client works with trainer on muscle coordination

Improving movement through muscular coordination, not isolation

Why working different muscles together provides optimal benefit.

Exercises are commonly used for improving the function of specific muscle groups – and rightfully so. But, in real life, we rarely use a muscle group in isolation. Therefore, no matter how valuable exercises are for specific muscle groups, they offer the greatest benefit when performed in coordination with other targeted muscles.

It sounds easy enough to work two muscles groups at once. However, it’s not just a case of choosing any two muscle groups to exercise simultaneously. The muscle groups that are coordinated vary depending on the movement for which they are required.

Thanks to research on neuromuscular coordination, we now have a better understanding of which muscles work together to support our daily functions. Once we have determined which specific muscles we want to target, we can establish “coordinating” exercises that call upon support from complementary muscles.

Why does muscular coordination matter?

Muscular coordination represents our ability to consciously and unconsciously control our whole-body posture and joint stability while actively moving in various environments. This is fundamental to our survival and our musculoskeletal health. Our goal with optimizing muscular coordination is to improve our adaptability while maintaining a supportive relationship between the coordinated muscles. Keeping this goal in mind will help us think beyond the size and strength of the muscles, and guide us to train the nervous system that controls our muscles.

Lateral subsystems anatomy

Lateral Subsystem

An illustration of coordinating muscles at work

To provide a practical example, we’ll look at one specific pairing of muscle groups that control our balance from side-to-side.

When we walk or run, the hip stabilizers on the weight-bearing limb and the back (or trunk) stabilizers on the opposite side work together to prevent excessive side-to-side sway. The functional pairing of these muscle groups is generally referred to as the lateral subsystem.

Consider how the lateral subsystem functions when walking. As we lift one foot, the hip stabilizers in the inner thigh and outer thigh oppose each other to keep the pelvis level. The back stabilizers assist the hip stabilizers in the outer thigh to control excessive leaning of the body. All these muscles form a supportive relationship by activating at slightly different times. As we transition from walking to running, the timing and the magnitude of activation of these muscles adjust to maintain the same supportive relationship.

When coordination is not optimized within the lateral subsystem, injuries can occur – typically hip, leg and back pain. Fortunately, there are progressive exercises (see sidebar) that can be done if the subsystem isn’t operating at its best. Exercises that promote optimal coordination of these different muscle groups help us improve our daily function and prevent injuries. The key in training is to continuously vary the exercise and load – all without sacrificing the correct posture of your spine and pelvis.


Common postures that indicate improper coordination within the lateral subsystem

Daehan demonstrates trunk leaning position

Trunk leaning toward weight-bearing side

Daehan demonstrates pelvis drop posture

Pelvis drop toward non weight-bearing side; weight-bearing knee collapses inward

Taking the next step

For training to be successful, choose a task that requires the coordination of the target muscle groups and then add small variations to change how the muscles are coordinated. Exercises can be modified to reinforce specific muscles that may need more work. Variations can be efficiently designed based on a movement assessment.

For more information on the lateral subsystem and to download four progressive exercises to help ensure you are balanced as you walk and run, click here.

Speak to a Copeman kinesiologist today to learn more about optimizing your muscular coordination, to have a movement assessment, or to develop an exercise program.