Best Exercises to Improve Hindlimb Muscles – Research

Has your dog had physiotherapy? Then you will know that specific exercises were given to you to improve your dog’s muscles. These exercises can be very different from how you would play and exercise with your dog every day but have you ever wondered why? The reason is that these exercises are selected to improve the size, strength, and stamina of a specific muscle or muscle group. Research in this area has been ongoing in human physiotherapy; however, there has been very little research to show which exercises can target specific muscles best in our dogs. New research by McLean et al. (2019) has shown which exercises work best on three different muscles in the hindlimb of the dog. Let’s take a look.

McLean et al. (2019) used surface electromyography (a way of measuring electrical activity in muscles) to look at the vastus lateralis, biceps femoris, and gluteus medius muscles when the dog’s where standing and in a series of 8 different exercises.

To give you some background information:

  • The gluteus medius muscle is in the rump and similar to our bottom muscles. Its function is to extend the hip joint.
  • The vastus lateralis muscle is found at the front of the leg and is part of the quadriceps muscle group. Its function is to extend the stifle (knee) joint
  • The biceps femoris muscle is found towards the back of your dog’s leg and is part of the hamstring muscle group. Its function is to extend the hip, stifle, and hock joint when the limb is bearing weight. When the hindlimb is not weight-bearing it flexes the stifle joint.

Why these muscles? The researchers chose these muscles as they are often weak in dogs suffering from injuries and health conditions affecting the joints of the hindlimb e.g. hip dysplasia and cruciate ligament rupture. As a vet physio, these are some of the most common conditions which I help dogs with, and will often see these muscles weakened in my patients.

What did the researches find out?

All of the exercises that where performed showed increased muscle activation in comparison to standing. Walking and trotting activated all three muscles demonstrating that these are great exercises for owners to perform at home safely with little instruction.

The top three exercises for each muscle where as follows:

Gluteus Medius:

  1. Wearing a leg weight whist trotting
  2. Walking up and over a platform
  3. Dancing backwards

Vastus Lateralis:

  1. Walking up and over a platform
  2. Dancing backwards
  3. Trotting

Biceps Femoris:

  1. Dancing backwards
  2. Walking up and over a platform
  3. Trotting

As a vet physio, this gives me a good selection of exercise to choose from when I want to improve one of these muscles.

Caution

What we need to remember about this research is that the sample of dogs used were all clinically fit and healthy. Unlike the dogs in the study, when your vet physio comes to see your dog it is often because they are recovering from an illness or injury. If your vet physio finds an issue with these muscles and gives you a different exercise this is because that exercise is more suitable for your dog at that time. Your vet physio will aim to build up muscle strength, stamina, and size by gradually increasing the difficulty of the exercise otherwise there is a risk of injuring your dog. Some of the other exercises tested in this research included using platforms to elevate the forelimbs and wobble cushions, similar to what I would use in practice. These exercises still increased muscle activation but to a lesser extent. Using these exercises first allows your dog to safely improve and recover. This is why it is super important to listen to your vet physio’s advice and only perform the exercises they show you!

We also need to consider that this is the first piece of research performed in this area. The study used large breed dogs, therefore, similar research should be performed on different dog breeds to ensure that these findings are the same for all dogs. All the dogs used were healthy; further research should be performed on dogs recovering from the common conditions dogs suffer from to ensure that these exercises are still as effective in clinical practice. Some exercises, which also target the hindlimbs, were not tested. These exercises should also be assessed before deciding which exercises are most effective at targeting specific muscles.

Overall this is an excellent piece of research that gives vet physios a foundation for making decisions on how best to rehabilitate your dog. This research is also an excellent baseline for further research to be undertaken and to find more exercises that vet physios can use to benefit your dog.

The article is free to access. You can read the study by clicking the linked reference below. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

References

McLean, H., Millis, D. and Levine, D. 2019. Surface electromyography of the vastus lateralis, biceps femoris and gluteus medius in dogs during stance, walking, trotting and selected therapeutic exercises. Frontiers in veterinary science, 6. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2019.00211/full [accessed 4th October 2020].

Disclaimer

This information is general veterinary medical advice only. The text and exercises described, including all graphics, text and images, (collectively ‘the content’) are intended for information purposes only. The content is not a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your Veterinary Surgeon or Veterinary Physiotherapist with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or its treatment. Never disregard professional veterinary advice or delay or in seeking it because of something you have read or seen on this post. Always read the instructions accompanying each exercise prior to performing the exercise. Cease performing exercise if your dog shows signs of heavy panting, lethargy, muscle tremors or difficulty performing the exercises. In such event, promptly contact your veterinary professional prior to continuing with any aspect of this exercise sheet. It is a condition that you consult your veterinary surgeon before beginning any exercises on this post.

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This information and exercise program is general veterinary medical advice only. The text and exercises described, including all graphics, text and images, (collectively ‘the content’) are intended for information purposes only. The content is not a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your Veterinary Surgeon or Veterinary Physiotherapist with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or its treatment. Never disregard professional veterinary advice or delay or in seeking it because of something you have read or seen on this post. Always read the instructions accompanying each exercise prior to performing the exercise. Cease performing exercise if your dog shows signs of heavy panting, lethargy, muscle tremors or difficulty performing the exercises. In such event, promptly contact your veterinary professional prior to continuing with any aspect of this exercise sheet. It is a condition that you consult your veterinary surgeon before beginning any exercises on this post.

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