Hypertrophy training for strength athletes is a necessary part of overall strength development, injury prevention, and performance. While the direct emphasis of many intermediate and advanced strength programs is to gain strength, defined as maximal strength (increase 1-rep maxes), there is also a large dependence on creating new muscle fibers to assist in this process.
Mixing hypertrophy and strength training into one comprehensive program is necessary, and can be done fairly easily if you understand how to monitor training volumes, recognize muscle soreness from general fatigue, and know what outcomes to aim for when training for hypertrophy vs strength.
In this article, we will discuss the differences between training for hypertrophy and strength, what factors you need to consider, and how to start integrating hypertrophy training into your existing strength training program.
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What is Hypertrophy Training
Hypertrophy training is when you train in a manner that promotes muscle growth (hypertrophy).
While there are various ways to do this, the goal is the same: to increase muscle mass (which may not be directly in line with increasing strength).
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Hypertrophy Training vs Strength Training
For most individuals (beginners and intermediate lifters) doing a set of 10 back squats will both build muscle and general strength. The key difference between the terms comes when you really define “strength” training.
For some, this means just being able to lift relatively heavy weights. For others, training strength means training MAXIMAL strength, which is much more nervous system dependent than general hypertrophy training.
For this reason, most training that occurs under the 5 rep threshold is often seen as “strength training” due to the increased relative loading (closer to one’s true maximum).
Below, we will discuss various rep ranges for training hypertrophy, maximal strength, and general strength and muscle building: all of which are often accomplished in beginner training, but must be specifically attacked at more advanced levels.
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Rep Ranges For Hypertrophy
When you are on a mission to develop bigger muscles and create more raw material to then transition into heavier strength training, it is important to understand the various repetitions ranges that have been seen to promote muscle growth (which is not the same as maximal strength).
It is also important to understand that a lifter can get “stronger” without actually increasing muscle hypertrophy (size and growth), which often occurs early in a beginner’s workout journey.
This is primarily due to increased muscle coordination and nervous system adaptations.
For this reason, many lifters will often train TOO heavy while attempting to maximize muscle growth.
General Strength and Fitness
For years, gym goers have been programmed to train 8-12 reps for muscle growth and strength.
While these are great recommendations for beginners (and often where many people who are new to training SHOULD do), these are general guidelines and do not apply as one begins to progress.
When training muscle hypertrophy, various muscle groups can respond to rep ranges differently based on generics, muscle fiber types, and the individual.
For example, individuals with more slow twitch quad muscles may have better muscle growth training in the 12-20 rep range, whereas lifters who have more fast twitch muscle may just feel beat up training that high of reps (and don’t get delayed onset muscle soreness). In those individuals, training a lower rep range of 8-12 might suffice.
For most individuals, it is key to experiment within the 8-15 rep range, and then work yourself either up to say 15-25 reps (with hard exertion), and see what happens. Conversely, training with 5-10 reps can also be a good way for some individuals to pack on serious muscle mass. It is recommended however, that training less than 5 reps be reserved for more strength focused training.
This is a range that can be good for lifters who adapt better (and get a good muscle pump and soreness) using heavier loads and 5-10 reps per set. This is also a good inbetween range for lifters who want to progress into a more strength-focused training phase, yet spent some time training in the 8-15, or 15-25 rep range.
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How To Determine Which Rep Range Is Best For YOU?
This can be a challenging question for many lifters, especially when a friend has success doing one thing, yet that same exercise and rep range just makes your joints hurt.
Below are three training outcomes that you should look for when training for muscle growth. If a movement, rep range, and workout provides all three of these, it is generally said that those movements and reps work well for your body and make-up.
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#1 – DO YOUR MUSCLES FEEL PUMPED UP DURING THE WORKOUT/SETS?
This is instant feedback, and you need to focus on this during a set. If you cannot feel the muscle working, and feel the local muscle fatigue (like a muscle burn or exhaustion), then you either need to lighten the load and focus on the movement, go slower and feel the muscle stretch, and use a fuller range of motion (or better yet, do all three).
#2 – D
O YOU HAVE MUSCLE SORENESS A DAY OR TWO AFTER THE WORKOUT?
Delayed onset muscle soreness is a key indicator of a good muscle hypertrophy session. That said, muscle soreness is NOT ALWAYS indicative of an effective training session, however some slight soreness can be a good sign of muscle stress that will then promote hypertrophy. It is also important to note that soreness that impedes your ability to train in following workouts, or one’s that impair your day to day life (like an overly aggressive workout that creates severe leg soreness) is a good indicator that you were on the right track, you just did too much volume (too many sets) or trained too hard for that session.
#3 – ARE YOUR JOINTS PAIN FREE WHEN DOING THE MOVEMENTS?
If at any point during or after a training session you have joint pain and/or discomfort, which is different from sore muscles, this is an indicator that you are causing too much stress and damage to bones, ligaments, and tendons. This can be caused by many things, however the most common is (1) improper training techniques, (2) too heavy of loads, (3) lack of control in a movement..slow down, and/or (4) injury. If you are injured or feel injured, it is best to back off from the movement that causes pain, rest, and determine if you need to see a medical profession. If pain goes away, try performing other exercises for the same muscle group as sometimes a movement might not work well for you, despite it doing well for someone else.
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Add Hypertrophy Training Into A Strength Program
Below are four areas where you can add hypertrophy training into a strength program. It is recommended to train your strength lifts first, when you are fresh, and then transition into hypertrophy training with emphasis on the key markers above rather than how heavy you are lifting.
Unilateral exercises are a great way to increase muscle activation, hypertrophy, and address any muscle imbalances. Movements like lunges, split squats, single arm presses, and single leg hip raises are all good options to choose from. Training these with emphasis on coordination, proper technique and joint mechanics, and feeling the muscle should be of the higher priority.
SINGLE JOINT MOVEMENTS
Movements like hamstring curls (only joint moving is the knee), triceps extensions (only joint moving is the elbow), and chest fly (only joint moving is the shoulder) are all examples of single joint exercises. These are great to address specific weaknesses or highly areas that you may want to grow more muscle mass. It is not recommended to train these movements with lower rep ranges, so aim to perform 8-15 reps on most of these movements, or more.
Similar to single joint and unilateral movements, machines are a great way to increase muscle mass without having to place additional stress on supportive muscle groups. While that is generally a benefit for overall fitness, training in an isolated manner after compound strength lifts can help target a muscle group without weaker supportive muscles holding you back. Let’s say for example, you want to grow your quadriceps more, so you attack 4 sets of squats for strength. Afterwards, you could train higher rep back squats, however you may find your lower back fatigues out or you simply feel drained. Instead, performing machine hack squats may be a solid option as it can take pressure off your lower back and allow you to isolate the quads more and provide more stimulus for growth.
LIGHT COMPOUND LIFTS
You can train compound movements, often ones you do for strength, for muscle hypertrophy as well. Just be aware that some movements, like high rep deadlifts, will create higher amounts of systemic (and nervous system) fatigue, and may not be the best option for muscle hypertrophy of the hamstrings due to the overall stress it promotes. Instead, you could train deadlifts for strength, and then move to a less stressful exercise like barbell good mornings to specifically target the hamstrings.
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4 Final Tips To Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy
Below are four tips to help you maximize muscle hypertrophy and aid in overall strength development.
#1 – MONITOR TRAINING VOLUME
Your accessory hypertrophy training should be done in a way that supports your strength lifts. If you find you are beating yourself up from accessory exercise that causes more fatigue (you are not recovering from workouts), and/or your strength is not going up, you may be performing too much training volume. You can refer to this hypertrophy training guidelines central hub for more specific recommendations of optimal training volume for muscle growth.
#2 – UNDERSTAND YOUR REP RANGES
Be sure to refer to the rep range guidelines from earlier in this article. These guidelines will help you navigate your accessory training programs, and help you better individualize your own muscle growth goals based on how your body reacts to various rep ranges.
#3 – UNDERSTAND POSITIVE MARKERS FOR MUSCLE GROWTH
When training for muscle hypertrophy, it is key to not focus on HOW MUCH WEIGHT YOU ARE LIFTING, but rather how your body responds to the stress of a training session. Use the 3 training outcomes from above to help guide you along your muscle building journey. If you find you are failing to accomplish all three objectives, then you need to reevaluate your rep ranges, overall training load (doing too much OR not enough), technique, range of motion (fuller is better), tempo of movements (slow and controlled on lowering phases), and exercise selection.
#4 – KNOW WHEN TO BACK OFF
Your hypertrophy training should support your strength goals. If you find that your hypertrophy training is (1) creating excessive soreness that impedes your strength training, (2) resulting in joint pain and/or connective tissue issues, or (3) general lack of recovery; it is best to back off slightly and do one or two less sets per movement and see if that helps your body recover over a span of a couple weeks.
When training for muscle hypertrophy, be sure to always monitor overall training volume so that you can maximize muscle growth, allow for recovery, and still train strength. Adding too much can certainly be counterproductive, but by following the tips above you should be able to navigate those waters. Lastly, it is also important to note that you can dedicate certain training phases (6-12 weeks in length) to more hypertrophy-focused training, with the strength movements being there to maintain while you push harder on gaining muscle mass. This is often done, and then transitioned into a more strength-focused period.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.
Mike has published over 500+ articles on premiere online media outlets like BarBend, BreakingMuscle, Men’s Health, and FitBob, covering his expertise of strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, fitness, and sports nutrition. In Mike’s spare time, he enjoys the outdoors, traveling the world, coaching, whiskey and craft beer, and spending time with his family and friends.