Weight lifting and the nervous system: how strength training improves our brain pathways

Posted by for Strong Women

Ever wondered why strength training is so good for your mental health? We’ve asked the experts for their insights into weight lifting and the nervous system. 

Weight training comes with a whole host of benefits, whether that be improving our physical strength, alleviating muscular aches and pains, or helping us to keep on top of our mental health. But according to a recent study, there is another benefit that many of us may not have even considered. 

The study, which was carried out by Dr Isabel Glover and Professor Sturary Baker from the Movement Laboratory at Newcastle University and published in July, has found that before we start to see any physical improvements from weight training, our nervous system is already getting stronger and stronger. As Dr Glover explains, once you start lifting weights, “the neural input to your muscles increases”. It takes a few weeks or more for the muscles themselves to start getting bigger. 

You see, while you will be able to lift more after a few weeks in the gym, you might not see any visible muscle growth in the same timeline. However, don’t get disheartened. Your body is simply strengthening the connections from the brain to the motoneurons in our muscles first and foremost. The better the brain can activate the motoneurons, the more the muscle contract, and the more strength gains you’ll see. After those pathways are strong enough, you’ll begin to see that muscle growth that so many weight lifters are after.

Interestingly, the study showed that it’s actually the evolutionary pathway from the spinal cord, typically associated with maintaining posture, rather than the main pathway, which we usually think of as the driving force behind complex movements, that becomes stronger. What this means in real life terms is that a few months of weight training will strengthen the specific systems responsible for prepping and controlling our bodies. This will have benefits both in and out of the gym in terms of balance and posture. 

Woman in gym holding kettlebell
Weight training: "the notion that weight training stunts your growth holds very little weight"

“These results are not just relevant to body builders pushing for a new PB,” says Dr Glover. If we understand the neural mechanisms of strength then we can start to think about how to help individuals suffering from a loss of strength, such as following a stroke.”

All in all, it just goes to show that the benefits of strength training really don’t end. It can make our brains, bodies and minds stronger and more resilient, so if you’ve become impatient with waiting to see visible results, remember: your body is working magic behind the scenes. 

If you want to improve your nervous system but don’t know where to start with strength training, read our tips for getting into weight training. You can also check out our upper body and lower body workouts below.      

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Image credit: Getty

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