Learning new gait patterns: Exploratory muscle activity during motor learning is not predicted by motor modules

Rajiv Ranganathan*, Chandramouli Krishnan, Yasin Y. Dhaher, William Z. Rymer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


The motor module hypothesis in motor control proposes that the nervous system can simplify the problem of controlling a large number of muscles in human movement by grouping muscles into a smaller number of modules. Here, we tested one prediction of the modular organization hypothesis by examining whether there is preferential exploration along these motor modules during the learning of a new gait pattern. Healthy college-aged participants learned a new gait pattern which required increased hip and knee flexion during the swing phase while walking in a lower-extremity robot (Lokomat). The new gait pattern was displayed as a foot trajectory in the sagittal plane and participants attempted to match their foot trajectory to this template. We recorded EMG from 8 lower-extremity muscles and we extracted motor modules during both baseline walking and target-tracking using non-negative matrix factorization (NMF). Results showed increased trajectory variability in the first block of learning, indicating that participants were engaged in exploratory behavior. Critically, when we examined the muscle activity during this exploratory phase, we found that the composition of motor modules changed significantly within the first few strides of attempting the new gait pattern. The lack of persistence of the motor modules under even short time scales suggests that motor modules extracted during locomotion may be more indicative of correlated muscle activity induced by the task constraints of walking, rather than reflecting a modular control strategy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)718-725
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Biomechanics
Issue number5
StatePublished - Mar 21 2016


  • EMG
  • Locomotion
  • Motor learning
  • Muscle synergies

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biophysics
  • Rehabilitation
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine


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