Strength vs. Hypertrophy Training: What’s the Difference?

strength vs. hypertrophy training - toronto primalbreedfit

Most of us wish we could become bigger (gain more lean tissue) and significantly stronger. However, there is quite a major difference between strength vs. hypertrophy training.

Because of that, it is important to identify one specific goal at a time and stick to it.

If you want to get bigger (hypertrophy) then your focus must be hypertrophy training. If you simply want to get stronger then your training should be focused on strength.

Trying to kill two birds with one stone will yield mediocre results in both departments.

Note* As a beginner, your potential to gain lean tissue and increase your strength significantly at the same time is quite high. In fact, for the first twelve months or so of training as a newbie you should see tremendous results in both strength and size relative to where you started. Achieving personal bests in your first year of training should come about almost every week.


Strength vs. Hypertrophy Training 

hypertrophy training for muscle mass

Hypertrophy-specific training

Hypertrophy specific training is solely focused on building lean tissue. There are three main factors to building muscle: muscle tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage.

Muscle tension appears to be the primary force driving all three variables to achieving muscle hypertrophy.

It’s also the area that the majority of gym-goers struggle with understanding and executing the most.

Muscle tension is achieved through learning and mastering exercise execution. 

Rather than focusing on load and/or simply moving weight from point A to point B, the focus must be directed on precise exercise execution.

It is no surprise that your dominant muscle groups are the ones that you are able to activate in an instant while your lagging body parts are the opposite.

Muscle tension is best achieved through internal conscious effort.

Consciously activate and utilize the specific muscle you are targeting, applying it as hard and long as possible to move the load.

For example, if you’re just lifting weights and trying to push a certain number ( let’s say 225 lb for 2 reps in a bench press) that may not be the most optimal way to build muscle.

When you try to lift a weight using any means possible things tend to crack. The form will break down and you’ll be inclined to use other mechanically advantages such as momentum or swinging/bouncing.

In addition, your joints and ligaments will take a beating while your muscles will not be receiving as much tension as you’d think.


So how can I change my approach?

Instead of directing focus on the external (barbell, dumbbell, weight, etc.), focus internally on what your muscles are doing with that weight.

Every set and repetition must be consciously completed, applying anywhere between 30 to 60 seconds of total muscular tension per set for optimal muscle growth.

Weight(load) does matter, but it is secondary to exercise execution. Use the heaviest weight that allows you to perform with perfect execution.

Note* If you cannot feel your muscles engage, stretch and contract during a movement, there is no good motive to increase load. Spend more time with a weight that allows you to perform the exercise correctly, increasing your ability to mentally connect with that muscle. Once you feel confident in consciously applying tension on the muscle, then increase load for extra resistance/stimulus.


Metabolic Stress & Muscle Damage

Metabolic stress, in simple terms is the ‘feeling’ that you get when you are starting to fatigue and exhaust the muscle.

In other words, it is the “pump” or the “burn”. Taking a muscle to failure and/or using higher rep ranges to fully exhaust a muscle will create metabolic stress.

As for muscle damage (the good type), just lifting weights and stimulating the muscle fibers creates muscle damage.

The variable to pay attention to here is if you’ve been training for a while, adaptation occurs.

This means that you will need to change some type of variable in your training to continue challenging your muscles for growth. 

  • Increase resistance used (progressive overload)
  • Increase the volume (sets, reps, slightly shorter rest periods)
  • Use slightly different methods (static holds, static holds in the stretched position, drop sets/super sets, accentuating the negative portion of the rep, etc.)

As your exercise execution improves, your ability to feel and exhaust a muscle increases. Thus, your ability to induce muscle damage heightens, creating optimal muscle growth.


Key Points

  • Generally higher volume.
  • Reps between 6 to 12, sometimes 15. Use the higher rep ranges first to master execution and then start increasing the load and lowering the rep ranges.
  • Strong mind muscle connection. Proper exercise execution is a skill that has a learning curve. Take some time to learn it first and the pay off will be well worth it.
  • Compound lifts(multi-joint exercises) + isolation exercises (single-joint exercises). Use isolation exercises to target the lagging body parts that you are having a hard time activating (feeling) during the compound movements.


strength training for power: primalbreedfit toronto

Strength-specific training

Main focus here is to increase the power output and increase motor unit recruitment through the central nervous system(CNS).

Like hypertrophy training, exercise execution (technique) still applies but the goal here is to force the body to adapt to heavy loads and increase power output (strength).

A simple way to understand the difference between strength specific and hypertrophy specific training is looking at the difference between powerlifters and bodybuilders.

Powerlifters are concerned with moving the heaviest weight possible above all else. Bodybuilders, on the other hand are primarily concerned with growing the most amount of muscle possible. 

The main focus or goal in strength training is increase or maximizing the total motor unit recruitment in the body and CNS adaptation to the heavy loads.

Muscles are comprised of many muscle fibers. Not all muscle fibers are activated and put to use during exercise.

Through strength-training, the central nervous system signals more already available motor unit fibers to move their lazy ass and get to work. This will result in increases in strength without necessarily needing to increase total muscle mass or overall body weight.

Strength training primarily consists of less repetitions per set with higher intensity (weights used).

Strength training incorporates mainly multi-joint movements (stimulates more than one muscle group), allowing for heavy weights to be moved. We can only bicep curl so much right?

Generally, isolation or accessory exercises are added at the end of the workout session to improve a weak body part.

Key Points

  • Lower volume, higher intensity, higher frequency of training
  • Reps between 1-5, rarely 6-8
  • Training the central nervous system to adapt to heavy loads
  • Mostly compound lifts with some accessories for weak/small body parts



Although both methods will help you add muscle and increase strength, there is a significant distinction between the two.

Depending on your goal, it is best to prioritize one method at a time for optimal results.

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