Hypertrophy vs strength training — which is better for building muscle? If you want to build muscle in the gym, you might think strength training and hypertrophy are equally beneficial, but here we break down why lifting heavy doesn’t guarantee a leaner physique.
Whether you want to build strength or increase lean muscle mass, you’ll need structure and consistency to achieve gains, whatever your fitness goals are. And for those planning to pack on some muscle, you’ll need to swat up on progressive overload training.
Below, we dig into what exactly strength and hypertrophy mean, the benefits and which is better for building muscle, so that you can decide how to train toward your goals. Grab a set of the best adjustable dumbbells to level up your workouts, and read on.
Hypertrophy vs strength training
Although lifting weights is great for many reasons — getting stronger, improving bone and joint health and reducing your risk of injury — building maximal strength and growing muscle requires certain variables and stimuli; this means throwing weights around isn’t going to guarantee success unless you follow some guidelines.
And although you can increase strength and muscle in various ways, there are general principles to follow. That’s why strength training builds strength, and hypertrophy training builds muscle mass.
It’s easy to assume that building strength means your muscles will grow, but it’s not that simple. Strength training alters the power output of your muscles, whereas hypertrophy increases the size of muscle fibers. Ultimately, this impacts how you train.
Hypertrophy fits into two categories: sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and myofibril hypertrophy. Sarcoplasmic refers to the increase in muscle fiber size (by increasing the energy source sarcoplasmic fluid to the muscles); myofibril means an increase in myofibrils within the muscle fiber, making it stronger and denser rather than building volume. Therefore, increasing muscle size doesn’t guarantee an increase in force output.
Strength training impacts the central nervous system (CNS), which has its neuromuscular advantages — it creates more powerful muscles and joints by activating large muscle groups to drive movement. This doesn’t require muscle fibers to grow, but the brain becomes more efficient at recruiting your muscles, improving neuropathways and their rate of contraction. In short, your muscles become more efficient.
Hypertrophy vs strength training: sets and reps
Developing top-end strength requires much heavier weight for fewer reps between 2-6 and higher sets between 4-6. During sets, rest increases to a few minutes to allow recovery as you’ll lift weights close to your one rep max (1RM).
If you train for hypertrophy, you’ll increase the overall volume using progressive load principles — incremental loading using weight, load or reps stimulates muscles to adapt and grow.
Hypertrophy training programs include higher reps between 8-12, with no more than 60 to 90 seconds of rest between sets of 3-4. As a result, you’ll lift at a lower percentage of your 1RM. It’s difficult to pin down a number, but your last few reps should be close to failure.
Hypertrophy vs strength training: which is better for building muscle?
Hypertrophy is your best bet for building muscle. When you exercise, muscle fibers develop tiny micro-tears. When your body recovers through sleep or days off from training, your muscles can adapt, repair and grow. During this time, your body produces the growth hormone (alongside undergoing a few other processes), which helps muscles grow.
Of course, you’ll get stronger from hypertrophy training, but the style isn’t geared toward maximal lifting. You can learn more about muscle fiber types and how they work by reading up on high reps vs heavy weights. But research refers to the size principle, which means that when force output increases, more muscle fibers and ‘higher frequency muscle fibers’ activate.
How to build muscle
Even if you don’t have a gym, you can still build muscle at home using barbells or dumbbells by adding challenge and intensity for your muscles to adapt to. Alongside time under tension (TUT), which involves stimulating muscles for longer during an exercise, we detail other techniques involved in progressive load here. These 5 best ways to build muscle without lifting heavier weights are also a solid go-to.
As a general rule of thumb, aim to lift between 65-85% of your 1RM during hypertrophy programs and lift toward failure, although some coaches will work below those numbers. Lifts like the bench press, squat, deadlift, overhead press and pull-ups are good exercises to measure against.
If numbers aren’t your thing (mine neither), just make sure that the last few reps of each set are close to failure, and try to build slowly (no more than 10% each time) every few weeks to a month, as your weights begin to feel more comfortable.
As you notice yourself growing muscle and getting stronger, you can begin to play around with the variables within your training program. Unless you have a specific goal, aim to train all major muscle groups, including your legs, chest, back, shoulders and core muscles, and add rest days for muscles to repair.
And the good news? Some research indicates that twice a week is enough if you’re trying to build muscle. If the goal is to build maximal strength, barbells will allow you to lift much heavier weights, whereas dumbbells, bodyweight and kettlebells are better suited for beginners and hypertrophy-focused training.
Strength training vs hypertrophy for weight loss
Higher percentages of lean muscle mass can help speed up metabolism, but that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to build tone and definition. Equally, the effort it takes to shift heavy weights could lend itself toward energy expenditure and calorie burn. It just won’t guarantee a ripped pack like Zac Efron.
Learning how to calculate your body fat percentage and why it matters could be helpful if your goal is fat loss, but remember that other factors like diet, sleep and stress determine how you store fat — a study by Yale even found women who are vulnerable to stress are more likely to store excess abdominal fat.
But there are ways you can kick up your calorie burn — intensity and volume. Adding high-intensity exercise with weight training, like CrossFit, could keep you burning calories after sessions. The excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) process is your body’s way of regaining homeostasis after intense exercise by consuming more oxygen and increasing your metabolism.
Although hypertrophy and strength training affect muscles differently, they can work together. But, if we had to come down on the side of one, we'd prioritize hypertrophy training.
Hypertrophy can inform and bolster strength training, and those who adopt hypertrophy training first are better equipped for moving safely into strength training. For example, those who train for hypertrophy could adopt unilateral (single-sided) training using free weights, which improves muscle balance, range of motion and coordination; this prepares muscles for lifting very heavy weights efficiently and with less risk of injury.