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Strength vs Hypertrophy Differences (Why You're Stronger, Not Bigger)

by Jeremy Ethier - June 27, 2021

Getting stronger but not bigger? You're probably (unknowingly) training for strength vs hypertrophy. Here are 4 reasons why - and how you can fix them.

Some people's muscles tend to get stronger over time - but not bigger. There are several possible causes for this. But, usually, the underlying reason is all the same: they don't have a good understanding of the differences between training for strength vs hypertrophy. Does that sound like something you struggle with? Don't worry. That's what I'll address in this article.

Also, by the end of this article, you'll have 4 actionable tips that, when done all together, will prevent the phenomenon of 'working out but not gaining muscle' from happening.

By the way: if you're looking for a workout program that'll take care of all the important training variables for you, such that the frustration of getting stronger but not bigger will become a thing of the past ... we've got just the thing for you. Every BuiltWithScience program is designed to help you build muscle in the most time-efficient manner possible. To find out more:

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Reason 1: Lifting Heavy With Not Enough Volume

One possible reason your muscle is not growing could be that your training is more geared toward improving your strength vs hypertrophy (i.e. muscle growth).

You want to fully activate your whole muscle to maximize growth. The last 5 or so reps performed in a set is where this happens. These are called 'effective reps'.

Here's something you should know. When using lighter weight, the first several reps you perform are not as effective for growth. The last several reps are the ones providing the most gains.

On the other hand, when using a really heavy weight, you're able to fully activate the muscle much earlier on. Simply because your muscle needs all the help it can get to lift that heavy weight. But, as a result, you're not able to do as many reps. In this case, you're not exposing the muscle to enough of these 'effective reps' to maximize growth.

The number of effective reps decreases when you're training for strength vs hypertrophy

The difference between training for strength vs hypertrophy is perfectly illustrated by a 2016 study. Researchers had the participants perform all their exercises in a workout with either:

  • Low reps with heavy weight OR
  • More reps with lighter weight

The findings? After training for 8 weeks, the group training with higher reps and lighter weight experienced almost twice as much overall growth - despite the heavier weight group beating them in terms of strength gains. A result that is backed up by other studies!

Emphasize Higher Rep Ranges When Focusing On Hypertrophy vs Strength

So, what does this mean for your training when you're trying to focus on hypertrophy vs strength? It just means that you'll have to do more sets with a slightly higher rep range (i.e. 6-12 reps) and fewer sets of very heavy, low rep training (i.e. 2-4 reps). Your strength gains may slow down as a result. But your muscle gains will benefit considerably.

It's really all about picking and choosing what you'd like to prioritize - then, training accordingly.

Reason 2: You're Creating 'Artificial Strength Gains'

The next cause is 'artificial; strength gains. This is where, on paper, you may be lifting heavier. But in reality? You're cheating to get there. That means you could be doing any (or all!) of the following:

  • Incorporating more momentum
  • Using less range of motion
  • Performing your reps faster
  • Recruiting other muscles to help you out

And believe me, it can be very difficult to catch yourself doing this.

Pay Attention To Your Form

For example, in week 1, I do a set of dumbbell press with 45 lbs using a full range of motion. In week 2, I decided to bump it up to 50 lbs. But the truth is that I'm not actually getting stronger! That's because:

  • I'm performing the reps slightly faster
Cheating on reps by performing them faster
  • I'm stopping about an inch shorter at the bottom
Cheating on range of motion
  • And lastly, I'm bending my forearms inwards slightly to reduce the moment arm - and to recruit more of my triceps to help out
Bending forearms to reduce work done by the chest

All these 'form tweaks' make the exercise 'easier'. And that enables you to lift slightly heavier. But that comes at the cost of less gains.

So, whenever you decide to add more weight to an exercise, pay very close attention to how you perform the exercise with the new weight. Ensure that every little detail in your execution remains the same. Otherwise, the only thing you'll be growing is your ego.

That said, when you're training alone, it can be really difficult to know if you're indeed performing your exercises with consistent (and proper!) form all the time. That's where our 3-on-1 coaching program comes in. You’ll have a dedicated coach assigned to you (plus myself and a dietitian) to check on your training progress every step of the way, so you can be sure about the progress you've made. To find out more:

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Reason 3: You're Still Going Through Neurological Adaptations

When you first do an exercise, you'll get stronger rapidly.

Just so you know: this is not because your muscle got a lot bigger. But, rather, because of your brain's improved ability to activate that muscle during the exercise. This is what we call neurological adaptations, which lasts about 8-12 weeks. But the good news? After you've maxed this out, further increases in strength are mostly because of increasing muscle size.

This is one of the reasons why it's so important to stay consistent with your exercises - week after week. The more frequently you're changing exercises, the more you'll have to repeat this 'neurological adaptation' phase. And the harder it becomes to actually experience gains from that exercise.

So, if you belong to either of the following categories:

  • Only been in the gym for a few weeks OR
  • Recently re-introduced a new exercise into your regimen

... Then neurological adaptations is a likely explanation for why you're seeing strength gains vs hypertrophy gains. In this case, the most important thing for you to do is not give up. Your gains are just around the corner.

Reason 4: You're Not Eating Enough

The final reason you're seeing strength gains vs hypertrophy gains is VERY common. But is, thankfully, the easiest to fix. And it's none other than: you're simply not eating enough.

I was guilty of this when I first started training - and struggled to see noticeable growth. But see, it's important to eat enough because muscle growth requires having enough energy available.

A 2011 study that had well-trained participants reduce their daily calorie intake by 30% while continuing to work out illustrates this. After 6 weeks, the participants did not gain ANY muscle! From a muscle gains' point of view, they were essentially wasting their time. Interestingly enough. though, they were still able to increase their strength.

Now, in certain scenarios, you can definitely still build muscle in a calorie deficit. But it's always worth remembering that being in a calorie surplus does appear to optimize the muscle-building process. And it also seems to become increasingly important as an individual becomes more trained.

What does that mean for you if you're working out but not gaining muscle? When it comes down to it, many of you simply just need to eat more. But this doesn't mean adding an extra 1,000 calories to your daily intake! That'll lead to a lot of fat gain instead of muscle.

Excessive calorie surplus leads to fat gain instead of muscle mass gain

Instead, if you haven't been gaining weight and your muscles are not growing, then a good recommendation is to take your current caloric intake - and increase it by approximately 10-20%. This small bump should help provide you with the energy needed to maximize the muscle-building process. While, at the same time, limiting excess fat gain.

Training For Strength vs Muscle: Takeaway

So, if you've been wondering, "Why am I getting stronger but not bigger?", and "Why am I not gaining muscle?", you now know the reasons. Implement what I went through in this article - and you'll start visually seeing the results you're after.

And for a step-by-step program that takes care of all of the guesswork for you, then simply take our free analysis quiz below, and we’ll show you what approach will best help you attain a lean, attractive looking physique:

Click the button below to take my analysis quiz to discover the best program for you:

By the way, here’s the article summed up into a YouTube video:

How To Get Stronger AND Bigger Muscles (4 Things To Avoid)

Strength vs Hypertrophy Differences (Why You're Stronger, Not Bigger)