Strength Training IS Hypertrophy Training

by Robert Santana, PhD, RD, SSC | April 20, 2022

lifter locking out a deadlift at weight and plates gym

The quest to build larger muscles is one that men have embarked on for centuries. It is obvious that the skeletal muscles’ ability to produce increasing force against an external resistance is a pre-requisite to accomplish this goal. As Milo of Croton learned centuries ago, that external resistance must increase over time. Legend has it that he stumbled upon a newborn calf, lifted it daily, and as it grew, so did he. This is the earliest record of the principle of progressive overload.

Although this story originates in Greek mythology, it has aged quite well, and this phenomenon has been observed in weight rooms across the world. However, a rise in interest among professional researchers in the academic arena, coupled with decades of heavily promoted bodybuilding literature, has led to conclusions that are often confusing to those interested in building muscle. This has led the popular idea that strength training and “hypertrophy” training are mutually exclusive. They are not mutually exclusive, rather they are inextricably related, and the professional research data highlights this despite misleading commentary by the authors.

The term “hypertrophy” refers to the enlargement of muscle mass. Training for the goal of hypertrophy logically refers to training for the purpose of building larger muscles. This is typically a goal of bodybuilders since their sport evaluates them based on the appearance of their muscles rather than their function. The appearance of their muscles is also influenced by untrainable characteristics such as muscle insertion points, anthropometry, skin elasticity, skin thickness, and total number of muscle fibers, to name a few.

Professional researchers in the 1980s began to recognize that there were differences in the manner bodybuilders trained compared to Olympic weightlifters and powerlifters, and began to conduct academic studies to compare those training methods. Observational research quickly identified that bodybuilders typically trained with higher repetitions, shorter rest periods, and often utilized a greater number of exercises, whereas powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters utilized lower repetitions with a handful of exercises. At some point, the bodybuilders’ style of training was referred to as “hypertrophy training” and the powerlifters’ training style was referred to as “strength training.”

Academics and quasi-academics began writing articles highlighting that the fact that “smaller” powerlifters could lift heavier weights than “larger” bodybuilders, whereas the bodybuilders could perform more repetitions at a given load than the powerlifters. It was clear that training adaptations to both styles of training were distinct, with bodybuilders possessing more muscular endurance to perform higher repetitions at a fixed load and powerlifters performing better at maximal loads. Recent professional research articles have taken these arguments further to argue that “light” loads can elicit hypertrophy to the same extent as heavy loads. This has led to the trend of lifting warm-up weights and calling it a work set.

Unfortunately, professional researchers rarely communicate well with the lay public, and the lay public rarely understands the jargon of the professional research establishment. First and foremost, professional researchers do not measure hypertrophy because they would have to kill you and perform an autopsy to do that. Dual X-Ray Absorptiometry (DXA), air displacement plethysmography (i.e. BodPOD), and hydrostatic weighing estimate lean mass, which includes anything that is not considered bodyfat (organs, body water, bone, etc.), and are based on a set of assumptions specific to each instrument. More importantly, not a single professional research study has effectively controlled for variables outside of the lab setting (e.g. diet, sleep, drug use, stress, outside physical activity, and many others), nor has the duration of the study been sufficiently long (e.g. >1 year) to gather adequate data on chronic changes in muscle size. The National Institute of Health (NIH) is simply not going to fund a study to identify the most effective methods to get as big and as strong as possible for reasons that deserve a dedicated article on the topic, but which should be obvious anyway. These important factors, and several other methodological limitations of lab research, should always be considered when evaluating such studies.

We don’t need to write a systematic review about a systematic review to highlight that the vast majority of lifting studies include progressive overload. The truth is that the load always gets heavier and sets of five have the potential to get heavier over a longer timeline than sets of 25. Now someone is going to say, “Well, you can add sets.” Yes, you can add sets but at what point does adding sets either become a logistical impossibility or serve as an endurance stimulus?

To illustrate, let’s hypothetically add sets without adjusting load or repetitions, and let’s also assume time is not a limiting factor. Is performing 100 sets of 10 an aerobic stimulus or an anabolic stimulus? What about 200 sets of 10? When will you rest? These problems become apparent well before set #100, and this is obvious to most of us who have lifted weights and coached lifters. Similar problems arise with adding repetitions. Those who have tried to progressively overload repetitions have quickly found themselves recycling the same load for weeks and possibly performing fewer repetitions at a given load.

Meanwhile, the guy lifting progressively heavier sets of 5 is making progress both on the bar and with his muscles. Adding load to 10, 15, or 20 reps will result in similar gains in muscle mass because you are incrementally loading heavier weight on the bar. But 5s allow this process to work much longer than 10s, 15s, or 20s. High repetitions typically work better with machines or ancillary exercises because spinal stability and balance is not a limiting factor on machines. Spinal stability becomes very difficult to achieve at high repetitions, which is why we prefer 5 or fewer repetitions on the basic barbell lifts. In fact, most of the professional research study protocols prescribe exercises performed on machines, which is another reason for the fascination with high repetitions in the academic, healthcare, and fitness industries.

Nonetheless, it is the strength stimulus and the fact that the load is getting heavier that is driving growth, not warm up weights that are never progressed.

Bodybuilders aim to maximize muscle mass, minimize bodyfat, and display a degree of muscularity that depends heavily on their genetic endowment and their responsiveness to anabolic steroids. This does not discredit the effort required to train and prepare for a bodybuilding show, it just merely highlights the reality that many of us do not have capstone deltoids, thin skin, naturally low bodyfat, long muscle insertions, and a high tolerance for the drugs often taken to enhance all the above.

They are also not “warming up” for their 3-hour long, two-a-day workouts. A serious bodybuilding workout is challenging, fatiguing, time consuming, and follows a progression. It is also long and unnecessary for the majority of personal training clients, gym members, and other people reading this. Most of you don’t have 4-6 hours per day to dedicate to two training sessions – nor do you need to. A loaded barbell and 5 key exercises performed 3-4 days per week and incrementally loaded a few pounds at a time will elicit sufficient growth over a long enough timeline for most of you. It will do so while sparing you the expense of your valuable and irreplaceable time. And it will make you stronger, every time.

Discuss in Forums

Starting Strength Weekly Report

Highlights from the StartingStrength Community. Browse archives.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.