Hypertrophy is the practice of increasing the size of one’s muscles by modifying the muscle cells themselves. Strength training focuses on increasing one’s strength rather than fixating on size, often making the muscles denser.
Performance360 summarizes the difference quite well with this illustration:
Most people who want to get stronger or more muscular for either aesthetic or health reasons generally go for strength training. But when is it better to focus on hypertrophy instead?
Professional or Competitive Bodybuilding
Bayesian Bodybuilding states, “If you lift weights to improve the way you look, you’re a bodybuilder.” While this is true, we’re focusing more on the connotation of the word here — which is professional and competitive bodybuilders who push the human capacity for muscle growth to its extreme.
Hypertrophy is the cornerstone of bodybuilding; without it, bodybuilding stages all over the world would look a lot different. After all, you can’t get bigger muscles without exercise. But in addition to hypertrophy, bodybuilders may also follow strict dietary regimens, take steroids and growth hormone, inject themselves with muscle volumizers, and even get implants to maximize the effects of the hours of exercise that they put in every day.
If you’re looking to get into competitive bodybuilding, strength training simply isn’t enough — hypertrophy is a must.
Getting a “Beach Body”
If you simply want to look better without a shirt on, you’re probably good just doing regular strength training, cardio, and cutting your calories. But if you’re already pretty fit and simply want to get bigger, hypertrophy is the next step, and a little in the right places goes a long way.
What distinguishes this goal from bodybuilding is that you’re not competing — your standard is how well you like what you see in the mirror. As a result, you won’t need the steroids, implants, or tanning, either. Just do the right exercises, keep your fat percentage under control, take a muscle growth supplement or two, and you’ll reach your goals.
Pushing Through a Training Plateau
When you find that you’re no longer progressing in your workouts, you’ve hit a training plateau. Plateaus suck, and they can occur for a number of reasons: overtraining, undertraining, eating too much, eating too little, too much variety, too little variety, etc. They’re characterized by one or several symptoms, including:
- Loss in strength
- Stagnant progress
- Failure to achieve a “pump”
- Facial flushing
- Loss of motivation
- Feeling more stressed/irritable than usual
Sometimes all you need is rest to get over a plateau, but if it’s a motivation/variety issue, hypertrophy can be just what the doctor ordered. Many hypertrophy exercises are actually assistance lifts, so they can help you build and break through your natural limits to new levels of strength, which can be motivating in and of itself. Focusing on hypertrophy can also be helpful because it gives you a new challenge and a new set of goals.
It’s Your Job
For some jobs, it can be very advantageous to focus on muscle growth at the gym rather than simply strength:
- Personal trainer
- Security guard
- Patrol or corrections officer
According to Mountain Tactical Institute, “Studies have shown that a patrol or corrections officer who looks fit and strong can dissuade a would-be bad guy from confrontation.” If you’re an aspiring movie actor, larger-than-life muscles can be the difference between getting a callback and silence. If you want to be a personal trainer, large, well-defined muscles can encourage potential clients to trust you.
What exactly you need to do in order to achieve hypertrophy will vary depending on the type of hypertrophy you’re going for, but here are the general rules for success:
- Use multi-joint movements, not single-joint movements
- Say yes to deadlifts and squats
- Combine high volume with high intensity
- Maintain a slight calorie surplus of 5-10%
- Eat a high protein, low carb diet
- Plan lots of heavy, compound strength training exercises
- Take muscle growth supplements
Whatever your goal is, good luck!