More gain less pain: balance control learning shifts the activation patterns of leg and neck muscles and increases muscular parsimony.

Research paper by Pierpaolo P Iodice, Stefano S Cesinaro, Gian Luca GL Romani, Giovanni G Pezzulo

Indexed on: 22 Apr '15Published on: 22 Apr '15Published in: Experimental Brain Research


Athletes such as skaters or surfers maintain their balance on very unstable platforms. Remarkably, the most skilled athletes seem to execute these feats almost effortlessly. However, the dynamics that lead to the acquisition of a defined and efficient postural strategy are incompletely known. To understand the posture reorganization process due to learning and expertise, we trained twelve participants in a demanding balance/posture maintenance task for 4 months and measured their muscular activity before and after a (predictable) disturbance cued by an auditory signal. The balance training determined significant delays in the latency of participants' muscular activity: from largely anticipatory muscular activity (prior to training) to a mixed anticipatory-compensatory control strategy (after training). After training, the onset of activation was delayed for all muscles, and the sequence of activation systematically reflected the muscle position in the body from top to bottom: neck/upper body muscles were recruited first and in an anticipatory fashion, whereas leg muscles were recruited after the disturbance onset, producing compensatory adjustments. The resulting control strategy includes a mixture of anticipatory and compensatory postural adjustments, with a systematic sequence of muscular activation reflecting the different demands of neck and leg muscles. Our results suggest that subjects learned the precise timing of the disturbance onset and used this information to deploy postural adjustments just-in-time and to transfer at least part of the control of posture from anticipatory to less-demanding feedback-based strategies. In turn, this strategy shift increases the cost-efficiency of muscular activity, which is a key signature of skilled performance.