Is it better to train for hypertrophy or strength?
The answer depends on what your fitness goals are.
If you want to grow the size of your muscle, hypertrophy is for you.
If you want to pick up heavier things and produce more force, build that strength.
But there is some overlap between these two methodologies. So before you decide which type of program you want to follow, dive into this article and learn the differences and similarities between the two.
Hypertrophy is short for muscular hypertrophy, the act of growing a muscle through exercise. In the gym, hypertrophy describes training to build muscle mass. Bodybuilders typically use this type of training to grow their muscles for competition. But it’s also a great way to build prerequisites for strength training, providing a solid base for developing maximal strength.
Resistance training is the best way to achieve hypertrophy. Lifting weights creates mechanical tension and muscle damage which are catalysts for muscle growth.
There are three keys to hypertrophy:
Follow the right training split based on your ability. If you’re a beginner, do full-body sessions. This will provide the frequent stimulus needed to achieve growth. If you’re more advanced, you may benefit from a more specific split, focusing on upper or lower body or isolating movement patterns. The number of times you’re able to train will also determine the best split. Even advanced trainees who can only train 2-3 per week should stick to a full-body resistance split.
Next, focus on time under tension during your workouts. Time under tension (TUT) refers to the amount of time that a muscle is under strain during a working set. Use a tempo for each exercise and focus on the quality of movement over quantity.
Lastly, nail your recovery. Choose the right training split, so you have enough time to recover between sessions. Then, nail your lifestyle outside of the gym so that your body is primed for anabolism. Follow the basic lifestyle guidelines and prioritize your sleep.
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For hypertrophy, 40 seconds of time under tension for one working set is ideal. The reps, sets, and tempo in a workout are how you control this time under tension. Reps, when multiplied by tempo, determine the time under tension for any given exercise.
First, reps. Anywhere between 6-20 repetitions may be appropriate in a hypertrophy workout. 6-12 reps are ideal for compound movements (bench press, overhead press, squat, deadlift, etc.), depending on the load. Perform 8-20 repetitions for isolation exercises (bicep curls, tricep pushdowns, lateral shoulder raises.)
Next up is sets. Three to four working sets are best practice for hypertrophy, but this should be personalized. As a rule of thumb, if reps are lower, sets will be higher, and if reps are higher, sets will be lower.
Finally, choose the tempo. Stick with tempos that create around 40 seconds of time under tension when multiplied by reps. For example, @2020 for 10 reps or @3110 for 8 reps. You can read more about tempo and how to control it in this tempo-specific blog.
Strength training is exercise that improves your ability to produce force.
Athletes and powerlifters commonly use this type of training. For these athletes, improving their force output is transferable to the demands of their sport. The general population also benefits from strength training, as it’s great for bone health, improves immune function, and improves your function in daily life.
Not everyone can perform heavy strength training right away. Using the light bulb analogy, lifting external load requires you to create an electrical charge to power a hypothetical light bulb. The heavier the load, the brighter the light bulb needs to be. Only advanced clients have the coordination to turn on their light bulb very brightly, activating all of their muscles to their utmost potential during a lift.
Therefore, beginners must learn how to turn on their light bulbs before performing true strength training.
First, beginners need to develop their motor control. To do this, focus on moderate time under tension and muscle activation during a workout. After motor control, beginners can start training strength endurance, which has higher time under tension.
After plenty of time spent developing these characteristics, you can use one of two tests to determine if your or your client is ready to train and express maximal contractions.
The repetitions, sets, and tempo for strength training depend on ability level.
Beginners should perform 10-15 repetitions per exercise for around three sets with a moderate to slow tempo.
Intermediates doing strength endurance training will often perform 5-10 repetitions per exercise, for three to five sets, with a moderate tempo.
Advanced individuals can introduce maximal contractions, lifting 1-5 repetitions with explosive concentrics and faster tempos.
It is important to note that while beginners can only do motor control training, intermediates can do both motor control and strength endurance, and advanced can do all contraction types, including maximal contractions.
Hypertrophy is a great way to lay a foundation for strength training. After all, big muscles are often stronger muscles.
In the strength training progression laid out above, hypertrophy would be appropriate for an intermediate client who has developed motor control. After all, an individual needs to understand how to contract muscles and move with efficiency to create the mechanical tension needed for hypertrophy.
So if your goal is to get stronger, hypertrophy-style training may be important in your progression.. It’ll help your muscles get stronger, prepare them for the increased tension of strength training, and help you create the brain-body connections needed to turn on your own lightbulb.
Even more advanced trainees focused on strength development can benefit from training cycles with a hypertrophy or strength endurance focus.
Now that you understand two different types of training, it’s time to put them into a program and get to work.
But how do you write an exercise program?
And more importantly, how do you write an exercise program that gets results?
The key is periodization.
Periodization is how you create effective weekly and monthly training cycles that get long-term results.
Sign up for our free course on periodization and learn how to develop better workouts.