Can Resistance Training Build Brain and Brawn?

stretching with a resistance band

Contributed by Fiona Callender, Research Assistant, University of Toronto

In Gillian White’s most recent FTG article she brought strength training in to our conversation. We learned about the importance of strength training as we age and the parameters we should employ to optimize the benefits of this training. As we have seen in past articles, loss of muscle mass and strength is a huge issue for the aging population, but there is another issue plaguing this population that can be affected by your exercise choices – the brain. 

With one new case of dementia detected every seven seconds worldwide (Ferri et al., 2005), it is becoming an increasingly pervasive issue affecting the health of our growing population. Mild cognitive impairment is a well-known risk factor for dementia (Petersen et al., 1999), and this stage therefore provides a critical window of opportunity for intervention to alter course of cognitive decline in older adults. In recent years you may have heard of the benefits of exercise as a strategy for fighting off cognitive decline and, as Julia Basso discussed in her recent article for FTG, exercise has been shown to be an effective way to increase neurogenesis (the growth of neurons). Both aerobic and resistance training have been shown to enhance cognitive performance in healthy seniors (Liu-Ambrose et al., 2010; Liu-Ambrose et al., 2011; Colcombe et al., 2004).

Nagamatsu and colleagues conducted a study in 2012 on the efficacy of resistance and aerobic training on improving cognitive function in elderly women with mild cognitive impairment. This study, in contrast to many studies in the literature, looks exclusively at women! 86 women between the ages of 70 and 80 were randomly assigned to resistance training, aerobic training or balance and tone training. The resistance group performed two sets of 6-8 repetitions and increased their load over the course of the study. The aerobic training group participated in a walking program with increasing intensity over the course of the study, while the balance and tone group performed a range of stretching, balance and relaxation exercises (Liu-Ambrose et al., 2010) and were used to control for confounding variables.

Nahamatsu and colleagues analyzed several measures in order to assess cognitive changes. The primary measure they used was the Stroop Test, which is an executive cognitive test of selective attention and conflict resolution (Spreen & Strauss, 1998). They also measured outcomes such as working memory, associative memory (memorizing face-scene pairs) and problem solving. Another interesting outcome they measured was regional patterns of brain plasticity as the participants completed an associative memory task, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Brain plasticity refers to the brains ability to change and form new connections and networks. This is, consequently, very important in creating new associations and memories.

The findings from this study were very encouraging in terms of the benefits that can result from resistance training. In just six months of training they found improvements in the cognitive function of older women including observable functional changes in brain areas associated with memory and association. These benefits in associative memory are important because impaired associative memory is known to be a classic sign of early stages of Alzheimer disease. With this information, everyone – especially those who are beginning to experience mild cognitive impairment – should be adding some resistance training in to his or her workout regime. This group’s study provides an interesting look at another side of strength training, showing that we can build brains and brawn in the same workout!


Colcombe, S.J., Kramer, A.F., Erickson, K.I. (2004). Cardiovascular fitness, cortical plasticity, and aging. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 101(9), 3316-3321

Ferri, C.P., Prince, M., Brayne, C. (2005). Alzheimer’s Disease International. Global prevalence of dementia: a Delphi consensus study. Lancet, 366(9503), 2112-2117.

Liu-Ambrose T, Nagamatsu LS, Graf P, Beattie BL, Ashe MC, Handy TC. (2010). Resistance training and executive functions: a 12-month randomized controlled trial. Arch Intern Med, 170(2), 170-178.

Liu-Ambrose, T., Nagamatsu, L.S., Voss, M.W., Khan, K.M., Handy, T.C. (2011). Resistance training and functional plasticity of the aging brain: a 12-month randomized controlled trial. Neurobiol Aging.

Nagamatsu, L.S., Handy, T.C., Hsu, C.L., Voss, M., Liu-Ambrose, T. (2012). Resistance training promostes cognitive and functional brain plasticity in seniors with probable mild cognitive impairment. Arch Intern Med, 172(8), 666-668.

Petersen, R.C., Smith, G.E., Waring, S.C., Ivnik, R.J., Tangalos, E.G., Kokmen, E. (1999). Mild cognitive impairment: clinical characterization and outcome. Arch Neurol. 56(3), 303-308.

Spreen, O., Strauss, E. A. (1998). Compendium of Neurological Tests. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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