If you’re new to the gym, you might see two people lifting weights side-by-side and think of them as doing the same thing for the same purpose. But one of these people is grimacing their way through a set of dumbbell curls while the other is carefully setting up for their next set of sumo deadlifts.
Are both of them lifting weights? Sure. But are they training for the same outcome? Probably not. Dumbbell curls are great for making your arms bigger, while sumo deadlifts help you express all of your lower body strength at once.
It’s easy to think that hypertrophy vs. strength training is a battle you must choose a side on. To a degree, that’s true — there are some important differences between training for muscle and training for strength. But they also share plenty of similarities and you can, believe it or not, achieve both at the same time. Here’s how.
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
Hypertrophy vs. Strength Training
Before anything else, you need to establish a working definition of both strength and hypertrophy training. “Strength training” has two definitions; a layperson would use it to describe the act of lifting weights alone, while a personal trainer or coach would consider strength training as the act of lifting weights for the specific purpose of increasing muscular strength, usually through the lens of a specific exercise (think the bench press or deadlift).
[Read More: What to Know About Strength Training For Bodybuilders]
On the other hand, hypertrophy is a descriptor for growth. In this case, training with weights to grow larger muscles. It has nothing directly to do with using any specific piece of equipment or moving any predetermined amount of weight. Hypertrophy training, or bodybuilding, is about creating a specific bodily outcome by any means necessary.
The physical act of lifting weights is how people approach gaining more strength or muscle mass. While these two goals are unique from one another, you can actually think of them as distant cousins.
- Your muscles are controlled by your central nervous system, or CNS. When you train for strength, part of what you’re doing is retraining your CNS to activate more muscle fibers at once, and to do so at a faster rate.
- And if your muscles are larger, you can train yourself to activate them quicker and pull harder against resistance.
- Studies have shown that there’s a strong synergistic relationship between a muscle’s cross-sectional area, or size, and the potential power or strength of that muscle. (1)
- To some degree, training for hypertrophy can improve your strength, and vice-versa, even if you use different exercises or work in different rep ranges. (2)
- All that said, both hypertrophy and strength training routines rely on lifting weights regularly and with dedicated, intense effort.
Lifting weights will help you put on muscle and get stronger. But you can’t have the best of both worlds at all times. The more you want to increase your strength or bulk up, the more you’ll have to tailor your exercise routine toward that specific goal at the expense of the other.
- Success with hypertrophy training or bodybuilding is incredibly dependent on your nutritional habits and dietary intake. Nutrition matters a great deal for strength training, but a specific amount of calories isn’t a hard requirement.
- Strength training is usually framed around improving your performance within the context of a small handful of exercises. Powerlifters measure the back squat, bench press, and deadlift, for example, but you can technically train for strength in any discipline or with any movement.
- By contrast, hypertrophy training is more diverse and will involve a larger array of exercises and equipment types than strength training.
- Strength training is more objective and measurable than hypertrophy training, as it measures your ability to lift an exact amount of weight. Conversely, bodybuilding is more subjective, contingent upon visual perception and artistic qualities like flow and proportion.
Benefits of Strength Training
The biggest benefit of strength training is also its most obvious: It makes you stronger. Most people will measure that by testing their one-rep max (1RM) strength in the exercise or exercises of their choosing. But the benefits of training for strength don’t end there.
Stronger Bones and Joints
Resistance exercise doesn’t just stimulate your muscles or mind. Your connective tissues and skeletal system are as resilient and adaptable to stress as your biceps or pecs. In fact, strength training is repeatedly upheld in academia as one of the best ways to improve bone mineral density, joint stability, and general tissue tolerance. (3)(4)
Objective and Measurable
If you’re data-oriented, you probably enjoy strength training. Objectivity is an underrated aspect of exercise fulfillment; strength training provides concrete information about what you’ve achieved and where you’re going.
[Read More: The 3 Most Effective Workout Splits For Strength Training]
This is due to the fact that strength training can be easily quantified and set up as weeks or months-long plans, and even small but consistent “doses” can help you get stronger, (5) provided you create some form of structure to your training.
Professional bodybuilders compete in their own sport, but the criteria for winning or losing is left to the mercy of a panel of judges. If subjectivity isn’t your thing, you might enjoy the objectivity of strength sports a bit more.
[Read More: 10 Benefits of Strength Training for Bodybuilders That You Need to Know Before Your Next Workout]
There are a trio of “major” strength sports — powerlifting, weightlifting, and strongman — but people regularly compete in all sorts of strength contests that don’t involve a barbell. After all, competing to see who can move the heaviest rock has been a thing since, well, the Stone Age.
Benefits of Hypertrophy Training
You’d be wrong to think of hypertrophy training or competitive bodybuilding as just a vainglorious physical pursuit. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look better in your clothes or feel more confident at the beach.
A shapely, muscular physique isn’t a benefit of hypertrophy training as much as it is the desired outcome. That said, if you’re hitting the gym to beef up a little, you’re probably okay with the prospect of moving up a shirt size.
But larger muscles are good for strength as well. What’s more, they also provide more general cushion and support to the more vulnerable parts of your body.
Less Joint Stress
Make no mistake; lifting weights isn’t bad for your joints (quite the opposite). However, there’s a pretty reliable correlation between the intensity of your workouts and how much fatigue you accumulate.
Free-weight based compound exercises — the kind of stuff powerlifters and weightlifters do on the daily — takes its toll, especially since the effort required to gain advanced levels of strength far outpaces what you’d need to put in if you’re just exercising for health.
[Read More: Hypertrophy Training Sets and Reps]
By contrast, hypertrophy training usually entails less wear and tear on your body. This is down to the fact that bodybuilders work with gym machines (which stabilize the load for you) and cables much more regularly than strength athletes.
Barbell exercises are in no way inherently dangerous. But barbells do allow you to lift huge amounts of weight and don’t assist you in supporting that load whatsoever, so the demands on your entire body (not just your muscles) are higher.
A strength training routine may only contain a handful of exercises altogether. If you enjoy having diversity in your gym workouts, you may prefer to train for hypertrophy instead.
[Read More: Cardio Vs. Strength Training — Which Is Better for Your Goals?]
Because hypertrophy is about generating an internal result (making your muscles bigger) and not an objective performance (lifting, say, 500 pounds in the deadlift), you aren’t constrained to any one specific exercise or piece of equipment. As long as you apply sufficient effort, you can grow muscle with dumbbells, machines, cables, or even resistance bands.
Hypertrophy Training Explained
Once you understand the goal of muscle-building workouts, you can begin to grasp the mechanisms of how you’ll actually get yourself there.
What Is Muscle Hypertrophy?
In clinical language, hypertrophy simply means “grow or enlarge.” But when people say they want to train for hypertrophy, they mean they want bigger muscles; biceps, glutes, lats, you name it.
[Read More: What Is Hypertrophy?]
As such, you’re training for a specific biological process to take place. And that growth process is dependent on three factors: (6)
- Mechanical Tension
- Metabolic Stress
- Muscle Damage
The exercises and workouts you do will create certain amounts of each. But most modern scientific research agrees that maximizing mechanical tension is the most important of all (7) — the more sheer tension you can apply to a muscle (by lifting heavier weights, doing more work at one time, or slowing down your movement tempo), and then recover from afterward, the more you’ll grow.
Hypertrophy Training Workouts
All bodybuilding workout plans are set up to create the most hypertrophy through mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage. In simple terms, taking a given muscle right up (and a little beyond) its limit, then recovering bigger and better after the fact.
[Read More: Hypertrophy For Weightlifters — How Bigger Muscles Make Better Lifts]
Most of the time, this is best achieved through splitting your hypertrophy training up into different workouts, each targeting a different region of your body. Some common workout splits for hypertrophy include:
No matter how you organize your hypertrophy training, the goal is the same: Create as much muscle damage and fatigue as possible through maximizing tension. How you achieve that outcome on a workout-to-workout basis is mostly up to you.
Hypertrophy Training Exercises
When it comes to choosing exercises for hypertrophy training, any movement you want to incorporate should meet at least two of the following criteria:
- It is comfortable and safe to perform
- It is loadable or progressible in some way
- It creates a good mind-muscle connection
Take a chest exercise like the standard dip. You may find that doing dips hurts your shoulders, and you struggle to really understand the technique. And if the movement is awkward, you may find it difficult to create more tension by doing more reps or adding extra weight. In such a case, dips might be a bad chest hypertrophy exercise for you.
On the other hand, the cable flye might hit all three marks; cable exercises are often intuitive and easy to learn, while the constant tension of the cable itself helps you establish a good connection with your pecs. And cable stacks have a straightforward loading mechanism to boot.
As such, the cable flye would be a superior hypertrophy training exercise to the dip — for you, but not necessarily for everyone. There’s a lot of trial-and-error that goes into hypertrophy training. To find out the right exercises for you, you need to know what they are in the first place:
- Best Chest Exercises
- Best Back Exercises
- Best Shoulder Exercises
- Best Leg Exercises
- Best Arm Exercises
- Best Ab Exercises
Strength Training Explained
Strength training is about training movements, not muscles. There are many types of strength training out there, but no matter how you’re working toward expressing your strength, you play by the same rules.
- Structured and planned progression is the modality that governs all strength training.
- This sort of planning is called periodization, and is the bedrock behind all successful strength programs. (8)
- Periodized programs help you stay on track and emphasize building strength rather than testing strength.
- If you follow a periodized plan for powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or any other sport, you’re working toward producing a specific result at a specific moment.
- If you compete in strength, this process is called “peaking.” If a strength athlete has no events or meets on the horizon, they’re said to be in their “off season.”
- During the off season, strength trainees dedicate time to other athletic qualities like fixing muscle imbalances or addressing weak points in their overall performance.
Strength Training Workouts
Pre-planned strength training workout routines typically last between 4 and 12 weeks. The duration and difficulty of these workouts scale with your capabilities — if you’re a beginner, your periodization may be extremely straightforward, wherein you add 5 to 10 pounds to a few exercises on a weekly basis, called linear progression.
As you mature as an athlete, your rate of workout progression begins to slow, and you won’t be able to lift a new heaviest weight every time you hit the gym. This is where undulating, wave, or block-periodized programs come into play. Here are a few examples of programs catered to beginner and intermediate strength trainees:
- 5×5 workout
- 5-3-1 program
- Candito 6-Week Powerlifting Program
- The Cube Method Program
- Smolov Jr. Program
[Related: The Best Bench Press Programs to Build Strength]
Full-time hobbyists or professional strength athletes typically work one-on-one with a coach who designs programs tailored to their specific needs. Pre-written templates are great, but do not account for athlete-specific issues or unique goals.
Strength Training Sets and Reps
Strength is typically expressed through 1RM maximum tests; how much weight you can successfully lift in a specific exercise. But strength trainees work with all sorts of rep ranges. Here’s a general overview of how you might organize your sets and reps for strength:
- Most of the time, you’ll use low to moderate reps with moderate to high weight on your primary strength exercises. Think: 3 to 8 sets of 3 to 5 reps of back squats as a powerlifter, or many sets of 1 to 3 reps of the snatch exercise for weightlifters.
- Strength athletes rely on accessory exercises to build muscle and prevent injury. These moves use different equipment and are typically performed with lighter weights and higher reps; think 15-20 repetitions of the face pull.
- If you have a specific deadline for peaking your strength, you’ll want to gradually reduce your overall training volume and increase your intensity until your workouts closely replicate the demands of testing a one-rep max.
Strength Training Exercises
You can build strength in just about any movement as long as you can load it with more weight and can comfortably replicate your technique over time. The strength sports are constructed around this idea:
Powerlifting tests three events, each using a barbell. The back squat tests lower body pushing power, the deadlift tests full-body pulling strength, and the bench press determines your upper body strength.
Weightlifters compete exclusively in the snatch and clean & jerk, two barbell exercises that require the athlete to launch the weight overhead as explosively as possible.
- Deadlift Variations
- Log Lift Variations
- Loading/Carry/Drag/Yoke Medley Variations
- Atlas Stone Lift
- Heavy Pull Variations
Strongman events are more diverse than weightlifting or powerlifting. Competitors work with all sorts of different equipment and are tested on both their maximal strength and work capacity.
Hypertrophy vs. strength training are distinct, but they aren’t entirely different. You can certainly train for both — the entire paradigm of “powerbuilding” is constructed around this idea — but if you want to excel, you’ll have to specialize.
- Hypertrophy training is about using different forms of resistance to create muscle growth. The specific exercises you do are a means to an end, not an end unto themselves.
- Strength training involves building and expressing strength in the context of certain movements. This is typically showcased as a one-repetition max.
- Both types of training work almost exclusively with weighted resistance; barbells, dumbbells, gym machines, cables, kettlebells, or exercise bands.
- The goals of strength training are objective. Your task is to lift a specific amount of weight at a certain time, which you can easily measure or contextualize.
- By contrast, hypertrophy training (a.k.a., bodybuilding) is more subjective. You can assess progress by weighing yourself on a scale or measuring the size of your muscles, but there are other factors in play such as aesthetics, proportion, and flow.
If you’re still wondering whether hypertrophy or strength training is better for your fitness goals, check out these commonly asked questions:
“Better” is contextual. If you want to feel stronger or produce more muscular power, you should opt for strength training. On the other hand, if you’re entirely unconcerned with how much weight you can lift and prefer to exercise to create a certain visual look, you should probably spend most of your time on hypertrophy training.
To a degree, yes. Lifting weights produces multiple effects at once. Doing three reps or thirteen will both build muscle, as long as the total amount of volume you do is equated. (9)
The reason that “low reps and heavy weights” is considered primarily for strength while “medium weights and high reps” applies to bodybuilding is that it’s easier and more sustainable to carry out moderate-weight workouts over a long period of time. If you could perform dozens of sets of your 3-rep-max every week, you’d build muscle just fine.
No specific form of exercise burns body fat. Exercise and physical activity burn calories. If you’re able to sustain a calorie deficit over time by burning more calories than you ingest from food, you’ll lose body fat.
That said, the calories burned through hypertrophy and strength training aren’t the same. Hypertrophy or bodybuilding workouts typically entail higher reps and shorter rest times, which convert to more calories burned overall.
Regardless, fat loss primarily depends on the choices you make in the kitchen, not how you exercise in the weight room.
- Akagi, R., Kanehisa, H., Kawakami, Y., & Fukunaga, T. (2008). Establishing a new index of muscle cross-sectional area and its relationship with isometric muscle strength. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 22(1), 82–87.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Grgic, J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 31(12), 3508–3523.
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- Schoenfeld, B. J., Ratamess, N. A., Peterson, M. D., Contreras, B., Sonmez, G. T., & Alvar, B. A. (2014). Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 28(10), 2909–2918.