Strategies for muscle activation during isometric torque generation at the human elbow

T. S. Buchanan*, G. P. Rovai, W. Z. Rymer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

175 Scopus citations


1. We studied the patterns of electromyographic (EMG) activity in elbow muscles of 14 normal human subjects. The activity of five muscles that act in flexion-extension and forearm supination-pronation was simultaneously recorded during isometric voluntary torque generation, in which torques generated in a plane orthogonal to the long axis of the forearm were voluntarily coupled with torques generated about the long axis of the forearm (i.e., supination-pronation). 2. When forearm supination torques were superimposed on a background of elbow flexion torque, biceps brachii activity increased substantially, as expected; however, brachioradialis and brachialis EMG levels decreased modestly, a less predictable outcome. The pronator teres was also active during pure flexion and flexion coupled with mild supination (even though no pronation torque was required). This was presumably to offset inappropriate torque contributions of other muscles, such as the biceps brachii. 3. When forearm supination torque was superimposed on elbow extension torque, again the biceps brachii was strongly active. The pronator teres also became mildly active during extension with added pronation torque. These changes occurred despite the fact that both the pronator and biceps muscles induce elbow flexion. 4. In these same elbow extension tasks, triceps brachii activity was also modulated with both pronation or supination loads. It was most active during either supination or pronation loads, again despite the fact that it has no mechanical role in producing forearm supination-pronation torque. 5. Recordings of EMG activity during changes in forearm supination-pronation angle demonstrated that activation of the biceps brachii followed classic length-tension predictions, in that less EMG activity was required to achieve a given supination torque when the forearm was pronated (where biceps brachii is relatively longer). On the other hand, EMG activity of the pronator teres did not decrease when the pronator was lengthened. Triceps EMG was also more active when the forearm was supinated, despite its having no direct functional role in this movement. 6. Plots relating EMG activity in biceps brachii, brachialis, and brachioradialis at three different forearm positions revealed that there was a consistent positive near-linear relationship between brachialis and brachioradialis and that biceps brachii is often most active when brachioradialis and brachialis are least active. 7. We argue that, for the huamn elbow joint at least, fixed muscle synergies are rather uncommon and that relationships between muscle activities are situation dependent. A primary reason for this is that obligatory coupling of joint torques produced by multijoint muscles, such as the biceps brachii (which couples elbow flexion and supination), will often produce undesired torques that must be counterbalanced by other muscles. It follows further that attempts to identify the mechanical contribution of a given muscle by the use of the correlation between muscle EMG activity and net joint torque may lead to erroneous assessments of muscle action. A more comprehensive mechanical evaluation of forces within the limb is necessary before muscle physiological actions can be understood.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1201-1212
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1989

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • Physiology


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