Voluntary enhanced cocontraction

Biscarini A1, Benvenuti P2, Botti FM3, Brunetti A4, Brunetti O3, Pettorossi VE3

BACKGROUND: A number of research studies provide evidence that hamstring cocontraction during open kinetic chain knee extension exercises enhances tibiofemoral (TF) stability and reduces the strain on the anterior cruciate ligament.

PURPOSE: To determine the possible increase in hamstring muscle coactivation caused by a voluntary cocontraction effort during open kinetic chain leg-extension exercises, and to assess whether an intentional hamstring cocontraction can completely suppress the anterior TF shear force during these exercises.

STUDY DESIGN: Descriptive laboratory study.

METHODS: Knee kinematics as well as electromyographic activity in the semitendinosus (ST), semimembranosus (SM), biceps femoris (BF), and quadriceps femoris muscles were measured in 20 healthy men during isotonic leg extension exercises with resistance (R) ranging from 10% to 80% of the 1-repetition maximum (1RM). The same exercises were also performed while the participants attempted to enhance hamstring coactivation through a voluntary cocontraction effort. The data served as input parameters for a model to calculate the shear and compressive TF forces in leg extension exercises for any set of coactivation patterns of the different hamstring muscles.

RESULTS: For R≤ 40% 1RM, the peak coactivation levels obtained with intentional cocontraction (l) were significantly higher (P < 10(-3)) than those obtained without intentional cocontraction (l 0). For each hamstring muscle, maximum level l was reached at R = 30% 1RM, corresponding to 9.2%, 10.5%, and 24.5% maximum voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) for the BF, ST, and SM, respectively, whereas the ratio l/l 0 reached its maximum at R = 20% 1RM and was approximately 2, 3, and 4 for the BF, SM, and ST, respectively. The voluntary enhanced coactivation level l obtained for R≤ 30% 1RM completely suppressed the anterior TF shear force developed by the quadriceps during the exercise.

CONCLUSION: In leg extension exercises with resistance R≤ 40% 1RM, coactivation of the BF, SM, and ST can be significantly enhanced (up to 2, 3, and 4 times, respectively) by a voluntary hamstring cocontraction effort. The enhanced coactivation levels obtained for R≤ 30% 1RM can completely suppress the anterior TF shear force developed by the quadriceps during the exercise.

CLINICAL RELEVANCE: This laboratory study suggests that leg extension exercise with intentional hamstring cocontraction may have the potential to be a safe and effective quadriceps-strengthening intervention in the early stages of rehabilitation programs for anterior cruciate ligament injury or reconstruction recovery. Further studies, including clinical trials, are needed to investigate the relevance of this therapeutic exercise in clinical practice.