Sex differences in glenohumeral muscle activation and coactivation during a box lifting task

Manual material handling is associated with shoulder musculoskeletal disorders, especially for women. Sex differences in glenohumeral muscle activity may contribute to women’s higher injury risk by affecting shoulder load and stability. We assessed the effects of sex (25 women vs 26 men) and lifting load (6 kg vs 12 kg) on muscle activation during box lifting from hip to eye level. Surface and intramuscular electromyography were recorded from 10 glenohumeral muscles. Most muscles were more activated for the heavier box and for women. These effects were larger for ‘prime movers’ than for stabilisers and antagonists. Despite their apparently heterogeneous effects on muscle activity, sex and mass did not affect Muscle Focus, a metric of coactivation. This may be partly related to the limited sensitivity of the Muscle Focus. Nevertheless, sex differences in strength, more than in coactivation patterns, may contribute to the sex imbalance in the prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders.

Practitioner summary: We studied sex differences in glenohumeral muscle activity in a lifting task to eye level. Women lifting a 6-kg box activated their muscles similarly to men lifting a 12-kg box, i.e. up to 48% of their maximum capacity. Interventions minimising shoulder load should be implemented, especially for women.

Abbreviations: BB: biceps brachii; DeltA: anterior deltoid; DeltL: lateral deltoid; DeltP: posterior deltoid; DoF: degrees of freedom; ED: effect duration; EMG: electromyography; ES: effect size; Infra: infraspinatus; Lat: latissimus dorsi; MF: muscle focus; MMH: manual material handling; MVA: maximal voluntary activation; Pect: pectoralis major; Subscap: subscapularis; Supra: supraspinatus; TB: triceps brachii