Research Article: Does practicing a wide range of joint angle configurations lead to higher flexibility in a manual obstacle-avoidance target-pointing task?

Date Published: July 10, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Inge Tuitert, Reinoud J. Bootsma, Marina M. Schoemaker, Egbert Otten, Leonora J. Mouton, Raoul M. Bongers, Robert J. van Beers.


Flexibility in motor actions can be defined as variability in the use of degrees of freedom (e.g., joint angles in the arm) over repetitions while keeping performance (e.g., fingertip position) stabilized. We examined whether flexibility can be increased through enlarging the joint angle range during practice in a manual obstacle-avoidance target-pointing task. To establish differences in flexibility we partitioned the variability in joint angles over repetitions in variability within (GEV) and variability outside the solution space (NGEV). More GEV than NGEV reflects flexibility; when the ratio of the GEV and NGEV is higher, flexibility is higher. The pretest and posttest consisted of 30 repetitions of manual pointing to a target while moving over a 10 cm high obstacle. To enlarge the joint angle range during practice participants performed 600 target-pointing movements while moving over obstacles of different heights (5–9 cm, 11–15 cm). The results indicated that practicing movements over obstacles of different heights led participants to use enlarged range of joint angles compared to the range of joint angles used in movements over the 10 cm obstacle in the pretest. However, for each individual obstacle neither joint angle variance nor flexibility were higher during practice. We also did not find more flexibility after practice. In the posttest, joint angle variance was in fact smaller than before practice, primarily in GEV. The potential influences of learning effects and the task used that could underlie the results obtained are discussed. We conclude that with this specific type of practice in this specific task, enlarging the range of joint angles does not lead to more flexibility.

Partial Text

Skilled behavior is characterized by flexibility [1]. When attempting to avoid spilling coffee from a hand-held cup, such flexibility is for instance seen in the adaptations of the joint angles of the arm following a slight perturbation. Conceptually, flexibility may be defined as deploying a range of different solutions to solve a given motor problem. This can be operationalized to the observation of variability in the use of elemental degrees of freedom (such as joint angles) over repetitions of trials while task performance (such as holding the cup without spilling coffee) is maintained [2,3].

The aim of the current study was to examine whether flexibility increased through practicing an enlarged range of joint angles in a manual obstacle-avoidance target-pointing task. The idea was inspired by the principle of motor abundance and experimental studies showing that flexibility increased as a function of task constraints [7,8,10,18]. Flexibility was operationalized as the relation between variabilities in degrees of freedom over repetitions that did not (GEV) or did (NGEV) affect performance (i.e., end-effector position). During practice, participants performed movements over obstacles of varying heights (cf. [12]), which was expected to evoke deployment of an enlarged range of joint angles. This was hypothesized to lead to a higher variability in joint angles and, therefore, to a higher flexibility after practice. More precisely, flexibility would increase because of a larger increase in GEV than in NGEV after practice, reflecting the joint angle variability within and outside the solution space of the task in the joint space, respectively.




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