The goal of training for hypertrophy is to increase muscle size, and the goal of training for strength is to maximize the amount of force produced with those muscles in relation to skeletal structure.
Although by definition, these two approaches to training aim to produce different goals, when programmed thoughtfully, they complement each other.
When talking about hypertrophy training and strength training, compared to training for general fitness, the demands of a sport would call for a bit more specificity. However, general fitness comes before sport-specific fitness, so the principles shared here, though highly applicable to powerlifting (particularly for females) apply to anyone looking to increase their overall fitness, athleticism, and strength.
Size and Strength Differences Between Females and Males
Most females are not as genetically gifted with the potential for large muscles as males are. While females can reach equal levels of strength relative to size, males have a greater physical advantage for strength and size.
Due to a typically smaller physical frame and hormonal differences, females don’t have as much potential to reach high levels of strength as men do.1 Can a woman be as strong as a man? Relatively strong, yes. Literally? No. I’m speaking generally here, though like with a lot of things, we can always find examples to the contrary on either extreme of the spectrum.
Ultimately, the size of your physical frame (skeleton and muscle) and maximum potential for muscle gain or strength gain (your highest possible limit) is genetically unique to you. 2,3
A lot of the current research, popular information, and even many athletic concepts were studied on, and developed by and for males. The principles apply to everyone, as humans, but it is important to acknowledge the differences between genders when it comes to strength and fitness strategies. For the typical female, making appreciable strength and muscle gains is a slower process than it is for males. It requires significant work, appropriate intensity, and ample time.
What Is Strength Training?
Strength is the ability to produce force, and the best way to produce force and get stronger is to move heavier weights over time. Strength training is the foundation of well-rounded fitness.
When you strength train, you are essentially asking your nervous system to produce more force through your muscles and through optimal use of your skeletal structure (in other words, with good posture and good form).
Your nervous system dictates how your body responds to training, no matter what type of training it is. The overarching purpose of training for strength is to enhance your ability to train harder (move more weight, move faster) over time. Without increasing overall strength, your body will not adapt as well to any fitness training you do. How your muscles fire, how many and how hard the fire, and for how long they can fire — all of that is determined by your nervous system. This is why lifting heavy (remember, heavy is relative to your level) is very important for making progress toward both, health and aesthetic goals.
When training for general fitness, strength training should take priority because it is the foundation by which all other training becomes productive — even if your goal isn’t performance based, and you couldn’t care less about how much weight you move. To exercise well and get the full benefits from your exercise, getting stronger is necessary. As strength coach and author Mark Rippetoe said:
Strength is the basis for all athletic endeavors.
When we talk about strength training, most people might be thinking of barbells, dumbbells and “moving weight.” However, strength training isn’t strictly limited to barbell training or powerlifting. You could train for strength with a multitude of tools — and to a certain extent, even with just your bodyweight (check out what Molly Galbraith and Karen Smith have to say about bodyweight strength training).
Still, learning and including the barbell lifts in your training is a damn good idea, especially if increasing strength is the goal. The squat, deadlift, bench and overhead presses, snatch, and clean and jerk are the foundations of strength development. There is a reason why they’re referred to as the basics and why learning to lift (and lift well) is the most effective path to developing physical strength.
The basic barbell lifts (all considered compound lifts) train the body as a whole, demanding a high level of coordination, flexibility, mobility, intensity, balance, body awareness, and speed — especially with the Olympic lifts.
How your body changes through exercise, in appearance and performance, begins with training your nervous system to adapt to the work, your muscles to produce force, and your body to have better coordination. Your nervous system responds to proper strength training by increasing your ability to produce force, contract your muscles harder, and have stronger bones.
What Is Hypertrophy Training?
Hypertrophy training is more commonly known as bodybuilding. Training for hypertrophy or for increasing muscle size contributes greatly to what many people refer to as being “toned.”
The word toned has gotten a bad rep which I don’t think is fully warranted. Toned accurately describes the look some people are going for, and training for hypertrophy is an important strategy toward that goal. Tone is an actual term. Resting muscle tone, also called tonus, is “a state of partial contraction that is characteristic of normal muscle, maintained at least in part by a continuous bombardment of motor impulses originating reflexly, and serves to maintain body posture.”4
Good posture is not only the starting point for strength, it is a starting point for developing a “toned” appearance from hypertrophy training. The stronger you are, the better tone your muscles can hold.
Hypertrophy training also builds up tendons, ligaments, and small stabilizer muscles and allow you to address specific muscle groups more directly. Tendons and ligaments adapt more slowly than muscles (which is why joint issues are often a concern in heavy lifting). Lighter hypertrophy training gives your joints and tendons time to catch up. So, while it is primarily associated with aesthetic goals, when programmed strategically, hypertrophy training helps reduce some injury risks in the long term.
If size complements strength, and lighter loads and higher reps can build up muscles and reduce risk of injury, then hypertrophy training remains very valuable.
Hypertrophy work directly improves muscle size and helps you establish a stronger mental connection with your muscles, which is an integral part of coordination and body awareness (the mind-muscle connection, as Arnold called it)!
Returning to the earlier mention of bodybuilding… It’s important to keep in mind that bodybuilding does not always mean getting stronger. The overarching intent of bodybuilding or hypertrophy training is to increase muscle size, not strength. Many dedicated bodybuilders are very strong, but relative to a weightlifter or powerlifter they are not as strong. However, we’re talking about general fitness, and for well-rounded fitness, a combination of both strength and hypertrophy training is the way to go.
You’re probably wondering, “How do I train for strength, and how do I train for hypertrophy? And how should I decide when to do which?” Well, you can’t effectively train everything at once. This is where programming comes in.
Programming For Optimal Results
Programming means making a plan, and that plan should start by addressing what you need first. What most people training for general fitness need first are better coordination and posture. Those are the two foundational qualities of strength. They also need to build muscle (hypertrophy) and improve cardiovascular conditioning.
Ideally, programming should cycle between building up the various qualities you need.
Programs that focus more on bodybuilding, basic coordination and balance, and building up cardiovascular conditioning are the best place to start if you’re a beginner. This could be for at least six months, but the length of time you spend following this program will really depend on your ability to accomplish the purpose of the program. After that, dedicating six months to a full year to a strength training program using barbells is ideal before considering a period of training for higher athleticism (speed and agility) or for more size through bodybuilding again.
The best recommendation for developing high-quality general fitness and a physique that makes you happy includes:
- a solid two years of consistent and focused training that allows you to master good lifting technique and builds the necessary components of fitness on top of each other
- taking time to learn your body
- consistent stress management
While it’s hard to give blanket recommendations for what type of program someone should follow, or start with, since it largely depends on your individual needs and starting point, I can offer a couple of general guidelines:
- You must be able to move well, in a variety of ways before loading up those movements with weight. As mentioned earlier, strength training requires good posture, coordination, stability and mobility. Consider this before selecting a program. If you can’t get up off the floor without assistance, do a bear crawl, balance on one foot, or touch your toes, you might need to start with bodyweight movement basics before jumping into weight training.
- You will need to balance how much you train, with how well you can recover from the training and how much energy you have. Hypertrophy and strength can be trained simultaneously, but you can only train as much as you can recover from your training. Piling goals and training styles on top of each other without proper programming can leave you spinning your wheels and worse, can increase your risk of injury. Training for multiple goals at once is often not recommended for someone training for general fitness because they tend to manage their programming poorly. However, if you have great self-awareness and a solid way to evaluate and track your training, you may be able to handle more complexity and work on improving in multiple qualities at once.
- Work with a coach. If you are new to training, you need a plan. You need structure. You probably don’t know what you’re doing yet. You will need to learn. A good coach or coaching group is your best bet if you feel completely stumped about where to start strength-wise and don’t feel confident in how your body moves just yet. If you’re not new to lifting, but you’re new to training specifically for strength or hypertrophy, working with a coach or buying a program from a reputable coach is a wise investment. If you are a more advanced trainee, evaluate your past training history and consider what you are curious about or what improvements you would like to make. There is a wealth of information, great coaches, and excellent books available. With some research and common sense, you can find what you need!
- Make your training a hobby. Nothing beats getting truly interested in your own fitness, health, and strength. It is a hobby that pays you back in many ways mentally, physically, and — dare I say — spiritually.
- Miller AE, McDougall JD, Tarnopolsky MA, Sale DG. Gender differences in strength and muscle fiber characteristics. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology. 66(3): 254–62. 1993
- Ivey FM, Roth SM, Ferrell RE, Tracy BL, Lemmer JT, Hurlbut DE, Martel GF, Siegel EL, Fozard JL, Metter EJ, Fleg JL, Hurley BF. Effects of Age, Gender, and Myostatin Genotype on the Hypertrophic Response to Heavy Resistance Strength Training. The Journals of Gerontology. 55(11):M641-M648. November 2000.
- Rixon KP, Lamont HS, Bemben MG. Influence of type of muscle contraction, gender, and lifting experience on postactivation potentiation performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 21(2):500-5. May 2007
- ‘Tonus’ Merriam-Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tonusC
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