The Difference Between Strength and Hypertrophy
Understanding the difference between strength and hypertrophy is key to making your training work for you. You may be trying to build muscle, but your workouts are geared more for strength without even knowing it. Or you may be trying to build strength without bulking up, but your workouts are such high volume that you’re building muscle mass. This article will help clear up this difference.
So let’s say you’re the boss of your company. Would you rather have 50 employees with average work ethic and efficiency or would you rather have 25 of the hardest working, most efficient employees around?
Neither scenario is “bad” necessarily. The 50 “average” employees would still do the job. And having more employees does create more potential for more productivity if you can make them more efficient. But just because there are more of them, does not mean they will get more work done or do a better job than the 25 harder-working, more efficient employees, right? In fact, I personally would rather have the 25.
Well, it’s the same thing with our muscles. The amount of muscle (fibers) we have is not directly correlated with how “strong” we are. There is some correlation, without a doubt. But the line wouldn’t be completely linear. Why is that? Well, first off, what is “strength?”
My definition of strength is one’s ability to move some form of resistance against an external force. The resistance could be a barbell or it could be your own body. The external force could be gravity or it could be friction. Your muscles work together to move your body in order to push or pull or move the resistance against this external force. So you’d think more muscle means more strength. And that’s sort of true. But here’s the catch: are you utilizing all those muscle fibers that you have during each rep? Going back to our example: you may have 50 employees, but if only 10 are doing their job, productivity will remain low.
The way it works, in VERY basic terms, is that your brain, spinal cord, and muscles are all connected. The brain sends the message to the muscles via motor neurons. The more muscle fibers that can be activated by the motor neurons, the greater the force that muscle can pull with. Some people are more efficient at activating more of their muscle fibers each rep than others, and therefore are stronger.
Building strength is about making this motor neuron connection and activation more efficient AND making sure the activation happens in the first place! It’s not JUST about having bigger muscles. However, simple math tells us that the more muscle present, the more potential there is for motor neuron activation, and the more potential for greater force. But potential is just potential. How can we harness as much of that potential as possible?
Hypertrophy is the scientific word for “increasing the size of muscle fibers,” which therefore increases the size of the muscle (a muscle is made up of bundles of muscle fibers). In order to do this, your body needs to receive a strong enough stimulus in order to make it adapt. Basically, you need to make your body say, “Woah! I need more muscle in order to keep up with the demands being thrown at me right now!” There’s much debate about the exact factors and stimuli that create a hypertrophy response. We do know, however, that lifting moderately heavy weight for high volume (reps x sets) seems to be the best way to do this. This is because the high volume damages the muscle which signals the “repair and growth” response from the body (this is one of the reasons why recovery is so important!). The high volume also pumps blood into the specific muscles that were worked, so that the nutrition you give your body goes towards that specific muscle repair and growth (this is one of the reasons why nutrition is so important!).
Strength is more about the mind-muscle connection where as hypertrophy is more about creating mechanical stress/damage.
In order to train for strength, it’s best* to lift heavy weight (80-95% of max) for lower reps (1-4) and longer rest periods (2-4 minutes); and make sure that you are progressing in some way on a weekly and monthly basis.
In order to train for hypertrophy, it’s best to lift moderately heavy weight (60-80% of max) for moderate reps (6-12), more sets (4-10), and less rest periods (30-90 seconds); and make sure that you are remaining consistent with your training and nutrition.
(*The best way for a beginner to build strength is to keep it relatively light and practice perfecting the technique so that when you start to add more weight, you are efficient at each exercise.)
In conclusion, being stronger will help with hypertrophy, and having more muscle will help with strength. It’s important to train for both during a given year or macrocycle. But the takeaway is this: know what you’re goal is and make sure that you’re training aligns with your goal. After all, that’s the main point of training, isn’t it!?