Because the structure of the spine is inherently unstable, muscle activation is essential for the maintenance of trunk posture and intervertebral control when the limbs are moved. To investigate how the central nervous system deals with this situation the temporal components of the response of the muscles of the trunk were evaluated during rapid limb movement performed in response to a visual stimulus. Fine-wire electromyography (EMG) electrodes were inserted into transversus abdominis (TrA), obliquus internus abdominis (OI) and obliquus externus abdominis (OE) of 15 subjects under the guidance of real-time ultrasound imaging. Surface electrodes were placed over rectus abdominis (RA), lumbar multifidus (MF) and the three parts of deltoid. In a standing position, ten repetitions of shoulder flexion, abduction and extension were performed by the subjects as fast as possible in response to a visual stimulus. The onset of TrA EMG occurred in advance of deltoid irrespective of the movement direction. The time to onset of EMG activity of OI, OE, RA and MF varied with the movement direction, being activated earliest when the prime action of the muscle opposed the reactive forces associated with the specific limb movement. It is postulated that the non-direction-specific contraction of TrA may be related to the control of trunk stability independent of the requirement for direction-specific control of the centre of gravity in relation to the base of support.