Spatial muscle activation patterns during different leg exercise protocols in physically active adults using muscle functional MRI: a systematic review

Katherine Dooley, Suzanne J Snodgrass, Peter Stanwell, Samantha Birse, Adrian Schultz, Michael K Drew, Suzi Edwards

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


An emerging method to measure muscle activation patterns is muscle functional magnetic resonance imaging (mfMRI), where preexercise and postexercise muscle metabolism differences indicate spatial muscle activation patterns. We evaluated studies employing mfMRI to determine activation patterns of lumbar or lower limb muscles following exercise in physically active adults. Electronic systematic searches were conducted until March 2020. All studies employing ≥1.5 Tesla MRI scanners to compare spatial muscle activation patterns at the level of or inferior to the first lumbar vertebra in healthy, active adults. Two authors independently assessed study eligibility before appraising methodological quality using a National Institutes of Health assessment tool. Because of heterogeneity, findings were synthesized without meta-analysis. Of the 1,946 studies identified, seven qualified for inclusion and pertained to hamstring (n = 5), quadriceps (n = 1) or extrinsic foot (n = 1) muscles. All included studies controlled for internal validity, with one employing assessor blinding. MRI physics and differing research questions explain study methodology heterogeneity. Significant mfMRI findings were: following Nordic exercise, hamstrings with previous trauma (strain or surgical autograft harvest) demonstrated reduced activation compared with unharmed contralateral muscles, and asymptomatic individuals preferentially activated semitendinosus; greater biceps femoris long head to semitendinosus ratios reported following 45° hip extension over Nordic exercise; greater rectus femoris activation occurred in "flywheel" over barbell squats. mfMRI parameters differ on the basis of individual research questions. Individual muscles show greater activation following specific exercises, suggesting exercise specificity may be important for rehabilitation, although evidence is limited to single cohort studies comparing interlimb differences preexercise versus postexercise.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)934-946
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Applied Physiology Respiratory Environmental and Exercise Physiology
Issue number4
Early online date27 Aug 2020
Publication statusPublished - 01 Oct 2020


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