Imagine that the New Year has just begun. You’ve made a resolution to improve your physical fitness. In particular, you want to improve your muscle strength. You’ve heard that people with stronger muscles live longer and have less difficulty standing, walking, and using the toilet when they get older (Rantanen et al. 1999; Ruiz et al. 2008). So, you join a fitness centre and hire a personal trainer. The trainer assesses your maximal strength, and then guides you through a 4-week program that involves lifting weights which are about 80% of your maximum.
Sure enough, after the program, you become stronger (probably around 20% stronger) (Carroll et al. 2011). You think this is great – and it is! You are so excited, you decide to stand in front of your mirror, flex your biceps, and take a selfie (your plan is to post the picture to Facebook to show your friends how much bigger your muscles got). However, after examining the picture, you realise your muscles did not get bigger. Or perhaps they did get a little bigger, but not enough to explain your substantial improvement in strength. You are somewhat disappointed in this, but then you remember your goal was to get stronger, not necessarily bigger, so you post the picture, anyway.
Interestingly, the observations you made are completely consistent with the scientific literature. Within the first weeks of strength training, muscle strength can improve without a change in the size or architecture of the muscle (e.g., Blazevich et al. 2007). Consequently, researchers have speculated that initial improvements in muscle strength from strength training are due primarily to changes in the central nervous system. One hypothesis has been that strength training helps the nervous system learn how to better “drive” or communicate with muscles. This ability is termed voluntary activation, and it can be tested by stimulating the motor area of an individual’s brain while they perform a maximal contraction (Todd et al. 2003). If the stimulation produces extra muscle force, it means that the individual’s nervous system was not maximally activating their muscles. Currently, there is no consensus as to whether voluntary activation can actually be improved by strength training.
Therefore, we conducted a randomised, controlled trial in which one group of participants completed four weeks of strength training, while a control group did not complete the training (Nuzzo et al. in press). For the group who performed the training, each exercise session consisted of four sets of strong contractions of the elbow flexor muscles (i.e., the muscles that bend the elbow, such as the biceps). Before and after the four week intervention, both groups were tested for muscle strength, voluntary activation, and several other measures. The participants were healthy, university-aged, and they had limited or no experience with strength training.
WHAT DID WE FIND?
Prior to the intervention, the strength training and control groups had similar levels of muscle strength and activation of the elbow flexor muscles. After the intervention, the group who performed the strength training improved their strength by 13%. They also improved their voluntary activation from 88.7% to 93.4%. The control group did not improve muscle strength or voluntary activation.
SIGNIFICANCE AND IMPLICATIONS
The results from our study show that four weeks of strength training improves the brain’s ability to “drive” the elbow flexor muscles to produce their maximal force. This helps to explain how muscles can become stronger, without a change in muscle size or architecture. Moreover, the results suggest that clinicians should consider strength training as a treatment for patients with motor impairments (e.g., stroke), as these individuals are likely to have poor voluntary activation (Bowden et al. 2014).
Nuzzo JL, Barry BK, Jones MD, Gandevia SC, Taylor JL. Effects of four weeks of strength training on the corticomotoneuronal pathway. Med Sci Sports Exerc, doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001367.
Blazevich AJ, Gill ND, Deans N, Zhou S. Lack of human muscle architectural adaptation after short-term strength training. Muscle Nerve 35: 78-86.
Bowden JL, Taylor JL, McNulty PA. Voluntary activation is reduced in both the more- and less-affected upper limbs after unilateral stroke.Front Neurol 5: 239, 2014.
Carroll TJ, Selvanayagam VS, Riek S, Semmler RG. Neural adaptations to strength training: moving beyond transcranial magnetic stimulation and reflex studies. Acta Physiol 202: 119-140, 2011.
Rantanen T, Guralnik JM, Foley D, Masaki K, Leveille S, Curb JD, White L. Midline hand grip strength as a predictor of old age disability.JAMA 281: 558-560, 1999.
Ruiz JR, Sui X, Lobelo F, Morrow Jr. JR, Jackson AW, Sjöström M, Blair SN. Association between muscular strength and mortality in men: prospective cohort study. BMJ 337: a439, 2008.
Todd G, Taylor JL, Gandevia SC. Measurement of voluntary activation of fresh and fatigued human muscles using transcranial magnetic stimulation. J Physiol 555: 661-671, 2003.
Jim Nuzzo is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA). His research investigates how strength training alters the neural connections between the brain and muscles. Click here to read Jim’s other blogs.