Neural adaptations with chronic physical activity

J Biomech. 1997 May;30(5):447-55. doi: 10.1016/s0021-9290(96)00170-4.


Chronic activity patterns, such as strength training, limb immobilization, and aging, produce marked adaptations in both the muscular and nervous systems. In this brief review, some of the involved mechanisms are examined as they are revealed through studies on the maximality, specificity, and pattern of the neural drive to muscle. The studies on maximality indicate that it is difficult to activate maximally a muscle by voluntary command, the capacity varies across muscles, tasks, and training, and the maximum discharge rates of motor neurons decreases with immobilization and increases with strength training. The data on specificity demonstrate that: strength can be increased by training with imagined contractions; the velocity specificity of isokinetic training is evident with intended contractions; the strength training influences the untrained homologous muscle in the contralateral limb; the bilatral deficit can become a bilateral facilitation with appropriate training; and that eccentric contractions appear to involve a different activation scheme compared to isometric and concentric contractions. Finally, the literature on the pattern of the neural drive suggests that: coactivation varies with training and often decreases as skill level increases; measures of motor-unit synchronization reveal changes in neuronal connectivity with physical training; the reflex potentiation varies across muscles, individuals, and activity patterns; the modulation of the H-reflex amplitude with training involves changes in the motor neuron; and the motor neurons exhibit a bistable, excitability property that may be influenced by exercise. Despite the breadth of this evidence, there remain substantial gaps in our knowledge, particularly regarding the symmetry of adaptations with increased and decreased chronic physical activity.

Publication types

  • Lecture
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Motor Neurons / physiology
  • Muscle Contraction
  • Muscles / physiology
  • Nervous System Physiological Phenomena*
  • Physical Exertion*
  • Time Factors