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Hypertrophy vs. Strength training: A Complete Comparison

Weight training is one of the most important types of exercise you can do for your body. Whether you use free weights, bands, medicine balls, or simply perform bodyweight exercises, training your muscles to become stronger is beneficial for everyone – not just bodybuilders who are trying to build a competition-ready physique.

Research shows that resistance training is associated with better cardiovascular fitness, resistance to injury and back pain, and reduced risk of diabetes and heart disease. Even a 20 minute session with dumbbells or circuit machines is enough to provide you with many of the health benefits of weight training.

When it comes to training your muscles, there are two broad varieties: strength training and hypertrophy training. Strength training refers to the type of lifts focused on improving strength. Hypertrophy training refers to growth of muscle cells because of exercise. It’s important to note that these kinds of workouts are not mutually exclusive – many lifters will mix in hypertrophy workouts along with their normal strength training routine, both as a new challenge and as a way to ensure their muscles don’t get used to their normal routine.

However, at some point it's typically beneficial to decide if you want to focus on muscular strength or muscle size. This article will go over these two ideas, what they typically entail, and provide some recommendations on which type of weight training may be best for your personal goals.

What is strength training?

As the name implies, a strength training program is one that is designed to increase your strength, or the amount of force your muscles can exert. Unlike workout routines that are designed primarily to add muscle mass, strength training focuses on improving your ability to push, pull, squeeze, lift, squat and jump among other movements of the body. Some who participate in strength training focus on one or two specific types of lifts, such as Olympic powerlifters who compete in events to see how much they can deadlift or bench press.

To build muscle strength, you must perform exercises that break down your body temporarily so that more muscle fibers can be added in the "damaged" area during rest periods. Because they allow you to hit more muscle groups at once, people focusing on gaining strength typically create a program of compound lifts. Compound exercises often incorporate barbells or dumbbells and include exercises like:

Besides the use of compound exercises, strength training is also distinct from hypertrophy training because of the way lifts are programmed. Strength training usually involves heavy weights with a lower training volume. This typically means you'll perform a smaller number of sets, but your lifts will be higher intensity since you'll be using heavier weight.

Also, as mentioned above, strength training focuses more on compound lifts that recruit bigger muscles as well as smaller tendons and ligaments. For example, bench press is a staple of many strength training programs, since it utilizes almost every upper body muscle including your chest, triceps, forearms, and others.

What is muscle hypertrophy training?

While both hypertrophy and strength training will involve performing many of the same exercises with the same kind of equipment, the goal of hypertrophy training is a little different. When your focus is on building the muscle tissue to be as large as possible, you'll want to use a higher rep range with lighter weights. Also, hypertrophy training emphasizes isolation exercises that use only one or two muscles at a time. 

Some common exercises you would see on a plan focused on hypertrophy include:

Hypertrophy-style training is popular in the bodybuilding community, where there is often a need to focus on muscle growth in very specific areas to ensure the physique as a whole is ready for competition. Sets performed in these kinds of training sessions will also have high reps when compared to the kind of lower rep, compound lift training that helps cause strength gains. 

Because this type of training requires lighter weight but more reps and sets, it may take longer than a traditional strength training workout. You may also have to perform a variety of  different types of moves than you would on a plan focused on maximizing strength gains. A strength training workout with a barbell might call for only three or four different lifts, while a hypertrophy plan may require six or more. Scientific research indicates that certain kinds of exercises can induce hypertrophy in the muscles without a corresponding increase in strength.

Which method is right for me?

Although these training methods are different, neither is inherently better than the other. Many athletes incorporate both techniques at different times, as their goals may change throughout the year. Here are a few tips for deciding on whether your routine should be primarily based on gaining strength or building muscle:

Again, there's no reason you have to choose one or the other permanently. Many people mix it up. On certain days they perform exercises with a limited range of motion that focus on activation of specific muscle groups. Other days, they'll perform compound movements like lunges, deadlifts and pull-ups as a way to hit many different muscle groups at the same time. However you’ll still want to choose one main goal so that you know where to focus the majority of your efforts.

Final thoughts on choosing between hypertrophy vs. strength training

At the end of the day, both types of training are designed to use the principle of progressive overload on the nervous system to break down muscle fibers so they can be rebuilt stronger, in a larger quantity. Whether you want to focus on muscle building so that you can gain size, or you'd rather improve functional, short-burst strength by focusing on training fast-twitch muscles, performing some kind of resistance training is important for your health. The CDC recommends performing muscle-strengthening activities that work all major muscle groups at least two days per week. 

Whichever route you decide, by creating a routine that works for your specific needs, staying consistent over the long-term, and providing your body with adequate rest and nutrition, you can change your body and achieve your strength goals.