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Muscle Hypertrophy vs. Strength: What’s the Difference?

Hypertrophy vs Strength: Woman training using weights on sofa

When you begin any workout program, one of the first questions to ask yourself is, "What are my goals?"

Do you want to get stronger, or faster? Do you want to shed body fat or lose weight? Do you want to improve your mood, or have more energy? 

Two of the most common fitness goals are to increase muscle hypertrophy and increase muscle strength. But what are the differences between hypertrophy vs. strength, and how do they play into well-rounded fitness programs? 

Below, we dive into the basics of hypertrophy vs. strength. We explain the differences of each, and how aiming for either hypertrophy or strength will impact your training.

Muscle Hypertrophy vs. Strength: What's the Difference?

Hypertrophy vs Strength: Woman exercising using mat on the floor

In simplest terms, muscle hypertrophy seeks to increase muscle size, while muscle strength increases your ability to lift heavier weights.

The Basics of Muscle Hypertrophy 

Muscle hypertrophy is the growth of muscle cells. In order for your muscles to grow, there must be the presence of tension, muscle damage, and stress — all three of which are present in a strength training workout:

  • Tension: Also referred to as time under tension, or doing a specific number of reps before resting.
  • Muscle damage: Where tiny muscle fibers tear themselves apart during exercise. 
  • Stress: Usually comes in the form of a resistance, such as a resistance band, dumbbells, kettlebells, or even your own body weight

After a workout, your muscles repair themselves from damage, thereby growing bigger and stronger. This increase in skeletal muscle mass is known as muscle hypertrophy

The Basics of Muscle Strength 

Just as the phrase entails, an increase of muscle strength is an increase of — wait for it — strength gains.

Typically, people measure strength by their one rep max (1RM) of a given lift. For example, when you first began weight training, perhaps the most you could do was 60 kilos (about 135 pounds) on a back squat — for one rep, only. 

Over time, you noticed you could do 5-6 reps at 60 kilos before having to rack the barbell. Therefore, you looked to test your one rep max for squats again, this time noticing you could lift 75 kilos (165 pounds). This increase in weight was due to an increase in muscle strength, particularly in your quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.

Hypertrophy vs. Strength: How it Impacts Your Training 

A training program designed to build hypertrophy will look different than one designed to build muscle strength. Below, I dive into how to tweak your sets, reps, and rest periods in order to achieve muscle growth or muscle strength

Please note: Unless you're an athlete competing for a specific event — such as a bodybuilding or powerlifting competition — you will benefit from using both methods in your training program. Continuously surprising your body (through changes in resistance, rep ranges, and rest periods) is the best way to show visible results, reduce your risk of injury, and become a well-rounded athlete. 

Muscle Hypertrophy Training 

Refer back to what you learned earlier: To build muscle tissue, you need stress, tension, and muscle damage. The best way to achieve all three is to constantly increase your training volume. This is also referred to as “progressive overload” which is one of the key principles to achieve better health and fitness.

An exercise is typically divided into sets, reps, and weight (or load). By increasing any of those, you can increase the overall volume of your workout. For example: 

  • Increase reps: Perform 8-12 deadlifts before taking a break, rather than 3-5 reps.
  • Increase sets: ​​​​​​​​Perform 4 sets of deadlifts, rather than 3.
  • Increase volume: Perform 4x8 (4 sets of 8 reps) of deadlifts, rather than 3x5.
  • Decrease rest (to an extent): Lastly, when training for muscle hypertrophy, aim for roughly 90 seconds of rest between sets. This allows time to bounce back in your next set of squats, while still keeping tension on your lower body.

An increase in training volume does not mean you should forget about resistance (or load) for each exercise. In other words, don't go light on resistance, or make the exercise feel easy. You should use just enough resistance so that you can barely finish your last 1-2 reps within each set.

Refer back to our deadlift example. Assume your one rep max on deadlifts is 70 kilos (about 150 pounds), and you're aiming for 4 sets of 8 reps. You might try to lift 50 kilos (110 pounds), or roughly 73% of your one rep max. If you can't finish a full 8 reps, you can reduce the load. If 8 reps felt easy, you can add weight to the bar. 

This is why it is so important to measure and document the volume of your sessions. Otherwise you would not be able to progressively overload and improve.  

Muscle Strength Training 

To build muscular strength, you will need to increase the amount of weight you can lift. 

To lift heavier weights, you will have to increase the overall volume of your workout. This means shortening the number of sets and reps, while increasing the amount of force (weight) on your muscles.

For example, imagine you are trying to build strength in your upper body, and your one rep max in the bench press is 50 kilos (110 pounds). Rather than focus on higher reps, lighter weights (as with muscle hypertrophy), you will do the following: 

  • Increase weight: Keep your lifts within 80-90% of your one rep max, benching 40-45 kilos (88-99 pounds).
  • Increase intensity: Rather than aiming for 4x10 (4 sets of 10 reps) for bench press, try doing fewer reps (2-5) but more sets (5 or even more) but at a higher weight.
  • Increase rest periods: If you are lifting extremely heavy weights — i.e., close to your one rep max — you will need to have adequate rest between sets. Otherwise, you may find it nearly impossible to lift that amount of weight on a very fatigued muscle. 

A great measure for strength training is the rate of perceived exertion (RPE). RPE is measured on a scale from 1 to 10 and expresses intensity levels.

Why Muscle Hypertrophy vs. Strength Both Benefit Your Health and Fitness Goals

Woman sitting on the floor exercising using dumbbells

As stated earlier, unless you're an Olympic powerlifter or competitive bodybuilder, you will benefit from incorporating hypertrophy and strength training techniques in your training sessions. The one influences the other beneficially.

Here's why: As you just learned, adding weight (increasing resistance) isn't the only way to make a workout more challenging. Continuously tweaking your resistance (weight), sets, reps, and rest are four approaches of progressive overload — or finding new ways to make familiar exercises more challenging.

For example, as an exercise newbie, you may find that performing 20 bodyweight squats was a challenge. Over time, those bodyweight squats because too easy, so you could try the following:

  • Increased weight: You set a training goal of lifting 45 kilos (100 pounds) for squats. 
  • Adjust your sets and reps: Eventually lifting 45 kilos may become too easy, so you can try to do 3x10 at 45 kilos, then 2x4 at 55 kilos (about 125 pounds), building muscle and strength. 

Offering variance to your weightlifting workouts — performing fewer reps one day, then challenging yourself with low weight, high reps the next — forces your body to never adapt to a workout. This, in turn, allows you to see results. Generally, more strength means bigger muscles and more muscle mass means more strength.  

Hypertrophy vs. Strength: You Need Both To See Results 

Developing muscle hypertrophy and muscle strength are two common training goals. Whichever goal you set will impact the type of training you perform.

Typically, an athlete aiming to increase muscle hypertrophy will aim for high volume (sets and reps), lower weight (relative to the one rep max), and short to moderate rest. Someone hoping to increase muscle strength will aim for high weight, low reps, and longer rest periods.

Most resistance training plans should incorporate both approaches in a way that is balanced relative to the desired goals. Doing so will continuously stress the body, which is the fastest way to see results. 

If you would like to have a one-on-one discussion with me about how we can tweak your training plan to your exact goals, sign up for the premium membership of Build Bullet-Proof Health. Here, you gain access to strength and cardio workouts, nutrition plans, and recovery tips, plus monthly calls with me to discuss your goals.

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