Muscle activation in therapeutic exercises to improve trunk stability

Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2000 Oct;81(10):1370-9. doi: 10.1053/apmr.2000.16349.


Objective: To evaluate the relative activation amplitudes from 3 abdominal and 2 trunk extensor muscle sites in healthy subjects performing the pelvic tilt, abdominal hollowing, and level 1 of the trunk stability test (TST level 1) exercises and to compare the activation amplitudes among muscle sites and exercises.

Design: Prospective comparative study.

Setting: Motion Analysis Research Center, Dalhousie University, Canada.

Participants: Twenty-four healthy men (mean age, 30 +/- 8.1 yr [SD]) without low back pain.

Interventions: Subjects performed 3 exercises in a balanced order, repeating each exercise 5 times while surface electromyography (EMG) was recorded from the 5 muscle sites. Exercises were divided into 2 phases: movement and stabilization. The root-mean-square amplitude of the EMG for each phase was calculated and normalized to the maximal voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) amplitude for each muscle. A 2-factor repeated-measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) tested the muscle by exercise interaction and the main effects for each phase separately.

Main outcome measures: Normalized activation amplitude was the main dependent variable. Ensemble-average curves were calculated to examine the phasing of activation.

Results: ANOVA showed a statistically significant interaction (p < .05) for both phases, indicating the 3 exercises recruited the 5 muscle sites using different patterns of relative activation. The external oblique (EO) muscle site was activated to higher amplitudes than the other 4 sites in all 3 exercises for both phases. The highest activity was recorded from the EO during the pelvic tilt, just more than 25% of MVIC. The only exercise to recruit the erector spinae to significantly higher amplitudes than the multifidus site was the TST level 1.

Conclusions: Study exercises were not interchangeable for the patterns of trunk muscle activation amplitudes. The exercises did not recruit the abdominal muscles to adequate levels for strengthening for this healthy sample; however, all 5 muscle sites were activated, forming the basis of a stabilizing exercise approach.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Abdominal Muscles / physiology
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Electromyography
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Isometric Contraction
  • Low Back Pain / prevention & control
  • Low Back Pain / rehabilitation*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Regression Analysis