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Kinesiology- May The Force Be With You

There is no question about it – kinesiology is cool! That’s what I think anyway, and it boggles my mind when others are not as intrigued. But I think it is just that some simply do not realize the benefit of this fascinating field of study. In many cases knowing kinesiological principles is not just useful, but absolutely essential. Anyone working with pain and injury complaints should have a solid working knowledge of the primary clinical sciences.

Using kinesiology to its full extent is one of the things that will set you apart from other massage therapists and other healthcare professionals. Surprisingly, kinesiology is one of the clinical sciences least understood by soft-tissue practitioners. Many confuse the science of kinesiology with what is called, “applied kinesiology,” which is not really related. More challenging for others is not knowing how to effectively apply these principles in a clinical setting. Yet, kinesiology’s real value is revealed when it fully informs your clinical work.

Sadly, for many this captivating subject got boiled down to mind-numbing memorization of muscle attachment sites and actions in massage school. Notably, it is the passive learning style that predominates in kinesiology education in both basic and continuing education. Read – memorize – take a test. However, if you take a moment to explore the key elements of kinesiology you might just discover a host of valuable ways to incorporate this science in your own clinical work.

What is Kinesiology?

Kinesiology is the exploration of human movement and integrates three disciplines: musculoskeletal anatomy (form)neuromuscular physiology (function), and biomechanics. Kinesiology is that area in which these three disciplines intersect (Figure 1). Having a good foundation in these clinical sciences as they relate to soft-tissue treatment is a great starting point. By default, understanding kinesiological principles returns a better understanding of human structure and function.

Anatomy (Form)

Your basic education started you out with a solid foundation in muscular anatomy. Soft-tissue therapists should know what the structures are under the skin to which they will be applying soft-tissue treatment. Those working with any level of pain or injuries must know these tissues to have an idea what might be playing a role in their client’s dysfunction.

The clinical knowledge necessary for therapeutic treatment does not stop with muscle names, or with muscle attachment sites. In fact, it should not stop with muscles at all, but should progress to ligaments, tendons, nerve, and fascia – the other soft-tissues often needing to be addressed in various conditions. While muscle tissue is the most common structure massage therapists work with, it is by no means the only cause of soft-tissue pain. If you are not aware of other soft-tissues that may produce pain, you will miss important characteristics of the client’s condition.

Physiology (Function)

While anatomy is the study of structure, physiology is the study of function. The second key element of kinesiology is the function of the locomotor tissues, specifically the neuromuscular connection. Movement occurs because of neurological impulses delivered to muscles causing them to contract. When there is a disruption or irregularity in neuromuscular activity or control, movement disorders and pain can result.

Massage treatments frequently incorporate this fundamental understanding of neuromuscular physiology even though you might not be aware of it. Consider the way in which PNF stretching takes advantage of neuromuscular control principles such as post-isometric relaxation. Other methods such as active isolated stretching rely upon specific positions so as not to initiate the neuromuscular stretch reflex. The client who has postural dysfunction and painful trigger points is treated with methods based on physiological principles of how to best deactivate and neutralize these dysfunctional trigger points.


Biomechanics is the third intersecting clinical science of kinesiology. It is the study of structure and function of biological systems through mechanical physics, basically the study of physical forces. It is sometimes confused with body mechanics, which one learns in applying massage strokes. Performing biomechanical analysis requires an understanding of both anatomy and physiology.

To determine how a structure might respond to various mechanical forces you must be familiar with its physiological characteristics in response to mechanical stress. Evaluating a soft-tissue injury requires exploring the forces applied to the body during injury or activity: their direction, velocity, and intensity. Through this mechanical analysis the practitioner evaluates whether those forces were sufficient to cause specific tissue injuries and consequently how those tissues should be treated.

Putting it Into Practice

As you can see not only is kinesiology a much broader science than you may have realized, but it is an integral part of becoming a highly skilled soft-tissue therapist if you are working with pain and injury complaints. An arsenal of techniques is essentially your bag of tools. However, even with a great bag of tools, if you don’t understand when to use a wrench and when to use a screwdriver and how much force to use when you apply it, your work will be so much less effective.

How to learn more
Understanding kinesiology is exceptionally important when you treat clients having pain and injury complaints. Yet it isn’t easy to find formal coursework in kinesiology that is directly applicable to your massage practice. Most university courses in kinesiology are aimed at physical education professionals and not at manual therapists or healthcare professionals. A continuing education course specifically on kinesiology would ideally integrate the other sciences and clinical reasoning required for application. There are some excellent books available on kinesiology but many people find kinesiology textbooks overwhelming and are not sure how to use the books.

One of the most effective ways to learn kinesiology is through activities that put the information directly into practice and require creative thinking and clinical reasoning by the individual. Choosing CE courses that emphasize kinesiology in conjunction with other clinical sciences as they are applied to various situations is an efficient way to learn these principles. Courses that include problem-based learning, case study evaluations, or scenarios include deeper levels of analysis and allow the individual to immediately apply kinesiology to their coursework.

You can also improve your application of kinesiology by just watching simple movements you see someone performing and analyzing them. Watch someone walking, raking the yard, or working at a checkout stand and analyze what type of forces are being applied to the tissues involved in the activity. When you can apply these principles in the context of your day-to-day work activities, they are much more likely to stick and become meaningful for you.

Massage therapists are ideally positioned to use kinesiology as a valuable and indispensable tool for both assessment and treatment. Putting greater emphasis on applying kinesiology in your practice will pay off with significant rewards of increased treatment success and satisfied clients.

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