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Hypertrophy vs. Heavy Lifting: Which Training Style Is Better for Muscle Growth?

Does it feel like you’re in the gym 24/7 but yet you don’t have the muscles to show for it? You lift your weights, you eat a balanced diet, but somehow, there’s still some slack in your shirt sleeves.

While there's no right or wrong way to work out, there is a preferred training method if your goal is to build muscle. This brings us to the age-old question: is hypertrophy training or heavy strength training better for muscle growth?

In this guide, we’ll help you understand the difference between the two training styles and learn how you can build muscle without sacrificing strength.

What is Hypertrophy Training?

Woman performing a push up on a suspension trainer

Hypertrophy” refers to the growth in your muscle cells and fibers that takes place to create more muscle mass. Muscular hypertrophy is most commonly achieved through resistance training workouts that contain higher sets/reps and low to moderate weights (think: volume). The goal of hypertrophy training isn’t just to increase muscle mass, but also to improve shape and tone. It’s achieved through a combination of compound lifts, isolation exercises, and bodyweight training.

Some examples of hypertrophy exercises include:

  • Lateral raises

  • Dumbbell bench press

  • Romanian deadlifts

  • Squats (any variation; the rep and weight range are what’s important)

When you train for hypertrophy, you're creating microscopic damage to your muscle fibers known as "microtears". And while that may sound scary, don’t worry – it’s a good thing. This “damage” triggers the body to repair and rebuild the muscle fibers with new tissue that is slightly larger than before. In turn, this incrementally larger tissue results in muscle growth over time.

Benefits of Hypertrophy Training:

  • Increases muscle size – every time those tiny micro-tears repair themselves you increase your muscle mass

  • Improves stability – when you build muscle mass, you also strengthen your surrounding joints and ligaments

  • Promotes muscular endurance – hypertrophy training and endurance training aren’t exactly the same. But executing more reps and sets will train your muscles to perform longer before gassing out

  • Shapes and tones your muscles – ideal for bodybuilders or those seeking a more "defined" look

What is Strength Training (Heavy Lifting)?

Woman strength training on a leg press machine

Now, let's shift gears and talk about strength training. This type of training involves lifting heavier weights for fewer repetitions (usually 1-6 reps per set at about 80-90% of your 1 Rep Max – think: powerlifting). This pushes your muscles to produce the maximum force possible during a lift to build total strength and power. While strength training can also increase muscle mass, you're more likely to build muscle density. Strength training exercises are primarily compound lifts, unlike hypertrophy training which includes isolation exercises.

Some examples of strength training exercises include:

  • Conventional deadlifts

  • Squats

  • Barbell bench press

  • Military press

Lifting heavy weights doesn’t just make your muscles stronger, it also strengthens your central nervous system (CNS).[1] During heavy sessions, your brain gets better at telling your muscles to work hard and you prepare your CNS to handle more stress. This helps fine-tune the connection between your brain and your muscles (mind-muscle connection), which allows you to train more effectively.

Benefits of Heavy Lifting:

  • Strengthens bone density – heavy weight training can help build bone mass (along with muscle mass) which can help prevent osteoporosis and other bone-related illnesses

  • It can lead to denser muscle mass – where hypertrophy builds size, heavy strength training builds density to fill out your muscles

  • Produces explosive power – heavy weightlifting trains your fast-twitch muscle fibers

  • It’s ideal for powerlifters training the “big 3 lifts” (squat, bench, and deadlift), athletes, and those seeking functional strength

Comparing and Combining the Two Approaches for Optimal Muscle Growth

So, when you’re faced with the choice between hypertrophy and heavy lifting, which method should you choose for muscle growth? Let's unpack this.

Hypertrophy training emphasizes enlarging and shaping muscles. By lifting moderate weights for more repetitions, muscles are under tension for longer, leading to visible growth. It's a go-to if you want a chiseled, defined physique.

On the other hand, heavy weightlifting (strength training) is about raw strength. By lifting heavier weights for fewer repetitions, you're training your muscles to exert more power in short bursts. This helps build your strength and also results in dense, resilient muscles, which is perfect if you’re seeking functional strength.

But the real game changer for balanced muscle growth? Taking a combined training approach.

Adding both hypertrophy and heavy lifting into your training routine helps you achieve a blend of muscle size, definition, and strength – and create muscles that aren’t just for show.

How Do You Combine Hypertrophy and Strength Training?

If you want to combine the two training approaches in the same session, we recommend you complete your strength lifts first – like your heavy squats, deadlifts, bench presses, etc. This way you’re fresh and can recruit the most power to perform the lift. Remember to keep the rep ranges between 3-5 reps for about 5 sets.

After your heavy lifts, jump into your hypertrophy training. Performing unilateral lifts, isolation exercises, and machine-based movements not only helps you carve out your muscles but can also help address muscular imbalances that might be hindering your strength training. Add in exercises like dumbbell Romanian deadlifts, dumbbell lateral raises, or cable flys to complement your heavy lifts. Your rep ranges for hypertrophy exercises should be anywhere from 8-15 reps for 3-4 sets per exercise.

The Final Set: Size vs. Strength

Every fitness journey is unique and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to building muscle. But knowing the difference between hypertrophy training for building and sculpting, and heavy strength training for power and density, is pivotal for crafting your weekly workout split.

If you’re still not sure which approach is better for you, drop by The Gym Connection in Denville, NJ, and get started with a free consultation. Our expert team is here to provide personalized advice to guide you on your muscle growth journey.

[1] “Lifting Weights Makes Your Nervous System Stronger Too.” Press Office, Accessed 23 Sept. 2023.

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