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The contribution of the central nervous system to adaptations to resistance training (REF: RDF22/HLS/SER/HOWATSON)

   Faculty of Health and Life Sciences

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  Prof G Howatson  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Muscular strength is a critical physical attribute underpinning health and well-being, quality of life and athletic performance. We know that when humans undertake a program of resistance exercise, they gradually grow stronger, but to better understand this adaptation it is necessary to determine exactly how strength increases in response to resistance training. It is thought that increases in strength are mediated primarily by changes in the central nervous system, especially in the early phases of training, where there are no discernible changes in skeletal muscle and other connective tissue.

Despite this premise, the changes to neural function underpinning changes in strength are unclear. This might be a consequence of researchers “looking in the wrong place”; previous work has focussed primarily on the adaptation of the brain to muscle pathway (corticospinal tract; CST), with equivocal outcomes. The reticulospinal tract (RST) is an important bilateral, descending neural pathway that plays a key role in the execution of gross, forceful movements. Recent evidence in primates suggested the RST mediated adaptation to strength training to a greater extent than the CST, and preliminary pilot data from our lab in humans, using measures of RST function, supports this notion. 

The CST has a major role in the skilled control of movements, whereas the RST has major functions in gross, high-force movements. It is plausible that improvements in strength might be mediated by different neural mechanisms (depending on the task). For example, high-force, relatively simple movements, which improve strength might be underpinned by RST adaptations, whereas forceful contractions involving more complex movements and the controlled expression of force (more skill-based movements) might be underpinned by adaptation in the CST. Evidence for this proposition is demonstrated in ballet dancers (activity requiring skilful execution and control of high force movements) that have high levels of CST excitability; and resistance training where tasks are conducted to an external visual and/or audio feedback) generally show higher CST adaptations. These observations raise the possibility that different resistance training tasks could target different adaptations in the central nervous system. The aim of this project is to explore CST and RST adaptations to resistance training involving simple and complex forceful muscle actions. The outcomes of this project will have significant practical applications for the prescription of resistance training for clinical and non-clinical populations, where training and rehabilitation could be modified to target a specific adaptation and hence more effective.

The novelty of this work will challenge current knowledge of the neural adaptations to resistance exercise and would ideally suit candidates from an exercise science background, or those with an interest in strength training and exercise-induced adaptations to neural and skeletal muscle systems. Although training is provided, we especially welcome applications for those with experience of neuromuscular assessment techniques (TMS, HDEMG, electrical stimulation, for example).

Eligibility and How to Apply:

Please note eligibility requirement:

  • Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.
  • Appropriate IELTS score, if required.
  • Applicants cannot apply for this funding if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere or if they have previously been awarded a PhD.

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see 

Please note: Applications that do not include a research proposal of approximately 1,000 words (not a copy of the advert), or that do not include the advert reference (e.g. RDF22/…) will not be considered.

Deadline for applications: 18 February 2022

Start Date: 1 October 2022

Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff and students. We welcome applications from all members of the community.

Informal enquiries to Professor Glyn Howatson ([Email Address Removed]).

Funding Notes

Each studentship supports a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (for 2021/22 full-time study this is £15,609 per year) and full tuition fees. UK and international (including EU) candidates may apply.
Studentships are available for applicants who wish to study on a part-time basis over 5 years (0.6 FTE, stipend £9,365 per year and full tuition fees) in combination with work or personal responsibilities.
Please also read the full funding notes which include advice for international and part-time applicants.


Ansdell, P., Angius, L., Kidgell, D., Hicks, K., Howatson, G., Goodall, S, & Thomas, K. (2020). Task‐specific strength increases after lower‐limb compound resistance training occurred in the absence of corticospinal changes in vastus lateralis. Experimental Physiology.
Siddique, U., Rahman, S., Frazer, A.K., Pearce, A.J., Howatson, G., and Kidgell, D.J. (2020). Determining the sites of neural adaptations to resistance training: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 50, 1107-1128
Tallent, J., Woodhead, A., Frazer, A.K., Hill, J., Kidgell, D.J., Howatson, G. (2021). Corticospinal and spinal adaptations to motor skill and resistance training: Potential mechanisms and implications for motor rehabilitation and athletic development. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 121, 707-719.
Thomas, K., Brownstein, C., Dent, J., Parker, P., Goodall, S., & Howatson, G. (2018). Neuromuscular fatigue and recovery after heavy resistance, jump, and sprint training. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 50(12), 2526-2535.
Brownstein, C. G., Ansdell, P., Škarabot, J., Frazer, A., Kidgell, D., Howatson, G., & Thomas, K. (2018). Motor cortical and corticospinal function differ during an isometric squat compared with isometric knee extension. Experimental Physiology, 103, 1251-1263.
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