Just as you have a wide variety of options of HOW you want to train, you also have a wide variety of options for the OUTCOME you want. One of the biggest ones we see is the difference when it comes to training for aesthetics--or a “look”--and training to increase physical strength--think the MAXIMUM amount of the weight you can lift. This isn’t an entirely clear cut issue, given that if you perform enough resistance work on a long enough timeline, you will inevitably increase your baseline strength. It will be gradual, but it will climb to a degree.
Where you see the big differences come into play is HOW you train for one or the other. When you’re looking to increase size, hypertrophy is the name of the game. Hypertrophy is when you work to increase the cross-sectional size of a muscle. To put it simply, this is when you make a muscle bigger. Hypertrophy work primarily focuses on increasing the actual amount of muscle tissue you have on your frame. This will look like lighter weights for higher reps. To keep it simple, think of it like this: any set where you are performing 6 reps or more is walking into that hypertrophy range. This rep range will also lead us into a specific type of hypertrophy--Sarcoplasmic. When you lift weights and get a “pump,” you’ve entering this realm. Overall volume when chasing hypertrophy in particular will be higher, generally.
Now, we turn to what it looks like to increase overall strength. This is where the water can get a little murky for some because consider that even though weights are heavier and reps are lower, you can still put on size when focusing on increasing maximum strength. Like we said before, think of this as working to improve the amount of weight you could move for ONE rep (1RM). You’ll see this rep range usually stick with 1-3 reps per set. When we increase the weight we’re moving and decrease the number of reps performed, we’re tapping into and developing our Central Nervous System (CNS) more. The intensity is higher and overall volume will be lower here--due to the increased intensity--generally. But, as we said, this is also where we can usually achieve two end goals with one method.
Consider for a second one of the most common rep schemes you’ll see in the strength world: 5x5. This is 5 sets of 5 reps per set. Why use it? It seems right in the middle of the two methods, right? Lower reps, lower sets. Well, the reason people utilize 5x5’s so much is because they can hit the mark for both hypertrophy and for strength (CNS) development when used properly. It’s 25 total reps across 5 total sets, which means we will be able to push the weight and still toe into that hypertrophy range. We can use this to drive strength adaptation and also hypertrophy.
So, why not just use this forever?
Because you simply can’t. Your body will not physically allow you to gradually increase loading across the same rep and set scheme. This is the Law of Accommodation. Your body will adapt to any stimulus placed upon it, on a long enough timeline. At a certain point, if you want to continue to drive maximal strength or hypertrophy, you have to change your plan of action.
This is where we have to decide what we want from our training. Do we want to chase size? Or do we want to chase maximal strength? Consider for a second that when you chase hypertrophy (assuming everything else in your training is solid--nutrition, sleep, hydration) you can build towards a specific “look” faster, but your ability to actually be able to PERFORM the tasks you may look like you are able to might be lacking. When you chase maximal strength, the look you’re after may come slower. It might take a little longer, but you’ll notice that your ability to actually perform tasks will improve. Along with the full body coordination you’ll develop while training with a heavy barbell.
No matter what, remember: your fitness is your business. Decide what it is you want and place your value in and direct your training that direction. The people that don’t reach their goals are the ones that won’t decide what they actually want and spend too much time muddling up the middle ground. Whatever you decide, find a coach that knows what they’re doing. Follow a concise program. And just train hard.