The influence of muscle fiber size and type distribution on electromyographic measures of back muscle fatigability

Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1998 Mar 1;23(5):576-84. doi: 10.1097/00007632-199803010-00010.


Study design: This was a cross-sectional study carried out on a group of 31 healthy, consenting volunteers with no history of low back pain (17 men, 14 women).

Objectives: To evaluate the relationship between electromyographic measures of erector spinae fatigability and the muscle's fiber type characteristics.

Summary of background data: Using electromyographic techniques, a pronounced fatigability of the muscles of patients with low back pain has been identified. It has been postulated that this is the result of an unfavorable back muscle fiber type distribution, although an association between electromyographic measures of fatigue and the muscle's fiber type characteristics has never been established.

Methods: Two tests of back extensor fatigability were performed (on separate days), each to the limit of endurance: 1) maintenance of 60% total maximum voluntary contraction of the back extensors, and 2) performance of the Biering-Sørensen test. Pairs of surface electrodes were attached to the skin overlying the belly of the erector spinae, bilaterally, at T10 and L3. The median frequency was computed from the electromyographic power spectrum, and fatigability was given by the slope of the linear regression of median frequency on time (MFgrad; %.s-1). One week later, two percutaneous erector spinae muscle biopsy samples were obtained from the same sites described for electromyography (left side only). Samples were prepared for histochemistry for the identification of muscle fiber types. Fiber sizes (cross-sectional areas) were quantified using computerized image analysis.

Results: The mean fiber size at each erector spinae region showed a significant correlation with maximum back extensor strength. In the thoracic region, the relative area of the muscle occupied by Type I fibers (which accounts for the relative size and distribution of the fiber types) showed a significant relationship with MFgrad recorded during each fatigue test. A similar relationship was observed for the lumbar region, but for the Biering-Sørensen test only.

Conclusions: The electromyographic changes recorded in back muscles during fatigue appear to be related to the underlying muscle fiber type area distribution. This confirms the usefulness of electromyography in reflecting such muscle characteristics in a noninvasive manner, when monitoring changes in function consequent to the development of, or rehabilitation from, low back pain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Back / physiology
  • Cell Size
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Electromyography / methods*
  • Electromyography / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Muscle Fatigue / physiology*
  • Muscle Fibers, Skeletal / cytology
  • Muscle Fibers, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Physical Endurance / physiology
  • Sex Factors