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Pendulum 10/1/23 

What Is Muscle Testing? 

No one talks about their personal trainer or massage therapist with the same reverence and enthusiasm they do their chiropractor. Chiropractors are a uniquely American field, originating in the Midwest through the later half of the 20th century. The top chiropractic schools are all in the Midwest, a place that seems unusual to pioneer bone cracking and popping as a form of natural health. Today 15% of American adults see a chiropractor at least once a year. The field can be controversial, as chiropractors aren’t medical doctors, but one survey showed that 77% of those who regularly use a chiropractor report noticeable improvement. 

If you’ve seen a chiropractor before, there are decent odds you’ve experienced muscle testing. It’s used by almost half of all chiropractors, though you probably won’t find it in a physical therapy office or conventional medicine spaces. It’s when they have you hold your arm up and press on it, or they ask you to make an “okay sign” with your hand and they try to separate your index finger from your thumb while asking you questions or holding a supplement near you. 

Muscle testing is a bit of a misnomer because it’s not really about the muscle or sports therapy. A physical therapist will measure range of motion of a joint by measuring degrees, or strength of a recovering muscle by applied pressure, or ability to increase reps of a simple exercise. That is not muscle testing. Muscle testing a biofeedback practice that relies heavily on messages from the subconscious, intuition, and energy fields. 

In the words of a practitioner, our central nervous system is constantly scanning, picking up on clues and threats near and far. The same feeling that may make you uncomfortable when a stranger across the room stares at you, may not need to be consciously processed but the nervous system has ways of identifying small potential threats very quickly. Muscle testing provides a way to read small nervous system reflexes that show up in muscle responses.  

The practice of muscle testing was developed by Michigan chiropractor George J. Goodheart, who was the first official US Olympic team chiropractor in 1979. He started developing muscle testing through the ‘60s mostly based on observation and trial and error. Goodheart perceived muscle and joint strength as signals to underlying issues. This is in line with general chiropractic philosophy that spinal adjustments aren’t just for back pain but treat a wide array of ailments. Goodheart started exploring relationships or correlations between muscle strength and conditions that seemed unrelated. By doing this, he tapped into an idea that muscle testing is a way to communicate to the body’s nervous system. 

As muscle testing has evolved over decades, it has become a norm to use it to diagnose allergies, parasites, gut health issues, supplements and more. For example, one might muscle test a gluten intolerance by performing the muscle test while the patient has a gluten product in near vicinity. If the muscle tests as weak with gluten nearby, and strong without gluten – then that is how a muscle test will determine a gluten intolerance. 

Research shows that muscle testing is accurate about 50% of the time. That might sound like it means its complete nonsense; a stopped clock is right twice a day. However, those who use it report beneficial results, even if it’s just a placebo effect. There are plenty of popular supplements and practices with way lower success rates (let’s not circle back to water fluoridation). Medical and pharmaceutical practices absolutely need more than a 50% efficacy rate but when it comes to significant pain that doesn’t qualify for surgery or medication, many find that muscle testing helps narrow down the origin of an ache or pain that was a complete mystery before. There’s a tendency for people to find chiropractors and use muscle testing after conventional medicine has been unable to offer a diagnoses or treatment plan.   

Brooke’s Take: 

My personal experience is that the way that muscle testing can be used by practitioners varies widely. Some are more “woo-woo” while others might use it as a tool to trace down an elusive movement pattern or subconscious nervous system patterns. 

In one instance, during an assessment, an experienced chiropractor with a practice of at least 25 years noticed the palms of my hands face backward instead of towards my midline (probably just bad posture). This observation combined with muscle testing indicated low iodine levels, and I bought an iodine supplement when I left (because life’s short, yolo). I used the supplement for a couple months, but after not noticing a significant difference and it’s not like my palms rotated into a new alignment because of supplement, I didn’t make it back for refills. 

Another practitioner used muscle testing to identify a specific back muscle as being a contributor to a chronic tight neck. Time and time again over years, I find that relationship to be accurate even if there’s not an established connection between those two muscle groups. 

At the end of the day, I would not use muscle testing for anything serious but sometimes a 50/50 chance is better than nothing especially for persistent discomfort without a known origin. The biggest risk is getting sold a useless supplement or being diagnosed with a gluten intolerance.