Electrical stimulation superimposed onto voluntary muscular contraction

Sports Med. 2005;35(11):951-66. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200535110-00003.


Electrical stimulation (ES) reverses the order of recruitment of motor units (MU) observed with voluntary muscular contraction (VOL) since under ES, large MU are recruited before small MU. The superimposition of ES onto VOL (superimposed technique: application of an electrical stimulus during a voluntary muscle action) can theoretically activate more motor units than VOL performed alone, which can engender an increase of the contraction force. Two superimposed techniques can be used: (i) the twitch interpolation technique (ITT), which consists of interjecting an electrical stimulus onto the muscle nerve; and (ii) the percutaneous superimposed electrical stimulation technique (PST), where the stimulation is applied to the muscle belly. These two superimposed techniques can be used to evaluate the ability to fully activate a muscle. They can thus be employed to distinguish the central or peripheral nature of fatigue after exhausting exercise. In general, whatever the technique employed, the superimposition of ES onto volitional exercise does not recruit more MU than VOL, except with eccentric actions. Nevertheless, the neuromuscular response associated with the use of the superimposed technique (ITT and PST) depends on the parameter of the superimposed current. The sex and the training level of the subjects can also modify the physiological impact of the superimposed technique. Although the motor control differs drastically between training with ES and VOL, the integration of the superimposed technique in training programmes with healthy subjects does not reveal significant benefits compared with programmes performed only with voluntary exercises. Nevertheless, in a therapeutic context, training programmes using ES superimposition compensate volume and muscle strength deficit with more efficiency than programmes using VOL or ES separately.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Electric Stimulation*
  • Fatigue
  • Humans
  • Muscle Contraction / physiology*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*