Role of the nervous system in sarcopenia and muscle atrophy with aging: strength training as a countermeasure


Corresponding author: Professor Per Aagaard, PhD, Institute of Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics, University of Southern Denmark, Campusvej 55, DK-5230, Odense, Denmark. Tel: +45 6550 3876, Fax: +45 6550 3480, E-mail:


Aging is characterized by loss of spinal motor neurons (MNs) due to apoptosis, reduced insulin-like growth factor I signaling, elevated amounts of circulating cytokines, and increased cell oxidative stress. The age-related loss of spinal MNs is paralleled by a reduction in muscle fiber number and size (sarcopenia), resulting in impaired mechanical muscle performance that in turn leads to a reduced functional capacity during everyday tasks. Concurrently, maximum muscle strength, power, and rate of force development are decreased with aging, even in highly trained master athletes. The impairment in muscle mechanical function is accompanied and partly caused by an age-related loss in neuromuscular function that comprise changes in maximal MN firing frequency, agonist muscle activation, antagonist muscle coactivation, force steadiness, and spinal inhibitory circuitry. Strength training appears to elicit effective countermeasures in elderly individuals even at a very old age (>80 years) by evoking muscle hypertrophy along with substantial changes in neuromuscular function, respectively. Notably, the training-induced changes in muscle mass and nervous system function leads to an improved functional capacity during activities of daily living.