The Difference Between Building Muscle and Increasing Strength

Man lifting weights at the gym
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Strength training and hypertrophy training (or muscle building) do not necessarily have the same goal or outcome. Strength training aims to make muscles stronger. On the other hand, muscle building aims to modify muscle cell physiology to make muscles larger.

Most people would assume that larger muscles produce the most force. However, when comparing bodybuilding versus strength training, strength training muscles may have overall better muscle fiber quality.

Although larger muscle mass and overall physical size may provide some strength advantage, performance goals and appropriate training approaches will differ depending on the desired outcome: more muscle mass or more strength.

Weight Training

Weight training, also referred to as resistance training or weight lifting, offers a number of benefits for your physical and mental health. Lifting weights can help increase metabolism, lower body fat, and reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases. And if you're feeling stressed, weight training can reduce stress and anxiety and even improve your mood.

When you start weight training, you're likely going to gain strength and muscle mass at the same time. As you continue and become more advanced, focusing on building strength or muscle becomes imperative to reach your goals faster.

Hypertrophy vs. Strength

Muscle building aims to induce hypertrophy of muscle tissue with the muscle gaining overall size. On the other hand, strength training aims to increase the functional ability of the muscles.

A few key differences come to mind when comparing hypertrophy and strength training. Hypertrophy training requires a higher training volume with more frequent workouts and shorter rest periods in between sets. The workouts include more sets and reps with a lower weight. 

Strength training has a lower training volume (fewer days, longer rest periods) but higher intensity. The goal is to lift heavier weights with fewer reps and sets.

Even nutrition and diet needs are different between the two programs. Bodybuilding, or hypertrophy training, uses training protocols that focus primarily on enhancing muscle size, so a balanced nutrition program that supports low body fat maintenance and sufficient protein to gain muscle is vital. There is an on and off-season preparation if you are competing in events. The nutrition plan will also change depending on the category that is involved. Strength training uses nutrition for the recovery and repair of muscles. 

Hypertrophy Training Exercises

Muscle-building programs use exercise machines for the majority of the workout but also utilize free weights and bodyweight exercises. Sample hypertrophy exercises include:

Hypertrophy training involves progressive overloading, which is necessary for maximal muscle fiber recruitment and size increases. For beginner and intermediate athletes, use moderate loading: 65% to 80-85% of your one-rep maximum (1 RM), 6–12 repetitions per set, 1–3+ sets per exercise. Rest should be between 30 seconds to 1.5 minutes in between sets.

For advanced training, achieve 67% to 85% of 1 RM, 6–12 repetitions per set, at least 3 sets per exercise. Rest should be between 30 seconds to 1.5 minutes in between sets.

Strength Training Exercises

Strength training typically centers around compound lifts (as opposed to hypertrophy training, which uses both compound and isolation lifts). Sample strength training exercises include:

For strength training, the advice on progressive overloading is a little different. For beginner to intermediate athletes, experts recommend training with loads corresponding to 70% to 80% of 1 RM, at least 6 repetitions per set for 1-3+ sets. Two to 5 minutes of rest in between sets.

For advanced training, 85% of 1 RM for at least 3 sets to maximize muscular strength. There are at least 6 reps for each set with 2-5 minutes of rest in between each set.

Advanced trainers tend to use more repetitions and lower weights for bodybuilding, and higher weights and fewer repetitions for strength training.

Benefits of Hypertrophy Training

With hypertrophy training, the aim is to achieve an aesthetic look with bigger, bulkier muscles. But that's not the only benefit. A muscle-building program will increase:

  • Calorie expenditure
  • Confidence and self-esteem
  • Lean muscle mass
  • Metabolism
  • Power
  • Strength

Benefits of Strength Training

Strength training focuses on improving your functional fitness so that you can translate the workouts you do in the gym to your everyday life. You'll find that the stronger you get, the easier it is to carry groceries, play with your kids, and lift heavy objects like furniture.

The perks don't end there. Strength training has been shown to provide many physical, mental, and emotional health benefits and can help:

  • Boost confidence
  • Enhance athletic performance
  • Improve strength
  • Increase bone density and muscle mass
  • Lower body fat
  • Reduce stress, anxiety, and fatigue
  • Reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases
  • Reduce the risk of injuries and joint pain
  • Regulate mood
  • Rev up your metabolism

Frequently Asked Questions

Does hypertrophy training or strength training have a greater impact on muscle appearance?

Hypertrophy training has a greater impact on muscle appearance than strength training.

Does cutting or bulking impact whether you should hypertrophy or strength train?

Cutting and bulking are more appropriate for hypertrophy training. For strength training, focus on recovery nutrition for repairing muscles between workouts.

Should you train strength or hypertrophy first?

If you're beginning a weight training program, you will increase muscle and strength at the same time. Then you can choose either a strength training program or muscle-building (hypertrophy) program depending on what you're aiming for.

A Word From Verywell

A suitable combination of strength and muscle training will be the most useful for most recreational athletes and fitness trainers. However, should you need to specialize, it's worth knowing how to adapt your workout once you reach an intermediate weight training level of condition. It is also beneficial to work with a personal trainer in order to work on your form and learn how to prevent injuries.

Whether you train for strength or muscle, or a combination, you need to be committed to the appropriate exercises and program protocols to achieve success. But you should also listen to your body. Take caution against certain risks, like skipping your warmup, increasing weight too quickly, using poor form, or not making time for rest and recovery.

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