To get the body of a Greek god, should you aim to get stronger?
Coaches and lifters have been debating that for a long time. Many coaches would tell you so, based on the hypothesis that over time, lifting heavier makes you more muscular.
But thanks to a new study, you don’t have to rely on hypotheses any more. In this article, we’ll look at that new study showing strength training enhances hypertrophy.
We’ll also see 3 ways to cycle strength and hypertrophy training for maximum muscle gain. And I’ll tell you which is the best, in my opinion, based on my 20 years’ experience lifting, coaching, and getting a PhD in exercise statistics.
Ready? Let’s jump in.
Should you even train for strength for maximum hypertrophy?
Coaches and lifters argue both ways. But thanks to a new study, we don’t have to rely on expert opinion anymore.
Carvalho et al. (2020) investigated muscle thickness and maximum strength in 26 resistance-trained men. They found that lifters who trained for strength for 3 weeks and hypertrophy for 5 weeks gained more muscle and strength than those who just trained for hypertrophy for 8 weeks. The authors concluded: “Our results support the use of a period to increase muscle strength prior to hypertrophy training.”
In my 20 years’ lifting experience, this tends to be true. While it doesn’t make a huge difference, I have seen some of my best gains in hypertrophy after training for strength for a few weeks. Likewise for the clients I’ve coached in the last 17 years. There’s also a sound theoretical rationale for why lifting heavier would make you more muscular.
How to cycle strength and hypertrophy training
Now that we’ve seen that you can build muscle faster by getting stronger, let’s review the basics of training for each. After that, we’ll look at 3 ways to cycle strength and hypertrophy training for maximum muscle gain.
Training for hypertrophy
Training for hypertrophy usually involves:
- 3-6 sets per muscle group per week (in beginners)
- As much as 15-25 sets per muscle group per week (in advanced lifters)
- 8-15 repetitions per set (most efficient)
- 1-2 min of rest between sets (although rest-pause sets are more efficient)
- 2-3 workouts per week for each muscle group
Training for strength
Training for strength is similar in many ways. But the American College of Sports Medicine provides the following specific guidelines, which are different (Ratamess et al. 2009):
- 3-5 min of rest between sets
- Emphasis on multiple-joint exercises
- Emphasis on heavy loading (1-6 repetitions per set)
Strength training exercises for muscle gain
Classic multiple-joint strength training exercises you can perform for muscle gain include:
Note that these exercises involve multiple joints. When you train for strength, be careful with single-joint exercises (like biceps curls). Many lifters (especially lifters over 30) say they’re hard on their joints.
If you’re going to train for strength with single-joint exercises, I would recommend keeping at least 3 reps in reserve at the end of your sets. That way, you avoid maximal efforts, and you protect your joints.
3 ways to cycle strength and hypertrophy for maximum muscle gain
I’ll be honest: there are more than 3 ways to cycle strength and hypertrophy when you’re training to build muscle. But we’ll focus on the following 3 today because they have the most evidence behind them.
Block periodization: the strength phase
If you really want to get stronger at something, you should focus on it hard. That’s the idea behind block periodization. Or as its founding father Vladimir Issurin put it, you should sequence “specialized mesocycle-blocks, where highly concentrated training workloads are focused on a minimal number of motor and technical abilities” (Issurin, 2009).
In other words, focus on training for strength for a few weeks. Then focus on training for hypertrophy. That’s exactly what Carvalho et al. (2020) had their subjects do:
- Weeks 1-3: Strength
- Week 4-8: Hypertrophy
After 8 weeks of training, this combination “induced greater muscle growth (p = 0.049; 95%CI = 0.15–3.2%; d = 0.81) and strength gains in the back squat (p = 0.015; 95%CI = 1.5–13%; d = 1.05) and leg-press 45° (p = 0.044; 95%CI = 0.16–9.9%; d = 0.79)” than hypertrophy training alone (Carvalho et al. 2020).
Weekly undulating periodization: strength one week, hypertrophy the next
With weekly undulating periodization (WUP), you vary your loads and reps every week. So, for example, a month of training would look like this:
- Week 1: Hypertrophy
- Week 2: Strength
- Week 3: Hypertrophy
- Week 4: Strength
Daily undulating periodization: strength one workout, hypertrophy the next
With daily undulating periodization (DUP), you vary your loads and reps every workout. This loading strategy has been shown to eliciting greater strength gains than regular training (Rhea et al. 2002).
So, for example, with DUP, your training week would look like this:
- Day 1: Hypertrophy
- Day 3: Strength
- Day 5: Hypertrophy
The best way to periodize strength and hypertrophy training
So which method is the best? Well, you don’t have to pick just one.
In my opinion, the best way to periodize strength and hypertrophy training is to combine block and daily undulating periodization. At this point, these two have the most evidence behind them. I recommend you combine them like this:
- Weeks 1-3: Strength focus (most sets in the 4-6 rep range, some in the 6-8 range)
- Week 4-8: Hypertrophy focus (most sets in the 8-15 rep range, some in the 4-6 range)
This is how you’ll work out if you train with our smart workout app, Dr. Muscle. It automates strength and hypertrophy cycles for you, and guides you like an expensive coach (just without the expensive fees). It’s like a trainer in your phone.
Strength training or hypertrophy first?
This is a common question for new lifters. For them, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends starting with hypertrophy training:
For novice (untrained individuals with no resistance training experience or who have not trained for several years) training, it is recommended that loads correspond to a repetition range of an 8-12 repetition maximum (RM) (Ratamess et al. 2009).
In fact, when you start with weight training, training “just” for hypertrophy will make you stronger. You are gaining muscle and strength at the same.
Next, when you’re more advanced, the answer is both, of course. Again, to quote the American College of Sports Medicine:
For intermediate (individuals with approximately 6 months of consistent resistance training experience) to advanced (individuals with years of RT experience) training, it is recommended that individuals use a wider loading range from 1 to 12 RM in a periodized fashion (Ratamess et al. 2009).
So, if you have experience lifting and you’ve never trained for strength, I’d suggest you start your first block as soon as practicable.
Strength training vs hypertrophy for muscle gain
Truth is, there is a lot of debate about muscle hypertrophy, strength training, and how the two work together to build muscle. To complicate the matter, strength training has been proven to promote hypertrophy, and vice versa. So which should you do?
The answer is both. This is not an either-or situation (unlike what some coaches would have you think). As we’ve seen above, there is now evidence that training for strength speeds up muscle hypertrophy. In other words, chances are, you’ll build muscle faster by getting stronger. Do both!
A smart workout app that puts your strength and hypertrophy cycles on autopilot
So, to get the body of a Greek god, should you aim to get stronger?
We now have evidence that the answer is yes. But it’s easier said than done. In this article, we’ve seen 3 ways to do it. And that in my opinion, the best way is actually to combine block and daily undulating periodization. That’s based on my 20 years’ experience lifting, coaching, and getting a PhD in exercise statistics.
But the devil is in the details. If you’re still not sure how to go about it, you have a couple options. I’ll be honest: your best option is to hire a personal trainer. But trainers are not for everyone. They’re expensive, you need to show up on time, and some trainers will charge you even if you miss your session.
That’s why I’ve been building Dr. Muscle with a small team for the last 4 years. Dr. Muscle is the world’s smartest workout app—it’s like a pocket personal trainer. It automates your training, and guides you like an expensive coach (just without the expensive fees).
Download the app and answer a few questions to get a custom program for your goals, the equipment you have, your fitness level, and more. Then, when you start training, your program changes automatically based on your performance. Your workouts adjust as you do them, and get more challenging as you get in better shape.
And with our latest update, you’ll now do a 3-week strength phase on every program. No need to tweak anything: the app will change your reps, weights, and more for you. It automates everything.
Dr. Muscle truly puts your progress on autopilot, and automates your strength and hypertrophy training for muscle gain from A to Z. With Dr. Muscle, you always build muscle as fast as possible.
And you don’t have to keep up with the latest training science and best practices—we do that for you. We update the app almost every week and fine-tune your program automatically as the art and science of lifting evolves.
Want to build muscle faster with strength training cycles—and do it on autopilot? Try Dr. Muscle for free.