21st November 2018

Why a sports person’s timing may be “out”, or be out of form


Most sports rely on some sort of muscular coordination and timing.  A typical mechanism for this is first the brain  receives some sort of stimulus or information, which needs to be processed and interpreted, then signals are sent to muscles causing them to take some action.  This all takes place in the proverbial “split second”, and is known as a “reaction time”.

Lets look at  examples  in practice.  To return a tennis ball a player needs to detect the line and trajectory of a ball, then have their muscles execute a perfectly timed swing so the racket head strikes the ball at the correct angle.    A golf swing requires the coordination (timing) of many muscles to produce a perfect swing.  Finally, the muscles that control and stabilize joints require perfect timing to maintain even pressure on the joint surfaces and to prevent damage and injury. All of these activities rely on the appropriate reaction  times.

What would happen though if the brain sent out signals to the muscles but the muscles were slow to act?  The reaction times would increase.   The tennis racket head would arrive late resulting in a miss hit or even miss altogether.  The golf swing would lose coordination.  Finally the joints would become less stable with the pressure no longer distributed evenly across the joint surfaces.

A recent study has found that this is exactly what happens when muscles contain myofascial trigger points (trigger points).  The researchers found that when muscles contain trigger points the brain sends out the signal with the correct timing, but the muscles were significantly slower to react. 

This is one reason most professional sports players receive regular massages.  For them even a small delay in muscle timing would mean the difference between winning and losing, or worse still being injured and not able to compete.   For the average person though the time taken and cost of professional masseurs usually puts this sort of care beyond the reach.  Impaired  performances, injuries and pain syndromes  become common place.  A solution  making professional standard care more readily available is to use self massage under appropriate professional advice.  There are several ways to do this, but when used appropriately  DrGraeme massagers can deliver professional quality massage enabling average people to benefit from practically unlimited professional quality massage, just like the professional sports people get.

The details

What the researchers did

The researcher chose 15 healthy women with a trigger point in their upper trapezius muscle, and matched them 15 similar women without such trigger points.  These women were asked to stand upright with their arm slightly forward (shoulder flexed) holding a cable attached to a weight.  The women were instructed that when they heard the audio stimulus (a sound) they were to lift their arm holding the weight to shoulder height as fast as possible.

What was measured

Signals to the muscles

The lifting of the weight from a standing position requires the coordinated effort of many muscles.  Because of this the researchers used surface electromyography (EMG) to detect signals to the following muscles:

  • anterior deltoid
  • upper trapezeus
  • gastrocnemius
  • lumbar paraspinal
  • cervical paraspinal
  • sternocleidomastoid

The action of the muscles

In order to detect the action of muscles various sensors were used such as one attached to the cable, force pads in the platform subjects stood on, and others monitoring muscle action in the body.

What they found

The reaction time of muscles is made up of two parts.  “Pre-motor” is the time from receiving the stimulus to when the nerves delivered their impulse to the muscles.  “Motor” is the time taken from when the muscle receives the nerve impulse to the actual generation of force.

The researchers found that for those with trigger points the pre-motor times were unchanged.  That is, the trigger points had no effect on the time taken to detect and interpret the stimuli then transmit the signals to the muscles.

On the other hand, the presence of trigger points was shown to slow the motor time for all muscles except the gastrocnemius.  That is, the nerves delivered their impulses in a timely manner, but the muscles were slow in responding and developing force.

Discussion of the results

A trigger point is part of a muscle in a pathophysiological state.  It is not surprising that a muscle in such a state would receive a nerve impulse but would be a bit slow to react and generally under perform. However, other muscles not said to be any different to the comparison group received impulses in a timely manner but also reacted slowly.  Why did they under perform as well? 

The researchers measured timing, but made no mention was made of the strength of the impulses detected by the EMG.  Understanding the role the central nervous system (CNS) plays in controlling and coordinating the body it seems the likely explanation is that the CNS detected the  state of the upper trapezius muscle and reduced the strength of the impulses to other muscles in compensation.  This would mean that trigger points in any muscles could cause the whole body to under-perform.

Screening and treating trigger points

The detriment of a sports person having trigger points in their muscles is clearly demonstrated.  An in depth discussion of their treatment is found in a separate research summary, however, most professional sports people have good access to professional masseurs who regularly examine for and treat them.   This can be very time consuming and expensive, making it unpractical for ordinary people. A solution is self or home massage under appropriate professional advice. There are several ways to do this, but when used appropriately DrGraeme massagers can deliver professional quality massage enabling average people to benefit from practically unlimited professional quality massage, just like the professional sports people get.

We recommend the best way to get these benefits and keep trigger points at bay is to be examined and advised by a professional who deals with musculoskeletal conditions then implement regular self/home use.  This is analogous combining regular dental checkups with daily brushing and flossing.


Yassin, M., et.al. Arm Flexion Influence on Muscle Reaction Time in Females with Active Myofascial Trigger Point. British Journal of Applied Science and Technology, 2015 11(1): 1-9


Samples and practitioner orders

We happily supply sample massagers to degree qualified practitioners who deal with musculoskeletal complaints, on a one per clinic basis.  Please email us directly on graeme@drgraeme.com for samples or practitioner/wholesale supply.

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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