Increase in Volitional Muscle Activation from Childhood to Adulthood: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

Stacey Woods, Caragh O'Mahoney, James Maynard, Raffy Dotan, Gershon Tenenbaum, Edson Filho, Bareket Falk

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Introduction Children's maximal muscle strength is consistently lower than adults', even when normalized to body size. Lower volitional muscle activation (VA) in children is often considered one of the main reasons for age-related differences in muscular performance. However, some recent studies have reported similar VA in children and adults, bringing into question whether there is indeed an age-related increase in VA. The purpose of this review was to determine the effect of age on VA during maximal isometric contractions. Methods Literature examining VA differences, using twitch interpolation in children (7-14 yr) and adults (16-28 yr), was systematically reviewed. Of the 1915 studies initially identified, 19 data sets were eligible for inclusion in the qualitative analysis and 14 in the quantitative meta-analysis (comprising 207 children and 193 adults). Results Significantly lower VA in children was reported in 9/19 (47%) studies. A random-effects meta-analysis found a strong effect of age on VA, supporting lower VA in children compared with adults (Hedges' g = 1.55; confidence interval: 0.9-2.13). Moderator analysis included muscle group, sex, children's age, stimulation number (singlet, multiple), type (electric, magnetic), and location (muscle, nerve), of which only muscle group was significant (P < 0.001). A significant Egger's regression test and asymmetrical funnel plot suggest that publication bias may be present. Conclusions Overall, these findings suggest that compared with adults, children activate their motor-unit pool less compared with adults. Moreover, that the degree of VA increase with age may be influenced by the muscle examined (upper vs lower extremity). However, more research is needed to elucidate the influence of this possible factor, as the current review contains limited data from upper body muscles. The developmental mechanism responsible for children's lower VA requires further research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)789-799
Number of pages11
JournalMedicine and Science in Sports and Exercise
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1 May 2022
Externally publishedYes




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