Tyler Robbins Fitness

B.Sc. Biochemistry, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Certified CrossFit Trainer (CCFT/CF-L3), USA Weightlifting Level 1

Bodybuilding vs. Powerlifting - Hypertrophy and Strength Gains

A common topic of debate/discussion amongst strength coaches and fitness enthusiasts has been the optimal repetition range to train in for both muscle size (hypertrophy) and/or strength gains.

Studies in the past have shown that hypertrophy training (bodybuilding) is best achieved in the 6-12 rep range, forcing a metabolic demand of the muscles, therefore stimulating a demand for growth. Powerlifters, on the other hand, train at a much lower repetition range of 5 or fewer repetitions but with greater loads. It has been thought and believed in the past that training at a sub-5 repetition goal is less effective at increasing muscular size, however much greater at producing greater gains in strength.

Well, what if it could do both?

A recent study by Brad Schoenfeld wished to look at these differing training modes to discover any noticeable differences in both muscular growth and strength adaptations.

Abstract: Schoenfeld, BJ, Ratamess, NA, Peterson, MD, Contreras, B, Sonmez, GT, and Alvar, BA. Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. J Strength Cond Res 28(10): 2909–2918, 2014—Regimented resistance training has been shown to promote marked increases in skeletal muscle mass. Although muscle hypertrophy can be attained through a wide range of resistance training programs, the principle of specificity, which states that adaptations are specific to the nature of the applied stimulus, dictates that some programs will promote greater hypertrophy than others. Research is lacking, however, as to the best combination of variables required to maximize hypertophic gains. The purpose of this study was to investigate muscular adaptations to a volume-equated bodybuilding-type training program vs. a powerlifting-type routine in well-trained subjects. Seventeen young men were randomly assigned to either a hypertrophy-type resistance training group that performed 3 sets of 10 repetition maximum (RM) with 90 seconds rest or a strength-type resistance training (ST) group that performed 7 sets of 3RM with a 3-minute rest interval. After 8 weeks, no significant differences were noted in muscle thickness of the biceps brachii. Significant strength differences were found in favor of ST for the 1RM bench press, and a trend was found for greater increases in the 1RM squat. In conclusion, this study showed that both bodybuilding- and powerlifting-type training promote similar increases in muscular size, but powerlifting-type training is superior for enhancing maximal strength.

In case you don't know, hypertrophy training is selecting sufficient resistance to target a 6-12 rep range, with 90 seconds or less recovery time between sets. Strength training, on the other hand, involves higher resistance to target 5 repetitions or fewer, but with much longer rest periods between sets (3 minutes or more).

Bodybuilders have used the greater rep range with shorter break periods as a way to stimulate the muscles through metabolic demand. By creating a "pump" in the muscles, it can give an individual an almost immediate feeling of muscular growth. The "pump," however, is a collection of fluids in the muscles that does in fact increase muscular size, and can feel as though the muscles are expanding, although this is just a temporary adaptation and the muscles will lose this swelling within a few hours following a training session.

It is becoming more widely-accepted that although strength training doesn't necessarily deliver the same "pump" feeling that hypertrophy training does, it is stimulating muscular growth at a more structural level by forcing the muscles to adapt to the stimulus by increasing strength of the contractile framework in the muscle fibers.

A few studies in the past have found that hypertrophy training is superior in increasing muscular growth, however, there were discrepancies in the way the studies were completed, namely the amount of volume that was completed.

Volume is the amount of resistance used, multiplied by the number of repetitions. For example, a bench press of 100lbs. for 10 repetitions would be 1,000lbs. A bodybuilder may get to 3,000lbs. by bench pressing 100lbs. in 3 sets of 10 repetitions, whereas a powerlifter could get there with the same sets but fewer repetitions - 3 sets of 5 reps at 200lbs. The study mentioned in this blog worked to overcome this discrepancy in overall volume to really focus on comparing apples to apples.

When comparing strength training to hypertrophy training, volume corrected, this study found that both styles of training induced similar hypertrophy gains. However, the strength training program produced much greater gains in overall strength with the participants used in the study (MT = Muscle Thickness).

In conclusion, the results of this study provide novel insight into muscular adaptations associated with resistance training in well-trained individuals. Based on the findings, strength- related gains seem to be maximized by performing heavy- load training as compared with moderate-load training, although both protocols significantly and markedly improved indices of maximal strength. However, increases in MT in experienced lifters seem to be similar in body- building- and powerlifting-type when volume load is con- trolled, at least over a relatively short time period. The greater time efficiency of bodybuilding-type training would seem to make it a superior choice for those seeking to increase muscle mass, although these results are limited to the biceps brachii and cannot necessarily be generalized to other muscles. Whether combinations of different loading schemes would produce a synergistic response that enhan- ces muscular adaptations remains to be determined and requires further study.

What about Body Beast or other hypertrophy-centric programs?

Beachbody's Body Beast is an at-home workout program designed to maximize hypertrophic gains by using a small selection of equipment in a home setting. Body Beast works well by using varying repetition ranges as well as different styles of bodybuilding sets such as super sets, pyramid sets, drop sets, etc.

We know that lifting weights to the point of failure in virtually any repetition range will generate gains in muscle size (along with eating at a caloric surplus). So assuming you are pushing yourself with a program like Body Beast, and eating more calories than you are burning, of course you will gain some weight and muscle. We should note a couple things, however:

  1. Resistance training causes muscular adaptations as well as neural adaptations. Basically, your brain needs to learn how to coordinate muscle contractility more efficiently and effectively. You can squat because your brain knows how to coordinate the muscle actions in order to bend at the hips and knees in order to squat your butt closer to the ground. However, if you were to add resistance to said squat, your brain suddenly needs to learn how to synchronize more muscle fibers in order to "recruit" them to complete the action.

    Beginners' initial gains, when it comes to resistance training are almost entirely neural adaptations upwards of the first 8 weeks of a resistance training program. Sure, your muscles may be swelling a bit due to fluid and glycogen (muscle sugar) retention, but your strength gains are almost entirely due to your brain just getting better at contracting those muscle fibers.

    This is noteworthy when it comes to a resistance training program because it has been shown that nearly all beginners will have some sort of muscular growth and "strength" gains regardless of training style or mode used. This is why individuals starting a new workout program generally feel pretty good when they get started. Whether its P90X, Crossfit, Body Beast, Strong Lifts 5x5, Mad Cow, Ice Cream Fitness, etc., your brain is going to be trained to be more effective at lifting heavy things, so you will get stronger simply by getting better. This is not a bad thing, just remember that just because you are feeling good at your workout program that you started 3 weeks ago does not mean that that is the end-all-be-all of workout programs.

  2. Increasing muscular size does not necessarily make your muscles stronger, or in other words, increase their ability to generate force. Having said that, increased muscle size can increase the affinity for the muscles to become stronger with strength training.

    If an individual just wishes to exercise for aesthetics alone, then a hypertrophy-only program may work just fine for them. However, if someone wishes to increase muscular size and improve overall strength as well, then a program that uses strength training will likely be the best option.

Final Thoughts

I think that various styles of training have their place with a wide range of individuals and scenarios. Beginners, for example, could greatly benefit from a higher repetition training program due to the ability to "practice" correct form with safer overall loads and greater repetitions. Oftentimes, beginners need a feeling of a "pump" or that muscular fatigue associated with greater rep ranges, to feel as though their training session was effective.

As this study pointed out, there are pros and cons to each style of training. Strength training puts more stress on the connective tissues and joints involved due to the increased loads and can therefore increase the likelihood of injury. Strength training may also take longer to complete than hypertrophy training - when training volumes were equalized for both training styles.

The HT protocol took approximately 17 minutes to perform, whereas the ST protocol required a time commitment of more than 1 hour.

What has been known for quite some time now, and has just been further confirmed by this study is that overall increases in the amount of force one's muscles can generate (strength) is improved the most by training in a 5 or lower repetition range. What this study also tells us, however, is that strength training can also produce gains in muscular size, once previously thought to occur most optimally in a higher repetition range. 

Other training programs that use higher repetition training modes are beneficial for other purposes and will elicit some strength gains, especially for beginners to resistance training, however, standard strength training is superior to improving overall strength.