Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Fit for Duty: Training to improve strength or hypertrophy

Sherry Dean   

Features editors pick

Getting strong and getting muscular are two very different things when it comes to training. It is important for athletes (yes firefighters, that’s you) to know what their goals are before setting out on a new training regime. It isn’t wrong to want to improve your physique when you are putting in hard work, but if your aim is to improve your strength for job performance you will want to know the difference.

Hypertrophy typically refers to the growth of tissues in your body  through increasing the size of muscle cells. This type of lifting typically involves higher volume (six to 12 reps) with moderate intensity (moderate weight) and shorter rest periods. It can include specialized methods like strip/drop sets, super sets and isolation sets.

Strength training uses lower volume (one to five reps) with high intensity (heavier weights) and longer recovery periods so you are able to maintain strength as you train. Some of the most common exercises for strength training are bench press, shoulder press, squat and deadlift to name a few. 

Does that mean you can’t build muscle when you train for strength? Absolutely not. Mechanical tension has a lot to do with it. Not every kind rep stimulates growth. If that were true endurance training, which typically involves a high number of repetitions, would create huge muscle growth but it typically doesn’t. When you are lifting and encounter mechanical tension (also called a stimulating rep) and you are working up to failure, it forces the muscle fibres to work toward their maximum, breaking them down and causing them to grow. This means you can focus on training that increases your strength that will also improve hypertrophy.


Peak training frequency will differ person to person so choosing the best kind of strength program can be daunting. There are a lot of really good programs available. Some of choosing is trial and error. The good news is that change is good for your body. Adaptive response to changes in your training regime forces your body to work harder and can increase mechanical tension in your workouts.

One of the measures of effectiveness of effort in the short term is Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness (DOMS). Anyone who has been active has experienced DOMS. For simplicity sake the Strength and Conditioning Journal indicates that “DOMS is the product of inflammation caused by microscopic tears in the connective tissue elements”. It’s that soreness you feel anywhere from eight to 48 hours after a workout. Although DOMS is not a direct correlation to muscle growth, when you feel it you know you have worked hard enough to break down muscle tissue. You can, however, overdo it and really damage tissue through overexertion or not providing enough rest between workouts. The muscle is then unable to repair so it is important to pay attention to the amount of soreness you feel. If you have been inactive for a long-time ease into your training schedule to avoid injury. More is not necessarily better.

From a science perspective, genetics will impact strength and muscle growth, but that does not mean you can’t improve both of these things. Hard work, training regimes, sleep habits and diet all play a part in your overall success. Decide what your goals are and research some training options. Volume Training, 5/3/1, Heavy/Light/Medium and Stronglifts 5×5 are only a few of the many options available. Invest the time to complete the entire program to give it a fair chance. You will learn something from every program. If it doesn’t provide the progress you are looking for, adapt the program or try something new. You will make some gains along the way. 

Workout of the Day
Warm Up 

  • 5 mins of light cycling, rowing or running 
  • 10 inch worms
  • 20 walking lunges with R/L rotations (10 each side)
  • 20 hamstring scoops 
  • 1-minute shoulder rotation (30 sec each side)

5 Sets – rest 90 secs between sets 

  • 10 deadlifts – moderate to heavy but string the reps together. If you have to stop to finish the reps lower the weight. 
  • 15 thrusters – same as above
  • 40 sec row, run or cycle – you should be working hard for the entire time. This is not a rest cycle 

Rest 3 to 5 minutes for recovery

3 sets – rest 1 minute between sets 

  • 10 leg raises from a hanging position or toes to bar
  • 30 secs butterfly sit ups 
  • 30 secs Russian twists
  • 30 secs mountain climbers 
  • 45 sec plank

Cool Down 

  • 3 mins light run, row or cycle
  • Lying quad stretch hip opener hold 1.5 to 2 mins each leg 
  • Deep lunge hold with knee held to the outside position 1.5 to 2 mins each leg 
  • Figure four hold 1.5 to 2 mins each leg 
  • Standing Hamstring stretch 1.5 to 2 mins each leg. 


  • Brad J. Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras, “Is Postexercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations?” Strength and Conditioning Journal, vol. 35 No. 5 pp. 16-21 (2013)

Sherry Dean is a career firefighter/engineer with Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency. She has more than 20 years of experience in fitness and training. Contact Sherry at


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