Strength vs. Size Training: Knowing the Differences

The Differences in Strength vs. Size (Hypertrophy) Training

Aren’t size and strength training the same? Depending on why you are hitting the gym, you may find yourself asking this very question. The short answer is no, but they are similar so knowing the difference in order to achieve your desired training outcome is important. Because you likely have a desired outcome for your training regimen in mind, you want to be sure you are adhering to a routine that will successfully allow you to meet your training goals.

So, do you hope to improve overall strength or hypertrophy as a result of your training program? Or do you hope to achieve both? Optimized strength and size training have significant differences which are outlined here.

Strength vs. Hypertrophy: Rep Range

To begin with, it is essential to understand rep range differences in strength and hypertrophy training. Basically, strength training is best improved in the 3 – 6 rep range while hypertrophy is best achieved in the 5-30 rep range. It is worth noting that there is an overlap in rep range between the two models.

As such, if you are consistently training in the overlap range of 5-6, you do not actually train for optimized hypertrophy. It is definitely possible to increase volume while training in the overlap range of 5-6 to reps, but hypertrophy is not sustainable at that level. So although you can train for both strength and size in a similar rep range, it is ideal to increase that range to between 8 and 20 to achieve optimized, sustainable hypertrophy.

• Strength training: 3 – 6 rep range
• Hypertrophy training: 5 – 30 rep range (recommended: 8 – 20 rep range)

Strength vs. Hypertrophy: Volume

So what role does volume play in each training modality? Simply, strength training requires less total cumulative fatigue for best results than size training does. Additionally, strength training requires a higher level of preparedness than does hypertrophy training.

Strength training:

• More fatiguing per set despite succeeding optimally in a lower rep range.
• A high level of preparedness is essential to strength training achievements in advanced lifters.

Hypertrophy training:

• Does not generate as much fatigue per set
• Does not require a high level of preparedness
• Hypertrophy results improve with higher volumes

Resultantly, the range at which you establish your best training gains for strength training is often between the MV (maintenance volume) and MEV (minimum effective volume) of hypertrophy training for the same lifter. For this reason, it is nearly impossible for the same lifter to both strength and hypertrophy train optimally. The same lifter could not realistically and optimally do 8 sets of quad work per week for strength training AND 16 sets for size. Evidently, it is not ideal to both strength and hypertrophy train concurrently.

Strength vs. Hypertrophy: Progression

In strength training, progression and load are of utmost importance, while in size training load progressions do not play as important a role. In hypertrophy training, large gaps between MEV to MRV (maximum recoverable volume-in other words, the most your body can completely recover from) means volume progression should not be discounted. In advanced strength progression, it would be appropriate to decrease weekly reps and increase load even more, however, this tactic would not be successful in hypertrophy training.

• Strength training: increase weight and not sets
• Hypertrophy training: add some weight to one set

What it boils down to is that there is such a discrepancy in a lifter’s MAV for strength training versus his/her MAV for hypertrophy training, that it’s nearly impossible to train optimally for both simultaneously.

Strength vs. Hypertrophy: Frequency and Undulation

The next few factors to consider when analyzing the differences between strength and hypertrophy training are frequency and undulation. Simply, frequency and undulation considerations are completely different in the two training models. When training for hypertrophy, nervous system (NS) fatigue is low while joint and connective tissue do not require complete healing between sessions. This means you can increase reps of the same exercise in consecutive sessions without penalty.

Conversely, in strength training more recovery time is recommended between sessions. Recovery for strength training consists of more time between sessions and undulating (when reps in a given exercise increase or decrease from set to set in an alternating manner) RPE (Rate of Perceived of Exertion). See below for examples of what frequency and undulation may look like in each training model.

• Strength training: Monday 2-4 reps (9 RPE), Wednesday 4-6 reps (8 RPE), Friday 2-4 reps (6 RPE)
• Hypertrophy training: Monday 5-10, Tuesday 10-20, Wednesday 10-20, Friday 20-30

Again, there is clearly a stark difference in how to optimally train for strength versus how to train for hypertrophy. Here you can see that it’s impossible to train with the same frequency and undulation in both models.

Strength vs. Hypertrophy: Exercise Selection

How does exercise selection play into differentiating strength training and hypertrophy training? Strength training is typically characterized by a set of particular exercises. For instance, by increasing the load and reps for a squat, the legs increase in strength. In essence, to improve strength you would train using the same or similar movements often. Choose wisely though, because not all exercises are conducive to optimal strength training.

On the other hand, a focus on hypertrophy thrives on exercise variation throughout the training week. Solely squatting will not improve leg size because squats only focus on particular segments of the muscle, while other exercises address the remaining parts of that same quadricep. Therefore, by varying exercise selection in hypertrophy training, the overall muscle size will improve.

• Strength training: increase load and volume of a given exercise to improve overall strength
• Hypertrophy training: use a variety of exercises, focused on particular muscles, to improve overall size

Strength vs. Hypertrophy: Concurrent Training

Although it is less suboptimal to train for strength and size concurrently, it can be done. However, doing so is truly only ideal, and not for the long-term, for lifters outside of the advanced experience level. Take a look at how you might approach training from a concurrent standpoint:

• Execute compound (exercises that work multiple muscles at once, like squats), free-weight exercises
• Execute strength-focused lifting at the 3-6 rep range during each workout
• Choose optimal strength-training exercises in the 6-12 rep range
• Focus progression on load and not set numbers from week to week

Ideally, however, phase-potentiating is the best course of action to achieve both strength and hypertrophy. Phase potentiating is a way in which you strategically plan workouts to optimize the potential of subsequent sessions. By planning the overall phase, with attention to detail paid to upcoming workouts, you can optimize the benefits of a concurrent training regimen. Take a look at a sample of how that might look in a given concurrent training cycle.

Are Strength Training and Hypertrophy Training the Same?

The answer to this question is not clear-cut. Strength and hypertrophy training can sometimes look the same, but there are many factors to consider. The two models definitely share some crossover, but optimal outcomes in each model will likely depend on a lifter’s level of experience.

Beginners can get away with doing sets in the 5-11 rep range and still improve in both strength and hypertrophy. Furthermore, lifters at the intermediate experience level can benefit from the simplicity of a concurrent training approach. However, intermediates approaching the advanced level should refocus training sessions towards a phasic bias approach for optimal results. Finally, trainers at the advanced level will need to focus on either a hypertrophy OR a strength-based approach for optimal, sustainable results.

Again, there are many similarities between the two approaches to training, but for optimal, sustained results, especially at the advanced training level, it’s recommended to focus on either strength training or hypertrophy training.

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