Mind and Matter Post 1: Neural Adaptation
Sometimes, BodySpec clients observe that they gain strength without gaining lean tissue. Is that possible?
The answer is a big YES! It turns out that a lot more goes into strength than just muscle mass.
In our next few blog posts, we’ll explore the relationship between muscle and strength. We’ll start by discussing one of the most important determinants of muscle strength: your brain.
When new lifters begin strength training, they tend to experience strength gains well before their muscle mass increases. Much of these initial gains are due to a process called neurological adaptation. Basically, with increased practice, your brain gets better at telling your muscles to lift those weights.
So how does this work? Each of your motor neurons is charged with activating certain muscle fibers. Collectively, the neuron and its associated fibers are called a “motor unit”.
The first time you lift, your motor units work together in an uncoordinated, untrained fashion to generate the force needed to lift that weight. Additionally, your untrained brain may be triggering opposing motor units called antagonists, which resist the desired force production.
Think of those motor units as members of an inexperienced rowing team without a trained coxswain – everyone going which way. Their boat will get somewhere, but not quickly or efficiently. Similarly, at this point, you probably look and feel a little awkward at performing that lift.
Over time, as you continue to lift and improve, those motor units become better trained, and the following things happen:
- Your motor units fire faster, increasing the discharge rate of the neural impulses traveling down the motor neuron to the fiber. This is called “rate coding”
- Your brain gets better at activating or “recruiting” more motor units to help out
- Your motor units are better synchronized, so that multiple motor units get activated simultaneously
- Fewer of the opposing antagonist motor units are fired
As a result of these concurrent improvements, you gain the ability to generate more force and lift more weight without adding actual muscle mass. And over time, your body requires fewer motor units activated to lift the same load, leading more motor units available for heavier loads.
Neural adaptation can continue to be a driver of strength gains beyond the beginning as well - particularly if you are performing more complex and technical lifts, or changing up the workout routine.
What does this mean for you? If you recently picked up lifting, but don’t see any lean tissue increases on your 8-week DXA scan, don’t worry! Give it some more time and consistency before you expect to see big changes in muscle.
Intrigued? There are plenty of other pieces to the strength puzzle. We’ll explore other strength determinants in a future blog post!