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This study investigated the effect of voluntary motor effort during a low-intensity (30% maximal voluntary contraction [MVC]) muscle exercise training program on increasing muscle strength.Eighteen young and healthy individuals were randomly assigned to one of three groups: high mental effort (HME), low mental effort (LME), or a no-training control (CTRL) group. Training lasted for 6 weeks (15 min/day, 5 days/week). The participants' right-elbow flexor muscle strength was measured before and after the training program.After training, the HME group gained 20.47 ± 8.33% (P = 0.01) strength while the LME and CTRL groups had negligible strength changes (1.89 ± 0.96% and − 3.27 ± 2.61%, respectively; P > 0.05) despite muscle contraction intensity (30% MVC) sustained during training was the same for the HME and LME groups. These results suggest that the level of effort involved in resistance exercise training plays a critical role in determining the amount of strength augmentation.The finding that high effort combined with low-level physical exercise training can significantly increase muscle strength has rehabilitation applications as many patients and frail older adults have difficulties in participating in high-intensity exercise training such as lifting heavy weights. High effort plus low-level muscle exercise might serve as a safe training regimen for effective muscle strengthening in vulnerable populations.