Our trainers often get asked whether there’s any difference between strength training and bodybuilding. Is a person who aspires to Arnie proportions on the same training regime as someone who wants to lift for Australia? The short answer: no. But it’s a little more complex than that. Whether you want to gain muscle or gain strength, you’ll find that both goals require similar types of exercise. You’ll still be on the bench press or doing squats – the difference lies in the number of reps you’re doing, and at what weights. Before we crunch the numbers on reps, sets and volumes, let’s look at the difference between strength training and body building.

Strength training makes you stronger

Purists in the strength training camp have a clear goal in their training routine – to get stronger. Even if they’re not shooting for a podium finish in a strength based sport, their goal is to press more on the bench, squat more, lift more in a clean and jerk, and so on. Strength training, a form of resistance training, uses an external load (a dumbbell or barbell for example) to force your muscles to adapt to progressively heavier loads. Through this overload process, you get stronger. It won’t necessarily make you leaner – just look to some of the Olympic champions in this area, in open weight divisions, who carry plenty around the middle.

Muscular hypertrophy, or bodybuilding, increases muscle size

Hypertrophy is about increasing your lean muscle. Without getting too technical, it’s about engaging all the different muscle fibre types (slow oxidative fibres, fast oxidative fibres and fast glycolytic fibres, in case you’re wondering). We achieve the activation of the various muscle fibre types by performing a variety of different exercises, in different repetition and set schemes. By working on all the different fibres, your lean muscle mass over time will grow.

On the bench: how they differ

Let’s look at a typical 12-week training program for someone keen to get stronger vs someone keen to get bigger, using bench press as an example. In these examples, we’re assuming that the athlete has a 1-RM (1-rep maximum) of 100kg.

Following the principle of progressive overload, a 12-week strength training program may look like this:

  • Week 1: 5 sets of 3 presses at 85kg.

  • Week 2: 5 sets of 4 presses at 85kg

  • Week 3: 5 sets of 5 presses at 85kg

  • Week 4: 2 sets of 5 repetitions at 85kgs.

At the highest level, an athlete would potentially now include a recovery week where decreasing the volume (not the intensity) might be a good option. After four weeks a similar cycle may resume with the starting weight now being 87.5kg or 90kg. In strength training, you’re not necessarily working to the point of fatigue. Rather, you’re progressively building up your body’s ability to handle a certain weight. Hypertrophy training, on the other hand, needs to be a little more varied. To work the different types of fibres, you need to mix up your training – sometimes, going for endurance (e.g. a higher number of reps), and sometimes going for strength (e.g. bigger weights). So the 12-week program may look like this:

  • Month 1: 3 sets of 12 presses at 60kg

  • Month 2: 4 sets of 8 presses at 80kg

  • Month 3: 5 sets of 5 presses at 90kg

In hypertrophy training, you generally want to take your working sets to fatigue. And you know you’ve done that when you get that burning feeling. The rest between sets would depend on what you’re trying to achieve. When you’re bench pressing heavy loads, you’ll need a longer recovery to let your nervous system recover. Moderate loads only need about 90 seconds of recovery – instead of sitting around during this 90 sec, many people choose to alternate bench press with an exercise like bent over row to work the opposite muscle group.

What’s right for you?

If you’ve got a very specific goal in mind, then our trainers are on hand to help you devise a program that’s right for you. Keep in mind everyone is different, some people will perform better with strength style programs, while others will enjoy hypertrophy training styles. This may come down to your own muscle fibre distribution and genetically what you are naturally better at. Strength and hypertrophy training do exist on the same continuum though, so it’s worthwhile considering what you enjoy doing and experimenting with how your body responds to different types of workouts.


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