28th March 2018

Exercises shown to not correct abnormal muscle activation patterns


Most movements require the co-ordinated contraction and relaxation of numerous muscles.  The neurological control of this is known as a muscular activation pattern (MAP).  Previously summarised research describes how highly prevalent latent (pain free) trigger points alter MAPs producing abnormal poorly coordinated movement and joint control.  This increases stress on tissues, increasing wear and increasing the risk of injury and impingement syndromes.  Treatment of trigger points was shown to normalise the MAPs.

Research published in the Journal Manual Therapy describes an abnormal MAP found in patients with neck pain, which causes abnormal function the authors hypothesise may increase adverse loading on sensitive cervical structures.  Subjects with this abnormal pattern were each given one of two different six-week supervised exercise programs.  Both exercise programs produced a reduction in pain, but neither changed or corrected the abnormal MAP.

For more details please see our practitioner version.

Clinical implications

What the research shows us

  1. Altered MAPs have been shown to cause abnormal poorly coordinated movement in both the shoulder and neck.
  2. The treatment of trigger points was shown to normalise abnormal MAPS
  3. Exercise was shown to not normalise abnormal MAPs
  4. There was speculation that MAPs became abnormal due to pain.  However, the reduction of pain failed to change the abnormal MAPs

Serious questions about exercises to remedy pain syndromes
The need for exercises as part of rehabilitation is well understood.  However, lets consider at what actually happened during this trial.  Subjects were shown to have an abnormal MAP.  It was hypothesised that the resultant abnormal movements produced would increase adverse loading on sensitive cervical structures.  Subjects in this in this abnormal state were instructed to do exercises, which according to the researcher’s hypothesis would place even more adverse load on the sensitive cervical structures. 

After six weeks of placing extra load on those sensitive cervical structures pain had reduced but function was still abnormal.  What would the consequences be of continuing to do this?  Surely it would include rapid degeneration and an increased risk of injury.

Guidelines for rehabilitation
The need for exercise as part of rehabilitation is understood.   However, the implications of abnormal function should be recognised.   The goal should be to perform exercises using correct function.   It is possible to instruct patients in “correct techniques”, but much of the function is determined at a subconscious level involving “pre-programmed” patterns, the sensors in the muscles and joints, and so forth.  

Put simply, it appears that MPTs and other factors that will be considered in future summaries interfere with these “pre-programmed” sensor based patterns.  Practitioners should focus on remedying these to allow the body to function normally and the body to perform rehabilitation exercises in the normal correct manner.


Falla, D., Jull, G. and Hodges, P. (2008) Training the cervical muscles with prescribed motor tasks does not change muscle activation during a functional activity. Manual Therapy13 6: 507-512. 


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About Dr Graeme

Several years ago Dr Graeme, a Chiropractor practicing in Victoria, Australia was looking for a serious hand held massager his patients could use at home to get the extra quality massage they needed. The ones he found in the shops and on-line for home use looked nice but were not serious, and ... read more