, Volume 91, Issue 4, pp 450-472
Date: 25 Nov 2003

Muscle strength, power and adaptations to resistance training in older people

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Abstract

Muscle strength and, to a greater extent, power inexorably decline with ageing. Quantitative loss of muscle mass, referred to as “sarcopenia”, is the most important factor underlying this phenomenon. However, qualitative changes of muscle fibres and tendons, such as selective atrophy of fast-twitch fibres and reduced tendon stiffness, and neural changes, such as lower activation of the agonist muscles and higher coactivation of the antagonist muscles, also account for the age-related decline in muscle function. The selective atrophy of fast-twitch fibres has been ascribed to the progressive loss of motoneurons in the spinal cord with initial denervation of fast-twitch fibres, which is often accompanied by reinnervation of these fibres by axonal sprouting from adjacent slow-twitch motor units (MUs). In addition, single fibres of older muscles containing myosin heavy chains of both type I and II show lower tension and shortening velocity with respect to the fibres of young muscles. Changes in central activation capacity are still controversial. At the peripheral level, the rate of decline in parameters of the surface-electromyogram power spectrum and in the action-potential conduction velocity has been shown to be lower in older muscle. Therefore, the older muscle seems to be more resistant to isometric fatigue (fatigue-paradox), which can be ascribed to the selective atrophy of fast-twitch fibres, slowing in the contractile properties and lower MU firing rates. Finally, specific training programmes can dramatically improve the muscle strength, power and functional abilities of older individuals, which will be examined in the second part of this review.