For most people, the goal of resistance training is to build muscle and strength – a process known as hypertrophy.
Hypertrophy training is used by personal trainers and sports coaches when setting programmes for clients, whether casual gym-goers or elite athletes, and hypertrophy adaptations are a common goal in strength training.
But what about neural adaptations? These are the adaptations made by the brain as it causes muscles to contract in order to move in a particular way – and they can be as relevant as hypertrophy adaptations when an individual is looking to maximise the results from their training.
How can a beginner see results from weight training?
When a personal trainer takes on a new client who hasn’t lifted weights before, they are likely to see rapid results from resistance work at the start of their training. This is because they are starting from a low base level and any resistance exercise that they do will have a noticeable effect.
However, after a few months of regular training, the client will reach a plateau. At this point it will be much harder to achieve improvements in strength. This point is their baseline.
How can experienced gym goers achieve strength gains?
For those who have been training for many years, it is still possible to see strength gains, but these tend to be much smaller and take more time and effort than it would for someone new to training to see results.
Mapping neural adaptations versus hypertrophy adaptations
In exercise physiology, a standard graph is used (see below) to show improvements in strength over time when carrying out resistance training. It’s clear that there is a strong upward curve to start with, as a beginner (or someone who hasn’t trained for some time) makes rapid gains in their progress. This then levels off into a plateau if the personal trainer keeps the client on the same training programme.
The two components that can affect strength training progress are neural adaptations and hypertrophy adaptations.
Hypertrophy adaptations – this is muscle growth achieved through training, leading to increased bulk and/or strength.
Neural adaptations – as we train, our brain and motor programmes will become more familiar with repeated movements, allowing us to improve our performance over time.
So if someone carries out a one rep max in training then returns a week later without having lifted weights, the amount they can lift in one rep will still increase because of the neural adaptation. Even if they carry out a movement on one side of the body but not the other, it will benefit both sides.
For example, carrying out a one-leg press on the right leg will make it easier to carry out the same action on the left leg when they come back to training a week later. As there has been no hypertrophy – no working of the muscles – in the left leg, this improved efficiency in carrying out the movement on the left leg is because their brain has made an adaptation.
When are neural adaptations and hypertrophy adaptations most effective?
Because neural adaptations mostly take effect when a person is new to training or returning to training after a break, they contribute to the steep rise in results seen in the early stages of training. At this stage, hypertrophy has not yet had time to contribute as much to the person’s training results.
However, over time, it is hypertrophy adaptations that take over as having the most impact on training results, while neural adaptations will tend to plateau.
So in the first few weeks of training, a client may be getting stronger without noticeable changes to muscle size, which will come later.
Hypertrophy adaptations that build muscle and strength are recognised as progression in training, but a personal trainer should be aware that the clients they are working with will also develop neural adaptations, especially in the early stages of training. These changes in brain function will improve the client’s ability to build strength and, along with hypertrophy adaptations, help them to reach their fitness goals.