Human balancing of an inverted pendulum: is sway size controlled by ankle impedance?


Corresponding author
M. Lakie: Applied Physiology Research Group, School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK.


  • 1Using the ankle musculature, subjects balanced a large inverted pendulum. The equilibrium of the pendulum is unstable and quasi-regular sway was observed like that in quiet standing. Two main questions were addressed. Can subjects systematically change sway size in response to instruction and availability of visual feedback? If so, do subjects decrease sway size by increasing ankle impedance or by some alternative mechanism?
  • 2The position of the pendulum, the torque generated at each ankle and the soleus and tibialis anterior EMG were recorded.
  • 3Results showed that subjects could significantly reduce the mean sway size of the pendulum by giving full attention to that goal. With visual feedback sway size could be minimised significantly more than without visual feedback. In changing sway size, the frequency of the sways was not changed.
  • 4Results also revealed that ankle impedance and muscle co-contraction were not significantly changed when the sway size was decreased. As the ankle impedance and sway frequency do not change when the sway size is decreased, this implies no change in ankle stiffness or viscosity.
  • 5Increasing ankle impedance, stiffness or viscosity are not the only methods by which sway size could be reduced. A reduction in torque noise or torque inaccuracy via a predictive process which provides active damping could reduce sway size without changing ankle impedance and is plausible given the data. Such a strategy involving motion recognition and generation of an accurate motor response may require higher levels of control than changing ankle impedance by altering reflex or feedforward gain.