Stimulate; don’t annihilate.
If you want to increase your strength or muscle mass, the solution is obvious: Add some kind of resistance training to your workout routine, whether that’s lifting or callisthenics.
But did you know that you need to train in two different ways to maximise strength or muscle mass?
In today’s article, I’m going to cover exactly that and more, including:
Let’s start off with strength.
What is strength and what contributes to it?
Strength is an adaptation to training that can be defined as the ability to produce force.
The factors contributing to strength include the following:
The only two factors that we can improve with training are the first two: the amount of muscle mass you carry, and how well your nervous system works in conjunction with your muscular system.
We can increase muscle mass with hypertrophy training, as I will cover in the rest of the article, and we can improve our neurological efficiency by getting better at the movement we want to get stronger at.
The combination of these two training approaches, which can be alternated from training block to training block, will help you improve your strength on a specific lift.
What is muscle growth and what are its mechanisms?
Unlike strength, muscle growth doesn’t seem to be a training adaptation, but rather an outcome of training in a specific way. In humans, muscle growth appears to occur primarily via a physiological process called hypertrophy.
In 2010, Brad Schoenfeld suggested three main mechanisms for hypertrophy:
In more recent research, mechanical tension has appeared to be the primary mechanism of hypertrophy. As for metabolic stress and muscle damage, we need more studies to clarify their role and the degree to which each of these components is involved in hypertrophy.
So mechanical tension is the main driver of hypertrophy. Cool. But what is it exactly?
This is the force that a load applies to each individual muscle fibre. When a fibre is subjected to an adequate amount of mechanical tension for a sufficient period of time, this experience initiates a process called mechanotransduction.
Through this process, mechanical tension is translated into a chemical signal, which in turn triggers the initial stage of hypertrophy at the DNA level.
In other words, training is the best way to induce hypertrophy, as long as each exercise used provides enough mechanical tension for enough time to as many of the fibres in a certain muscle as possible, and ideally to all of them.
What are some of the main differences between training for hypertrophy and training for strength?
1. Strength requires heavier absolute loads.
The amount of weight you put on the bar is called absolute intensity, and it seems to be much more important to increase strength than to elicit hypertrophy.
In fact, research shows that beginners, who are untrained, need to lift at least 60% of their 1 Repetition Maximum (1RM, or the maximum weight they can lift for a single rep) in order to increase strength.
More experienced individuals appear to require at least 80% of their 1RM to attain meaningful strength increases.
On the other hand, we have evidence that both lower loads and heavier loads can increase muscle mass. In this study, for example, they tested lower loads of 25 to 35RM (the maximum weight you can lift for 25 to 35 reps) and heavier loads of 8 to 12RM, and reported no significant differences between groups for hypertrophy outcomes.
However, the caveat is that the relative intensity of each set – in other words, how hard each set feels – needs to reach a certain threshold for that set to elicit hypertrophy.
2. Strength is specific to a movement.
This means that, if you want to increase your squat 1RM, you need to spend a lot of time squatting.
In certain phases of your training, using different movements to train your quads, other than squats, can help you increase their overall size and thus benefit your strength on the squat. However, for best strength gains, you also need to improve your neurological efficiency, and this can only be done by performing the specific lift you want to improve.
On the other hand, to increase muscle mass, you can pick any exercise that will train the body part you want to target.
As long you are training with the right amount of relative intensity, the correct form, and the largest range of motion you have available at that particular joint – and assuming your recovery is on point – then you will be able to grow muscle.
3. Hypertrophy requires relatively more volume per week.
Volume is the amount of work you perform within a certain unit of time. It can be expressed in different ways, like tonnage (reps x sets x load) or the number of sets per body part or exercise that you perform each week.
In this, past, and future articles, I have and will be referring to volume as weekly set numbers for each body part or exercise.
There is a dose-response relationship between volume and both hypertrophy and strength. So, the more volume you do, the more hypertrophy and strength gains you can make… up to a point, when volume becomes too much and you can’t recover from your training. If you pass this limit, you can’t adapt and make any gains, and you may in fact regress.
While the upper limit for volume is still unclear, it seems like the range of effective volume for hypertrophy is wider than it is for strength gains.
The reason for this might lie in excessive fatigue.
For one, very high volumes produce a lot more fatigue than lower volumes. Furthermore, strength training requires loads very close to your 1RM, which generate more central nervous system fatigue than the more moderate loads you can use for hypertrophy.
The resulting overall fatigue can become so excessive that it may prevent you from expressing your “real” strength on a given training day. And, if your performance is consistently worse than it could be, you won’t increase your strength and may even start to lose the strength that you have already accumulated.
4. Hypertrophy might be a more realistic goal when you have minimal equipment.
At the time of writing this article, I am based in England, where we have recently gone back into national lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gyms are closing, and many people don’t have access to much in the way of home equipment.
Under these or similar circumstances, training for muscle growth might be a better option than training for strength, unless you are a beginner, in which case any type of training you do is likely to stimulate your muscles to grow and your strength to increase.
Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, training to increase muscle mass does benefit strength, too, so it can be used as a tool to potentiate future strength training phases.
4. You need hypertrophy training to get more strength… but you don’t necessarily need strength training to get more hypertrophy.
Strength athletes employ hypertrophy training as part of their regimen in order to maximise strength gains.
On the other hand, physique athletes might not need to train specifically for strength, using lower volumes and very heavy loads. In fact, the low volumes used in strength training programs could be detrimental to gain as much muscle as possible.
Nevertheless, there could be a place for “pure” strength training. For example, I am a fan of what Steve Hall calls Primer phases. These are lower-volume phases, in which the goal is to re-sensitize your muscles to high-volume training.
You can also incorporate some singles, doubles, or triples within the context of a hypertrophy-oriented program, as long as you don’t go overboard and accumulate so much fatigue that your total volume suffers.
What are the similarities between strength and hypertrophy training?
1. Both require you to train hard.
As I touched upon previously, relative intensity is how hard a set feels or how close to failure you get on each set.
Both strength and hypertrophy require you to train close enough to failure that you only have between one and four reps left in the tank before you can’t perform another one with good form.
2. Both demand adequate recovery.
Train like a beast… but recover like a beast, too.
Sleeping well and long enough; eating the appropriate amount of calories, protein, carbs, and fat; and managing stress will boost your recovery.
Muscle mass and strength can only increase during recovery periods, therefore not giving this time the attention it deserves will make both goals much harder to achieve.
It’s common to think that training for strength is the same thing as training for hypertrophy.
Hopefully this article has cleared up these misconceptions for you.
What’s your favourite type of training – strength or hypertrophy?
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