Neural adaptations to strength training: moving beyond transcranial magnetic stimulation and reflex studies

Acta Physiol (Oxf). 2011 Jun;202(2):119-40. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-1716.2011.02271.x. Epub 2011 Apr 19.


It has long been believed that training for increased strength not only affects muscle tissue, but also results in adaptive changes in the central nervous system. However, only in the last 10 years has the use of methods to study the neurophysiological details of putative neural adaptations to training become widespread. There are now many published reports that have used single motor unit recordings, electrical stimulation of peripheral nerves, and non-invasive stimulation of the human brain [i.e. transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)] to study neural responses to strength training. In this review, we aim to summarize what has been learned from single motor unit, reflex and TMS studies, and identify the most promising avenues to advance our conceptual understanding with these methods. We also consider the few strength training studies that have employed alternative neurophysiological techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalography. The nature of the information that these techniques can provide, as well as their major technical and conceptual pitfalls, are briefly described. The overall conclusion of the review is that the current evidence regarding neural adaptations to strength training is inconsistent and incomplete. In order to move forward in our understanding, it will be necessary to design studies that are based on a rigorous consideration of the limitations of the available techniques, and that are specifically targeted to address important conceptual questions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials, Motor / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology
  • Reflex / physiology*
  • Resistance Training*
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation / methods*