Gaining strength through neurological adaptation vs hypertrophy

mprevost

Level 6 Valued Member
The neurological adaptations are basically skill. It is pushing or pulling in the optimal groove. It is using the optimal repetition speed to move through the sticking points but slow enough not to lose efficiency and push/pull too hard at the easy points. It is relaxing the antagonistic muscles as much as possible. On a bench press, for example, just 1/4 inch out of the optimal groove and you will miss the lift. An optimal lift requires some precision. The heavier the weight, the greater the precision required. This is the primary reason for doing heavy doubles or triples by the way (skill practice with heavy weight). Because this is a skill, there is a bit of transfer from one lift to another, but not much (think about the transfer from pitching a baseball to a free throw in basketball, not much).

On the other hand, hypertrophy is a gain in the contractile proteins (specifically cross sectional area), which increases the potential for generating force. It does so in a skill independent way. It transfers to any lift or movement that involves the hypertrophied muscle. Of course, greater skill will add to the force, but bigger muscles are stronger, even if skill is not developed. I am reminded this video:

Game of Thrones star The Mountain turns up at Crossfit event and CRUSHES rivals

Halfthor is showing the advantaage of hypertrophy here. His competitor has pretty good clean technique and makes the lift. Halfthor just heaves the same weight up in a sort of half reverse curl (ugly) but makes the lift with no problem. Now consider strength transfer. Of the two of them, which will prevail in a strength contest using lifts that neither has practiced? Yes, Halfthor, the one with the biggest muscles. On the other hand, his competitor shows what skill practice (neuromuscular adaptation) can do. At probably almost 200 lbs lighter than Halfthor, he makes the lift. But his high level of skill in this lift is unlikely to transfer to a great extent to other lifts.

Early in a strength training program, skill development (neuromuscular adaptations) account for most of the strength gains. Later (after a few weeks generally), hypertrophy becomes more important. You see this for sure in high skill lifts like olympic lifts or Turkish Getups.

As Anna stated, you ALWAYS get some degree of both when training. But you can train more specifically for one than another. For example:

Sets in the 8-12 repetition range, with 30 seconds rest between sets seems to be near optimal for hypertrophy. This allows the accumulation of lots of volume and fatigue.

Sets in the 4-6 rep range with 2-3 minutes rest seem to be optimal for strength (strike a balance between neurological adaptation and hypertrophy)

Sets in the 2-3 rep range with 3-5 minutes rest seem to be optimal for neurological strength gains. This allows high precision skill practice with a heavy weight, but little fatigue accumulation.

Of course, there is a hypertrophy and neurological adaptation response in all of the scenarios above, but the emphasis is different across the rep ranges. A powerlifter might use all 3 of the repetition ranges above in a periodization program to optimize strength for a meet.
 

mprevost

Level 6 Valued Member
Since muscles have no memory, isn't it really the same thing?
I think when people are talking about "muscle memory" they are referring to the idea that it is easier to rebuild muscle that you have had previously than to build it in the first place. One theory to explain why this might occur is the idea of muscle nuclei concentration. Muscles are unique cells in that they have multiple nuclei (where protein synthesis is initiated), hypertrophied muscles add nuclei to maintain a certain nuclei density (# nuclei per muscle area). When you stop training and the muscles shrink, this may result in a concentration of nuclei (because the muscles shrink but the added nuclei remain), meaning....you may have more nuclei per cubic area than you did before you started training. This would allow you to adapt (hypertrophy) faster because you have more nuclei to initiate protein synthesis.

To my knowledge, this has not been conclusively proven but it is a plausible hypothesis.
 

Anna C

Level 9 Valued Member
Elite Certified Instructor
I think when people are talking about "muscle memory" they are referring to the idea that it is easier to rebuild muscle that you have had previously than to build it in the first place.
I thought the term "muscle memory" usually referred to familiarity with movement patterns, but maybe this is another common use of it. Fascinating concept about the nuclei density!
 

Oscar

Level 6 Valued Member
@Steve Freides what you say makes a lot of sense and I couldnt agree more. However, wouldnt you agree that most of the population would benefit from having more muscle? You can deadlift 2.5 bw, you have pressed 0.5 bw in the past. It is clear that you already have all the muscle you need, but I dont think most of the rest of the population do.
 

Steve Freides

Staff
Senior Certified Instructor
Elite Certified Instructor
Steve,
As a music teacher what are your experiences in teaching older people to play music. Say for example a 60 yr old who has never played an instrument before...
I am currently teaching a husband and wife, both of whom are 86 years old - they both started with me about 2 years ago. They are both making steady progress after never having played an instrument before, and one is already playing things labelled "Intermediate" in piano books.

Learning to play a musical instrument in adulthood, or even old age, is like learning a new language or a new skill - at any age, it's good for your brain.

-S-
 

Bret S.

Level 6 Valued Member
Certified Instructor
Since muscles have no memory, isn't it really the same thing?
Hmmm.. I guess the questions I have would be this:

- In the case of hypertrophy in a bodybuilder, once the muscle is built bigger and stronger, then detrained until shrinkage is complete. It's easier to build the muscle back up? If so what is the 'memory' mechanism and where is it located?

- The movement patterns in golf can be defined as specifically adapted neural networks? If so and they lie dormant for years until called back to action would the network be re-activated and repaired as needed and ultimately be ready to be improved upon much faster than starting from scratch?

- Looking at the golfer, certain muscle groups will be 'built up' or conditioned for the swing as it is an athletic move. Is it the same effect as in the bodybuilder regarding muscle adaptation, and isn't the 'memory' to do it stored within the muscle or the neural network within the muscle? Can neural memory outside the muscle itself solely generate the response? And if this were the case could we not send the right electrical 'code' to any muscle (if we had the capability) and instruct it grow or adapt in some other way?

These are things I've pondered from time to time.

If all possible knowledge of the human body were represented as say the wall area of the Hoover Dam (including the wet side). I believe what is known presently could be represented as a gnat on the damn wall... ? ..? o_O:confused::D

Edit: I posted this before I saw @mprevost Mike's post above
 
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Steve Freides

Staff
Senior Certified Instructor
Elite Certified Instructor
@Steve Freides what you say makes a lot of sense and I couldnt agree more. However, wouldnt you agree that most of the population would benefit from having more muscle? You can deadlift 2.5 bw, you have pressed 0.5 bw in the past. It is clear that you already have all the muscle you need, but I dont think most of the rest of the population do.
@Oscar, I don't have much more muscle than when I started lifting and, perhaps more to the point, I have never tried to gain muscle, only to improve my skill. What hypertrophy may have taken place isn't because I wanted or tried to add muscle to my frame.

If you look at me and compare me to the general population, I think you'll find most people have more muscle than me. I have worked on, and continue to work on, the skill aspect of lifting. One of the side effects of being overweight, IMHO, is that in addition to carrying too much fat, a person tends to add the muscle necessary to carry around their own bulk and, indeed, some of the strongest people I know are people who were very overweight and then dropped a lot of fat - they seem to manage to keep enough muscle to be stronger than people who weren't overweight along the way. NB: I have no science to support this, it's just my casual observation.

The very heaviest I've ever been in my life is about 170 lbs - I weighed myself at 175, fully clothed and wearing work boots and a winter coat, so I'll call that about 170.

Again, no science claimed here, just my opinion, but I think anyone can do what I've done.

-S-
 

offwidth

Level 9 Valued Member
I think that some people are perhaps 'naturally' stronger or have the potential to be stronger than others due to a wide variety of reasons.

Aren't there things such as distribution of muscle fiber type that come into play. Or things such as tendon insertion points that play a role when it comes to leverage.
 

North Coast Miller

Level 7 Valued Member
Hmmm.. I guess the questions I have would be this:

- In the case of hypertrophy in a bodybuilder, once the muscle is built bigger and stronger, then detrained until shrinkage is complete. It's easier to build the muscle back up? If so what is the 'memory' mechanism and where is it located?

- The movement patterns in golf can be defined as specifically adapted neural networks? If so and they lie dormant for years until called back to action would the network be re-activated and repaired as needed and ultimately be ready to be improved upon much faster than starting from scratch?

- Looking at the golfer, certain muscle groups will be 'built up' or conditioned for the swing as it is an athletic move. Is it the same effect as in the bodybuilder regarding muscle adaptation, and isn't the 'memory' to do it stored within the muscle or the neural network within the muscle? Can neural memory outside the muscle itself solely generate the response? And if this were the case could we not send the right electrical 'code' to any muscle (if we had the capability) and instruct it grow or adapt in some other way?

These are things I've pondered from time to time.

If all possible knowledge of the human body were represented as say the wall area of the Hoover Dam (including the wet side). I believe what is known presently could be represented as a gnat on the damn wall... ? ..? o_O:confused::D

Edit: I posted this before I saw @mprevost Mike's post above
I believe when it comes to activities that are not high strength endeavors the "muscle memory" is more related to joint angles and feedback. In some cases this might work against you such as a figure skater when they hit their growth spurt - many are unable to even continue with their career.

I believe the premise of @mprevost has some truth. While I initially made solid progress putting on mass, I can get it back after losing it with a lot less effort and time - though I still have to eat a ton. The strength comes back fast as well as long as I really apply myself. I put on almost 20 lean lbs over last year late Spring and Summer without increasing my belt size even a single hole, and there is no way that could have happened with an untrained individual on the routine I was using.

Higher end limit strength might be a different issue as you might really hurt yourself jumping back in if your neural memory came back a lot faster than your connective tissue strength.

This also reminds me a few years back I tried to get back into some more athletic minded MA and quickly worked my way back up to high kicks on the heavy bag - producing a large stretch mark on the inside of my thigh as my joints limbered up faster than my skin could become elastic. Ouch.

I also have wondered about the neural nature of limit strength and what the mechanism is. It seems the active component is the individuals RM. Which seems like a dumba question except it means the loads needed to increase limit strength the most are determined by what you can move, not the load in its own right. This would imply we are self limited to a large extent as part of a feedback safety check. I realize this is not a new theory, but work on the Golgi Tendon Reflex doesn't really support it scientifically.

I also don't believe that going to or beyond failure at 80%RM is using any fewer nerves or motor units than hitting a single rep at 98% RM, leaving some sort of connective tissue adaptation, crosslinking of motor units, skill component or all of the above. As Hulk would say - all these big words are making my head hurt, so I just simplify and use rep/set/load/volume ranges and not worry too much about the why - it would be nice to know all though.
 

jhpowers

Level 6 Valued Member
I thought that the issue of neurological gains was one of motor units. Our musculature has more motor units than are typically activated, but frequent practice causes an adaptation where more motor units are activated during a lift. In my experience, this type of strength deteriorates quickly when I cease to practice a particular lift.

The brain has two primary memory systems "explicit" vs "implicit." With explicit memory we have a sensation of recalling something: e.g. What did I have for breakfast this morning? Where was I on 9/11? Etc. Implicit memory just happens with no conscious sense of recall. It is non-conscious. Skill learning, and emotional processing are governed by implicit processing systems in the brain. This is what is usually referred to casually as "motor memory." I don't know whether motor unit activation is subject to what we traditionally consider "motor memory."
 

Bret S.

Level 6 Valued Member
Certified Instructor
Higher end limit strength might be a different issue as you might really hurt yourself jumping back in if your neural memory came back a lot faster than your connective tissue strength.
When I was stronger and younger I had to break away from bench pressing for awhile, can't remember why. When I returned to it I wanted to test strength so I did singles starting at 275...good 315...good 365...good 405...Rip! I could hear my pec come apart as the bar dropped on the right side. It was horrible, lucky I had a spotter. So obviously the neural memory was there before the tissue was ready for the load. Lesson learned..


it would be nice to know all though.
Some people do, just ask them :cool:
 

guardian7

Level 6 Valued Member
From articles on this site and elsewhere, it is my understanding that muscular strength can be gained through neurological adaptation, hypertrophy, or some mix of the two.

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of gaining strength through one mechanism versus the other? For example, do hypertrophic muscles have more endurance or less? Do muscles made stronger through neurological adaptation stay strong longer during breaks in training or do they become weaker more or quickly, for example? Thanks.
Others have answered the question of hypertrophy vs neurological gains well but I think there is one factor that is often overlooked or not well understood.

It helps to know that the process of neurological adaptation is also physical and involves the Myelin sheath between neurons, among other things. This physically gets thicker with use and thinner with disuse but it is like laying down a path in the woods. The path may get covered with overgrowth but you can more quickly hack it back to find the path when you need it. Other authors make the analogy of laying down tracks. Knowing this basic biology helps us understand why we can make quick progress but lose it as well but not as much as never having done something. One reason the term strength is a skill keeps coming up is that there is actually not much biological difference between muscle "skills" and other skills that have a physical component. This point sometimes gets lost in fitness debates.

Scientists vigorously debate the extent to which genetic characteristics and mental strategies limit or are essential for elite performance but everyone agrees that we can get a lot better at anything we practice, with kettlebells or not.

General Explanation
Developing skills: The magic of myelin

A good general book The Talent Code | Grow Your Own Greatness | Here’s How

Technical explanation
Myelin, Membrane | Learn Science at Scitable
 

wespom9

Level 6 Valued Member
Certified Instructor
I've very much enjoyed reading all the responses in this thread.

I'm just going to think out loud here a bit...

I routinely go back and forth about the benefits of hypertrophy on a personal level. I am a hair under 5'10, sit at ~150 lbs consistently with low BF%. For someone my size, I have above average muscle mass (as per body comp scans and anecdotal evidence). Since 4-5 years ago when I got serious about strength training, I've almost exclusively focused on neuro over hypertrophy training. Gained a small bit of muscle naturally but was happy with my current size and still am. Have hit many of my goals (2x bw DL, front squat BW 10x, 32KG 1 arm press, OAOLPU, etc) with a few to go and I enjoy being stronger than many people while being up to 30-40lbs smaller than others.

As I get older (29 now), I'm starting to wonder if I should start to prioritize a few times a year some hypertrophy phases to add 10lbs or so of muscle. Spending a lot of time with seniors, I see how loss of muscle mass can hurt. I wonder if building more now while I am on the younger side will have long term benefit as strength and mass inevitably declines. The crossfit/GoT video highlights how mass is helpful.
 

Bret S.

Level 6 Valued Member
Certified Instructor
I've very much enjoyed reading all the responses in this thread.

I'm just going to think out loud here a bit...

I routinely go back and forth about the benefits of hypertrophy on a personal level. I am a hair under 5'10, sit at ~150 lbs consistently with low BF%. For someone my size, I have above average muscle mass (as per body comp scans and anecdotal evidence). Since 4-5 years ago when I got serious about strength training, I've almost exclusively focused on neuro over hypertrophy training. Gained a small bit of muscle naturally but was happy with my current size and still am. Have hit many of my goals (2x bw DL, front squat BW 10x, 32KG 1 arm press, OAOLPU, etc) with a few to go and I enjoy being stronger than many people while being up to 30-40lbs smaller than others.

As I get older (29 now), I'm starting to wonder if I should start to prioritize a few times a year some hypertrophy phases to add 10lbs or so of muscle. Spending a lot of time with seniors, I see how loss of muscle mass can hurt. I wonder if building more now while I am on the younger side will have long term benefit as strength and mass inevitably declines. The crossfit/GoT video highlights how mass is helpful.
Personally, I like the look and feel of having some muscle, and I do believe more muscle will increase strength to a degree with the right balance in training. I pretty much drive the bus as far as how much muscle mass to keep or not. In the past I spent time (10 yrs) solely bodybuilding and liked to do it with heavier weights. Then I saw the light with MA. I kept weight training as I like the feeling of being stronger and it helps my lower back but maintained less mass (a lot less) in order to move better.

Living in Southern Cal it seems everyone is after the look of bench, curls and some abs showing. I've seen it a million times, these people think that's 'fitness'. To me it's a facade like a Hollywood fake saloon front held up by a couple 2 x 4's in back. No substance to be found. Bloated pecs for the sake of are useless.

There's nothing 'wrong' with adding some muscle and it makes you feel good which in turn helps you train harder. You won't lose strength and might gain some. Minor tweaks in your training program geared for some hypertrophy are easy enough to plug in, just produce lactate and eat. I'm sure you know all this, it sometimes seems like hypertrophy for the sake of it is needlessly frowned upon in some strength circles. JMO
 

North Coast Miller

Level 7 Valued Member
As I get older (29 now), I'm starting to wonder if I should start to prioritize a few times a year some hypertrophy phases to add 10lbs or so of muscle. Spending a lot of time with seniors, I see how loss of muscle mass can hurt. I wonder if building more now while I am on the younger side will have long term benefit as strength and mass inevitably declines. The crossfit/GoT video highlights how mass is helpful.
It is a lot easier to build mass when you are young than when you are older. It is easier to regain mass that you've already built and lost than to build it the first time - far easier. I would definitely say a bit of mass building is a positive addition to most training plans especially for the younger athlete. Not to the point of ignoring other work, but I feel that way about power training as well.

If you have dedicated strength goals it makes sense to periodize a few times a year, otherwise it can be done in a daily or weekly pattern and as @Bret S says, just eat more.

The benefits of some added mass for most individuals and athletes are numerous while the downside only kicks in at the extreme.
 

North Coast Miller

Level 7 Valued Member
But at the end of the day you have to carry your own engine.
(And fuel it too...)
Last Summer I made a good run at bulking and got up to about 197 without increasing my waist, but I couldn't keep it on for all the extra calories - I'd literally forget to eat for the added mass and it slowly came right back off. At 5'10" I weigh about 182-187 comfortably, nearly 20 lbs heavier than my casual bodyweight before I started training seriously.

It can also be tough just to put it on without access to a variety of big weights.
 

jhpowers

Level 6 Valued Member
Last Summer I made a good run at bulking and got up to about 197 without increasing my waist
Do I remember right that you are approaching or just over 50? That's impressive. Did you retain any of the mass. I'm turning 50 this year and every time I try to run a mass building program, I inevitably end up gaining an inch or two of body fat. Then I panic and cut calories only to undermine my strength progress. I find hypertrophy while maintaining body composition to be (so far) impossible for me at this age. Any insights on strategy would be appreciated.
 

Kozushi

Level 7 Valued Member
I've always been able to get back to whatever my maximum strength was (highest weight and maximum reps) at various moves even after years away from them after only a short period of retraining. Obviously there is "muscle memory"/"motor memory" at work here. Even more recently I had to give up S&S for several months due to a shoulder injury but later on got back to where I was after only a few sessions of training - not even a week! The same has always been true for judo also - I'd be off for a few years and within 2 sessions be back to my old fighting habits and strength.

Now, breaking new ground in terms of endurance or maximum strength is HARD. I've experienced this over the past year with judo - I now go to an "elite" club which pushes us harder than what I have been used to and I'll put it simply that I've been in a lot of discomfort over the past year but have gradually adapted to it. And, definitely all my gains in S&S were hard won, but after I'd won them, I've kept them.

Clearly muscle size is not equivalent to muscle strength. Related to but not equivalent to. I am not afraid of guys on the mat with big muscles. It's the guys with small, sleeky muscles who are strongest and most dangerous. They seem to have more of their strength coming from their tendons and bones and not reliant on the soft tissue. It's the skinny wiry guys who are the problem!

It seems to me like the "big muscles" syndrome is a short-term fix in adapting to a new stressor, which will eventually turn into wiry smaller more efficient muscles, but with stronger tendons, bones and more efficient movement patterns. It's like when you get hit on the head and it swells - your body is "swelling" to solve a strength problem in the short term. Over time your muscles shrink but your other things get stronger thus relieving the big waste on your energy that big muscles cause!

No scientific data for this - just what I suspect.
 

North Coast Miller

Level 7 Valued Member
Do I remember right that you are approaching or just over 50? That's impressive. Did you retain any of the mass. I'm turning 50 this year and every time I try to run a mass building program, I inevitably end up gaining an inch or two of body fat. Then I panic and cut calories only to undermine my strength progress. I find hypertrophy while maintaining body composition to be (so far) impossible for me at this age. Any insights on strategy would be appreciated.
Edit to add - I'm 50, Bday in September

I use a basic old-school mentality of three to four sets per lift, pyramid up the weight and down the reps, from 10-12 on set 1 and as low as 4 reps for the last set with following caveat - finish the last set with a drop set, rest/pause, forced eccentrics - whatever works for the lift to get you to to 40-60 seconds under load and to technical failure. You do not have to go to 'gravity wins' failure. Workouts are a little longer - 45 minutes or so. Limit rest periods.

Train every other day and on the off-day do 15-20 minutes of whole body cardio at moderate intensity. Increase protein as much as you can, increase carbs a little, reduce fat intake as much as you can or at least keep it wherever is your normal. You don't gain while you train, that happens on your off-day, is important to have a recovery day. You should almost be able to see yourself get larger from dawn to dusk on your recovery days as you fuel up.

The extra carbs are needed for the workout and recovery, the protein is vitally important esp for an older person to gain lean mass, otherwise you'll get ripped and a little stronger but if you really feed yourself just right it creates a positive loop. You get stronger and larger and move more weight which burns more fat and carbs while the recovery from the greater stress increases your mass, which makes you stronger and larger. That part is important - you cannot just increase volume, you have to move heavier weight as well, and in a broad rep range - a full spread photon torpedoes.

The workouts are metabolically taxing as is the constant need to throw down calories. Get your protein spread out through the day, carb and fat timing not important except I swear a serving of fruit about 45 minutes before training really helps.

Back to the thread, having been there in the past made it a lot easier to get large again. I was still working hard and had a good idea how to proceed, but I doubt a newbie would have powered up like I did in the same time frame. Eventually though.

In some respects this is similar to my current routines except these are broken down into push/squat, pull/hinge on separate days with more volume instead of doing it all on the same day with a lot less intensity for more of a GPP routine.

Clipped this from my log right before I started doing a ton of circuits and forgetting to eat extra. I was definitely larger than I am now, though maybe not quite as lean. If I'd had a set of barbells I would have hurt myself with stretch marks - as it was some of the old ones started itching a little:

Jump rope 5 minutes

Sandbag offset squat
120lbs 12 reps x 2
10 reps x 1 rest/pause 5 reps

sandbag flat bench w/KBs
50lbs x 15
60lbs x 12
70lbs x 8 - dropset 50lbs x 4

Decksquat
40 lbs x 8
50lbs x 6
50lbs x 5 drop 40lbs x 3

KB pec deck
28kg x 10
32kg x 8
32kg x 6 drop 50lbs x 6

Hacksquat, with the weight towel hung behind back (video to follow). This method gets a lot of pec activation to go with the squat
40lbs x 8reps x 3 sets
 
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