Strength Vs Hypertrophy Training

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Written by Master Coach Kim Leggett

When it comes to goal-specific resistance training, understanding the acute training variables and how to change these over time in order to elicit the right results is one of the most-challenging aspects of programming. Variables such as exercise selection, sequence, sets, reps, rest periods and time under tension will all vary depending on the training goal.

‘Strength training’ and ‘muscle building’ are terms often used interchangeably, however understanding the difference between the two can help you to program more effectively to achieve your client’s specific goals. Clients who are beginner lifters can realistically achieve both muscle strength and size gains, however this does not last forever! As a client becomes more advanced, training needs to be more specific and targeted to ensure recruitment of the right muscle fibres for either strength or size and to ensure continuity of progress in the long-term.

The body does one key thing really well, and that is to ADAPT. When the body is placed under any form of stress, it begins to make adaptations to allow for it to withstand the same stress in the future. This is why if you perform the same movement patterns and exercises repeatedly – your body reaches a point where it plateaus and no longer progresses. Therefore, it is important to consider this in overall program design.

Muscular hypertrophy is defined as an increase in muscle mass and cross-sectional area. This increase in dimension is due to an increase in size (not length) of individual muscle fibres. When skeletal muscle is challenged due to consistent progressive workloads – it can become bigger and better at generating force.

Muscular strength is defined as the max amount of force exerted by a muscle against a form of resistance in a single effort. Adaptations to this type of stress result in increased strength due to more nervous system and motor unit recruitment patterns.

Both strength and hypertrophy require progressive overload through applied force and stress on skeletal muscle. Bigger muscles (achieved by myofibrillar hypertrophy) will also be a stronger muscle…but stronger muscles do not necessarily equate to bigger muscles.

When it comes to training the main variable that will dictate which training goal we are going to achieve comes down to VOLUME and INTENSITY.

Volume: Total amount of sets and reps performed in a given exercise. 
Intensity: Toad lifted during a given set.

To promote muscle strength, intensity needs to be high and volume low (to moderate). 
To increase muscle size, volume needs to be high and intensity relatively moderate.

Another difference in terms of training for strength vs hypertrophy is exercise selection. The main movements that you will focus on in a strength training program will primarily be multi-joint compound exercises which involve large muscle groups. For example, your high intensity work for 1-5 reps per set could include:

  • Conventional Deadlifts
  • Barbell Squats 
  • Barbell Bench Press 
  • Barbell Overhead Press

In comparison, hypertrophy training will primarily focus on specific muscle groups and train these through high amounts of volume. Therefore, a training split will look more along the lines of this:

Day 1: Legs
Day 2: Chest
Day 3: Back
Day 4: Shoulders
Day 5: Arms 

When doing so, target muscle groups are given about 2-3 days of full recovery before hitting them again.

So should your client train for strength or hypertrophy?
The answer is it depends! It depends on your client’s goals, their current training program and what needs to be worked on to ensure that their training program is well-rounded whilst being results-driven. Always remember that training programs are more effective when they are individualised and consider all variables! 

Want to learn how to structure and periodize programs for fat loss, strength, athletic performance & hypertrophy for both short-and long-term client goals, leading to life changing results?
Enrol into the Ultimate Program Design Bundle which includes the Fundamentals of Program design and Advanced Program Design online courses!

Clean Health Fitness Institute. (2020). Performance PT Coach Certification Level 1.
Villaneuva, M. (2018). Hypertrophy Training vs. Strength Training. Retrieved from:

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