Human balancing of an inverted pendulum: position control by small, ballistic-like, throw and catch movements

J Physiol. 2002 May 1;540(Pt 3):1111-24. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2001.013077.


In standing, there are small sways of the body. Our interest is to use an artificial task to illuminate the mechanisms underlying the sways and to account for changes in their size. Using the ankle musculature, subjects balanced a large inverted pendulum. The equilibrium of the pendulum is unstable and quasi-regular sway was observed like that in quiet standing. By giving full attention to minimising sway subjects could systematically reduce pendulum movement. The pendulum position, the torque generated at each ankle and the soleus and tibialis anterior EMGs were recorded. Explanations about how the human inverted pendulum is balanced usually ignore the fact that balance is maintained over a range of angles and not just at one angle. Any resting equilibrium position of the pendulum is unstable and in practice temporary; movement to a different resting equilibrium position can only be accomplished by a biphasic 'throw and catch' pattern of torque and not by an elastic mechanism. Results showed that balance was achieved by the constant repetition of a neurally generated ballistic-like biphasic pattern of torque which can control both position and sway size. A decomposition technique revealed that there was a substantial contribution to changes in torque from intrinsic mechanical ankle stiffness; however, by itself this was insufficient to maintain balance or to control position. Minimisation of sway size was caused by improvement in the accuracy of the anticipatory torque impulses. We hypothesise that examination of centre of mass and centre of pressure data for quiet standing will duplicate these results.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Ankle Joint / physiology
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Electromyography
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Biological
  • Motor Activity / physiology
  • Movement / physiology
  • Posture*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Torque