If you're keen on weight training then you're going to love this one!
In this article we're going to get to the bottom of:
Are You Training For Strength or hypertrophy?
This was one topic that I didn't quite grasp the difference between back in my early training days.
When I started lifting weights many moons ago, all I really knew was that I wanted to look better. ...And that was pretty much it! I thought weight training was weight training, and building bigger muscles would obviously mean that you built more strength too...
Bless my cotton socks.
Back then I had no idea how much learning I was about to do, and I certainly didn't expect that, fast forward a few years, I would become an insanely passionate strength coach.
I remember one particular day on campus during my fitness studies. I'd been training with weights for a couple of years and felt confident that I knew all the basics of most muscle-related things. Most of the module topics were familiar to me, even if I didn’t have a really deep understanding of them yet.
But when my teachers began discussing the subject of programming and, more specifically, programming for strength, hypertrophy or cardiovascular progression, I admit, I felt confused at why strength was classified as a different training adaptation to building muscle...
Didn’t building bigger muscles mean that you would be stronger too?
Well, no ...not exactly. It turns out I still had a lot to learn.
There are many things I wish I'd known from the very beginning of my weight training practice. And THIS is most definitely one of them. So let's dig in ↠
What Is Muscle Hypertrophy?
The muscle gains we chase after, through strength and hypertrophy training methods, are in fact two individual physiological adaptations that happen as a result of resistance training. However, these two adaptations do not take place entirely exclusively. AND, just to make it even more confusing, technically speaking both adaptations, or gains if you prefer, are types of muscle hypertrophy!
So what does hypertrophy mean? Well hypertrophy, very simply put, means muscle growth. But, of course, we all know there's nothing simple about the human body.
Muscle hypertrophy will happen even if you're training for specifically for strength, just as strength gains can be made during certain hypertrophy training methods.
Confused?... I know I was! But stick with me on this one.
At this stage all we need to know is that hypertrophy means muscle growth, AND that there are three types of muscle hypertrophy which are positive adaptations that happen within the muscle as a result of resistance training. These are;
When we take a closer look (but not too close, unless you want some serious information overload) inside the muscle we can differentiate these three major players in the game:
Player #1 - The first being the millions upon millions of contractile proteins, called myofibrils. It's these myofibrils that lengthen and shorten to produce movement.
Player #2 - The second being the sarcoplasm which surrounds the myofibrils and basically acts as a bit of a storage facility for the energy & nutrients the contractile fibres will need to do their thing!
Player # 3 - And the third being all the connective tissue that encases, protects and acts as a delivery service between the two.
Myofibrillar Hypertrophy is the increase in #1 Players- the myofibrils
Sarcosplamic Hypertrophy is the increase in #2 Players- sarcoplasm to support Player #1
Connective Tissue Hypertrophy is the increase in #3 Players- to support Players #1 & 2
So the cool thing is that, not only do all of these positive adaptations increase the size of the muscle, but that we can actively chose our training methods in favour of the adaptation we'd like to stimulate most, to help us progress in our chosen sport or goal.
Now, have I lost you? I hope not, but wouldn't blame you if I had. While I always try my best to paint the perfect picture for you guys, I am ALL about the highest quality information possible. So I'm going to handball you over to one of the most insanely knowledgeable guys I know, Dr Mike Todorovic. If there's literally anything you want to know about the mysterious workings of the human body, he's your guy! (You can thank me later)
In this video ↡ he talks in detail about the different types of muscle hypertrophy (5 min 10 sec in) and the different ways to stimulate these types of growth (8 min 9 sec in).
In the next chapters we'll be getting to know the most common methods used to train for strength or muscle growth & aesthetics.
Now that we have a better understanding of the different types of hypertrophy we can more easily identify how the different training methods aim to favour one or the other adaptation. And for hypertrophy training, more often than not it's geared for maximum sarcoplasmic growth.
This training style is all about building muscle to increase aesthetics & metabolism and improve muscle conditioning.
Hypertrophy training methods stimulate an increase the amount of sarcoplasm around the myofibrils to fuel their contractions. And this is why you'll sometimes hear sarcoplasmic hypertrophy referred to as a metabolic adaptation. Remember this term. Metabolic adaptation is an important factor that I'll talk more on later.
So what are the methods used for this training style?
Hypertrophy training methods utilise higher volume (reps or time under tension), over Intensity (resistance or weight). Generally using loads of less than 70% max weight.
You can usually associate hypertrophy training methods with rep ranges between 8 - 20 ...and sometimes even beyond! There will always be some exceptions, of course. As is commonly the case for activation or rehabilitation exercises where similar rep ranges are used but the objective is less about stimulating muscle growth for aesthetics, and more to do with strengthening neural coordination and optimising the recruitment of the target muscle during compound movements.
There are loads of 'sub' techniques that all live under the hypertrophy training method umbrella. Some that you may have seen going down in the gym are:
The idea with all these painfully fun training techniques is to take the muscle as close to, or all the way to complete failure (yes it hurts) in order to stimulate metabolic adaptations and growth. Or as we also know it, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
What does muscle failure mean when we're talking about hypertrophy training methods?
This is the point at which there's no available energy left to immediately fuel further muscle contractions. Muscle failure is achieved more safely through isolated exercises, where a single joint is moving and generally one main muscle group is contracting. Which is another valid reason hypertrophy training methods favour isolated exercises.
In case you're wondering why it's not a fabulous idea to mix compound exercises and muscle failure techniques; let's take a squat for example, where basically ALL of the major muscle groups have a role to play, and imagine trying to push out reps upon reps to achieve muscle failure in as many of them possible all at once... Not for me, thanks. Mechanical failure would be reached well before muscle failure and you would almost certainly be sick... maybe even dancing with the danger of obtaining an injury.
...and yet, you DO still see people giving it a good, hot crack with their compound exercises.
It might even be fair to assume you're somewhat familiar with this muscle building style of training,
The bodybuilder's way.
If you've ever wondered how bodybuilders achieve their sculpted physiques, it's mostly through these hypertrophy training methods. Working their favourite muscle groups to their metabolic limits to make some mad gains.
Bodybuilders froth over high volume training and I must admit it definitely builds you a good whack of mental toughness. 'No pain, no gain', I believe is the bodybuilder's motto, right?
Athletes training for bodybuilding competitions tend to use a higher ratio of isolated exercises to compound exercises in comparison to performance based athletes. The reason they do this is so that they can target individual muscles or muscle groups, give them an absolute hiding and make some aesthetic gains in that area. For example, the deltoids. Everyone loves massive delts, and bodybuilders know all the best ways to target and fatigue these muscles in isolation. This makes perfect sense from a bodybuilding perspective, where structural balance or sports performance is not the overall objective, an aesthetic physique is!
Hypertrophy training methods caaaaaan be pretty extreme. This shit can be seriously painful and without careful programming can also lead you down the path of muscle imbalances. You know the guys at the gym who say, ‘chest day everyday'? ...Well these guys are more likely to be on their way to 'shoulder pain day, every day' if they don't consider balancing out their push-pull ratio.
The good news is that, luckily for us, there’s more than one way to skin a cat ...so-to-speak. And I'll be summing this up in my verdict.
This training style is all about building strength. That is, to increase the amount of weight you can safely move through a controlled range in a particular exercise. That's a very simple way to look at it, anyway.
You might wonder then, why athletes across many different sporting backgrounds have strength coaches as well as sports specific coaches? And this is because strength training is based around some pretty cool effective training principals that continually develop an athletes mobility, neural coordination and joint stability. It's ultimately a reinforcement method for the musculoskeletal system. No matter what your sport is, having strong & mobile joints is going to be better than unstable ones.
Strength training stimulates muscle hypertrophy too, but with myofibrillar growth being the more prevalent adaptation. It's also worth noting that strength training methods bring a lot more neural involvement to the game. There's a high level of muscular coordination required to safely move weights above 70% of your max, which means the nervous system has its work cut out for it too.
Compound exercises are priority #1 for strength training. In these compound exercises there are multiple joints moving against a resistance and/or stabilising all at once, which requires several muscle groups to work together simultaneously. Teamwork makes the dream work. Isn't that what they say?
Getting good at a heavy squat or bench press takes time and consistency. There are some important assets to develop if you want to lift heavy without blowing your shit to pieces.
Inter-muscular coordination so the CNS can recruit multiple muscle groups together to control compound movement.
Intra-muscular coordination to have a strong working relationship between the CNS and the muscle fibres for more force production and to control heavier loads.
This is why you might sometimes hear a strength or movement training block as being programmed for neural adaptation. Remember this term. I'll talk more about neural adaptation in my verdict.
So what are the methods used for this training style?
Strength training methods utilise higher intensity (resistance or weight) over volume (repetitions).
Exercise selection is slightly different to hypertrophy training, with compound exercises being first and foremost in prescription. Isolated exercises are still on the cards, but are used more as a supplementary exercise to compliment a main lift, work on a weakness or for structural balance.
You can usually associate rep ranges between 1-7 at intensities of 60% and upward with strength training methods. Buuut, just like there are for the higher rep ranges in hypertrophy, there's exceptions to this rule too. For example when learning a new movement or developing on a technique. The rep range might be low but the intensity isn't necessarily high. It all depends on the specific purpose the exercise has been programmed for.
Which brings me to the next strength training attribute. Programming specificity. There's almost always a reason for the inclusion of each exercise that's programmed. This specificity in programming, in itself, is something you'll notice more if you're following strength training methods than hypertrophy training methods. Programming in the strength training world is like having GPS directions to reach your performance destination.
To elaborate more on this, strength training usually involves some level of structured & progressive programming, known as periodization. It's a game plan for strength gains. Which is excellent, but it does requires a high level of training consistency. For the plan to work, you gotta stick to the plan.
Joint integrity is of great importance when training for strength & performance. Strength athletes know that the ability to recruit & coordinate the muscles acting any one joint will inadvertently affect the mobility of the next joint in sequence. Therefore a lot of time goes into effectively warming up before any weights are moved.
Another noticeable attribute of strength training methods is longer resting periods between sets, and recovery time between training sessions. Along with effective warm up & activation routines, this means that training sessions for strength tend to take quite a bit longer than a session to get a quick bicep pump in the gym.
The last characteristic of strength training methods I want to talk about is mechanical failure. Earlier we learnt about working or repping until muscle failure in hypertrophy training methods, but this one's a bit different. Mechanical failure is the point at which fatigue begins to compromise good technique. This is strong guideline in strength training: With heavier loads come greater risk. Pushing beyond mechanical failure is a no-go zone. Simply because there are no benefits to doing so, and the risk is high. Plus, shit technique is embarrassing so it's just not worth it.
OK, I know this is a long one, so if you're still here battling on you're an absolute gem. I promise you won't be disappointed because the best bit is coming up next...
Now we're into the juicy part where I dish my verdict. Really I should have titled it 'My Verdict', and not 'The Verdict' because it might not be yours as well. I'm doubtless you have your own experiences, goals, opinions and preferences. So this verdict is really just for the sake of entertainment. Maybe you'll find it helpful, maybe you won't. Either way I hope it serves the purpose of letting you get to know me a little better. Whether that works out well or not, we're about to find out...
I'd also like to say that if this article topic has sparked your interest but you haven't had any experience with these training methods yet, I highly recommend you take some time to explore both of them yourself, to see which one floats your boat. Savvy? Get amongst it, that's what I say!
So, WHAT IS the most effective training method for being stronger, feeling stronger, moving better & looking better year after year??
Today's verdict is...
I wanted this to be a super dramatic conclusion, buuuuuut... I'd like to say both. I really would. But I just can't do it. Strength training wins for me, hands down. But not for the fact that it builds strength. And not because myofibrillar hypertrophy is any 'better' than sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. No. Honestly, strength training wins because LEARNING is a fundamental part of the process.
I could go to the gym and smash my delts with lateral raises and do drop sets every week or follow whatever influencer's program is the flavour of the month and I'd be none the wiser 5 years down the track... But not with strength training. If you follow the principals for effective strength training, there's simply no way you won't come out with a far deeper understanding of how your body moves and makes positive adaptations.
It's about the mindset.
Training for strength & performance is the bomb, as far as I'm concerned. But without some hypertrophy training, it would be difficult, if not impossible to continually build strength year after year. Plus, some people just LOVE this shit! They love the feeling of pushing their mental boundaries and persevering through pain. It’s a great way to build mental toughness, there's no doubt about that...
BUT... is 'no pain, no gain' really a good mindset to have when you so badly want to see progression? Or to have a sustainable training routine that won't dominate your lifestyle?
No, I really don't think so.
If your logic is; that as long as you're training so hard that it's painful, you're sure to be making mad gains, then you're going to have a really shit time in the grand scheme of things. It's a flawed concept, and I'll tell you why:
Funnily enough, pain is also a good indication that something isn't working properly, for one. And another; if the lengths you go to each day, chasing the perfect body, are painful, highly demanding on your lifestyle and emotionally draining in the short term, how on earth do you expect to maintain, let alone progress, in them for years to come?
Pain is a brilliant teacher. But only if you listen.
Another flaw I find with this type of training mentality is that the answer to a lack of results is often to go at it even harder... Work harder. Train more often. Do more sets. Do more reps. Push until it hurts more. Do more cardio. But if the results were lacking to start with, why would you do MORE of the same thing to try to combat this?
For bodybuilders having this work-till-it-hurts mentality is fine. It's their career and lifestyle. Not just something they do after a long day at the office. They've been working on their physique for years and have invested a lot into achieving it. They've already developed great body awareness and generally don't have the same mechanical discrepancies that the rest of us do when they're training to failure.
But most beginners DON'T have a body that's perfectly balanced or that moves with sound technique from the get go. So would it not be wise to FIRST learn how to move well, identify your weaknesses and improve mobility BEFORE going to town on the overload techniques? Or is it just me?
My point is that the 'no pain, no gain' mentality isn't exactly one that encourages you to slow down, ask questions and learn how to work your body more effectively.
And although the mental grit is admirable in the bro-split style of training, I can't help but feel as though training this way is a practice of mental toughness, but not exactly of rational or perceptive training. This toughness often seems to be at the cost of kindness, patience and understanding of your own body. Especially when you think of how closely bodybuilding and extreme dieting are intertwined. This mentality of having to work harder than everyone else in the room, train twice a day every day and live a highly restricted lifestyle to get results... it just doesn't speak logic to me. And sadly, for some people it leads to an unhealthy relationship with exercise & the gym environment.
One of the biggest problems I have with the hypertrophy training concept (even with the writing of this article) is that muscle hypertrophy is one thing, and hypertrophy training methods are another thing entirely, yet they're kind of bundled together under this single word, 'hypertrophy'. If I had any say in things, I'd define these two using completely individual names. So we could understand muscle hypertrophy for what it is, and call the training methods traditionally used to achieve it a name more unique.
I'd like to make it clear here that all types of muscle hypertrophy are great to achieve. Once you detach muscle hypertrophy from the training methods & mentality made famous by bodybuilding, and instead attach it to the positive adaptations that help us to increase our work capacity & become stronger, (I've found) that you get a total shift in mindset.
It's about knowing your adaptations.
Earlier I mentioned that muscle force production & coordination are largely neural adaptations while muscle endurance is a metabolic adaptation. These are more specific terms we can use when programming for strength gains & sports performance that relate to muscle development. I prefer to look at training and programming using these positive adaptations as my guide, as apposed to aiming more broadly at 'muscle growth'.
Another reason strength training takes the cake for me is because it covers all bases for progression. Training for strength doesn't mean that you must be lifting impressive numbers every time you get to the gym. Great strength programming works on both your ability to lift heavier loads as well as the coordination and metabolic endurance your muscles need to do this safely. It's a yin & yang of muscle coordination & metabolic capacity. These are your neural & metabolic positive adaptations. Seriously, take some time to learn more about periodisation because it's some really cool stuff.
Strength training includes hypertrophy. The difference is, it doesn't always use the same techniques as hypertrophy style training. There's more than one way to skin a cat, remember. Using variations in tempo, range and isometric tension increases the difficulty of an exercise to not only improve on the skill itself but to stimulate metabolic adaptations needed for progression. Two birds, one stone.
In my experience.
I've shared my logical reasons why I think strength training methods are well worth investing your time into. And now I'd like to conclude my verdict by sharing some more personal reasons for this as well.
On a professional level, learning, teaching and practising strength training principals has revealed such amazing opportunities and experiences for me. It's allowed me to open up and connect with so many amazing fitness professionals and athletes around Australia. There's an underlying value most people in the strength community have, and that is a passion for knowledge and a genuine desire to help & encourage others to be the very best they can. They love to see other people find their purpose, explore past their comfort zone & excel.
It's never a beauty contest.
It's never a popularity contest.
It's about lifting each other up, to be and feel stronger & happier. I love that shit!
On an athletic level, training for strength & performance has allowed me to actually spend less time training while getting better results. This year especially, I've been deeply involved with development in other areas of life that I've been lucky to get in 3 training sessions per week! 4 at most. And I haven't lost any gains at all! I'm still improving as the weeks go on. That's a fairly decent indication that the training methods I use are damn well effective.
You’ve sussed that I just love strength & performance training. It’s no secret really. Strength training has, and continues to teach me such valuable lessons. It rehabilitated my unhealthy emotional attachment to exercise (punishment rather than self love) and it gave me something to aim for that has nothing to do with bikinis or getting shredded!
The takeaway message I'd like to end with here is that being specific in your training objective will bring you the best results regardless of whether your goal is performance or aesthetics. But, understand that humans are complex beings, and that knowing-your-shit is hands down going to be the best way to achieve the results you want.
And if you don't know your shit, that's OK too! My advice is to work closely with & learn from other people who've had loads of experience, and who do know a fair bit of their shit.
At the end of the day, the training methods that'll work best for you will boil down to the reason you go to the gym to train in the first place. Maybe you just want to create a better habit than sitting on the couch with a beer every day? Or maybe you just dig hanging out with your mates and swinging some weights around? Hell yeah, that's cool. Do what makes you happy, enjoy the ride and hopefully you learn a thing or two along the way!
Oh, and for anyone out there who want's to give strength training a go, but is worried about losing muscle gains if they switch, listen here my friend. I haven't done a bicep curl or a drop set in YEARS and my guns are BADASS!
Round Up & References
First off I'd like to say a big thank YOU for taking the time to read this article. I won't lie, it took me freak'n ages to write. So whether you liked it or hated it, thanks for reading! If you did enjoy the read and you got something out of it please share it with your fellow enthusiasts and leave a comment below. This would mean so, so much to me!
I'd also like to say a big thanks to Doctor Mike Todorovic for guiding me to the most credible & current information in support of this little article of mine. I even learnt more things while writing this! Did you know that myofibrillar hypertrophy can take place in sequence or horizontally stacked depending on the stimulus that it's adapting for? Very cool, thanks Doc!
If you haven't already, I highly recommend you subscribe to his Instagram or YouTube, because you're guaranteed to have your mind blown on a regular basis.
I've learnt about these topics from countless resources over the years. Far too many to recall in fine detail. Most recently I found this article by Brad J Schoenfeld very insightful:
Getting balls deep (can I even say that?) into this topic has raised even more questions that I'd like to investigate. Questions like;