Between-subject variability of muscle synergies during a complex motor skill

Front Comput Neurosci. 2012 Dec 28;6:99. doi: 10.3389/fncom.2012.00099. eCollection 2012.


The purpose of the present study was to determine whether subjects who have learned a complex motor skill exhibit similar neuromuscular control strategies. We studied a population of experienced gymnasts during backward giant swings on the high bar. This cyclic movement is interesting because it requires learning, as untrained subjects are unable to perform this task. Nine gymnasts were tested. Both kinematics and electromyographic (EMG) patterns of 12 upper-limb and trunk muscles were recorded. Muscle synergies were extracted by non-negative matrix factorization (NMF), providing two components: muscle synergy vectors and synergy activation coefficients. First, the coefficient of correlation (r) and circular cross-correlation (r(max)) were calculated to assess similarities in the mechanical patterns, EMG patterns, and muscle synergies between gymnasts. We performed a further analysis to verify that the muscle synergies (in terms of muscle synergy vectors or synergy activation coefficients) extracted for one gymnast accounted for the EMG patterns of the other gymnasts. Three muscle synergies explained 89.9 ± 2.0% of the variance accounted for (VAF). The coefficients of correlation of the muscle synergy vectors among the participants were 0.83 ± 0.08, 0.86 ± 0.09, and 0.66 ± 0.28 for synergy #1, #2, and #3, respectively. By keeping the muscle synergy vectors constant, we obtained an averaged VAF across all pairwise comparisons of 79 ± 4%. For the synergy activation coefficients, r(max)-values were 0.96 ± 0.03, 0.92 ± 0.03, and 0.95 ± 0.03, for synergy #1, #2, and #3, respectively. By keeping the synergy activation coefficients constant, we obtained an averaged VAF across all pairwise comparisons of 72 ± 5%. Although variability was found (especially for synergy #3), the gymnasts exhibited gross similar neuromuscular strategies when performing backward giant swings. This confirms that the muscle synergies are consistent across participants, even during a skilled motor task that requires learning.

Keywords: backward giant circle; electromyography; gymnastics; motor modules; motor primitives; muscle coordination; nonegative matrix factorization.