t go too heavy too fast, or you risk injury and getting into bad habits with your form. After you’ve been training for a while, though, you’ll want to aim for around 85% of your 1RM.
Perform each workout for 6-8 reps and 1-3 sets, with 2-5 minutes in between sets.
Additionally, focus on compound lifts that utilize multiple muscle groups (i.e deadlifts), as opposed to isolating single muscle groups (i.e. bicep curls).
Benefits of Strength Workouts
Here are some of the top benefits you get specifically from strength training:
- Greater functional strength, which translates to sports and other physical activities.
- You can train less often and still see results.
- Lifting heavier weights is better for bone density.
- Heavy resistance training has been shown to boost mental health and overall quality of life, particularly among older adults.
- Strength training also leads to an increase in muscle size (though not as much as focused hypertrophy training).
Hypertrophy vs Strength: The Overlap
As we’ve mentioned already, there’s not a huge difference in hypertrophy vs strength training. It’s not like we’re comparing squats vs jogging on the treadmill.
Both are types of resistance training. You’re putting resistance on your muscles, which could be from heavy weights, resistance bands and/or gravity, and then generating force to overcome that resistance.
Because of the similarities, you’re going to get strength increases from hypertrophy training, as well as bigger muscles from strength training.
Hypertrophy vs Strength: What's Better to Focus on?
There’s no “best” way to train. It depends on your personal goals.
When you’re first starting out, there’s no need to significantly differentiate between strength and hypertrophy. It’s a better idea for beginners to focus on developing proper lifting techniques, and lift fairly light until you’re comfortable with your form.
Following that, hypertrophy training is better if the physique is your goal. It’s a better way to build lean muscle and overall size.
If you want to train for athletic reasons, such as improving your performance in a sport, or to get more physically fit in everyday life, strength training is ideal.
Strength training is also great for overall quality of life, and for keeping you healthier as you age. But you’ll still get a ton of benefits in strength and vitality from hypertrophy-focused training.
Whatever you do, the key is to be active and train. Anything is better than nothing - so get out there and lift!