Applied kinesiology (AK) is a bogus method of diagnosis and prescription invented by a chiropractor in the 1960s, and used today mainly by chiropractors and some naturopaths. It is denounced as an absurd and dishonest parlour trick by anyone else who knows anything about it, and most skeptics consider AK to be one of the most blatant forms quackery. It is not directly harmful, but it is a costly distraction from real medical care.
AK has no relationship to kinesiology, which is the study of human movement. AK just used the term to make itself sound more legitimate. Some practitioners dishonestly call themselves “kinesiologists.”
What applied kinesiology looks like
Practitioners believe that changes in muscle strength reveal the sensitivities and needs of the patient. Supposedly the strength changes are provoked by probing questions or substances placed within the body’s energy field.
The classic method of AK testing strength is to push down on the patient’s outstretched arm. A strong arm means the body says yes or that’s fine, while weak means no or that’s bad. This is about as scientific as a ouija board.
The “theory” of applied kinesiology
AK is based on the distinctively chiropractic notion of the body’s “innate intelligence” — what most people would probably better understand as the “wisdom of the body.” AK supposedly detects the effects of disturbances in an organizing, animating force. As with therapeutic touch/Reiki, “aura massage,” it boils down to the belief in working with energy fields — which is pure vitalism, a dead-as-a-doornail theory of life. Auras cannot be detected, because they aren’t there.
Some AK believers will suggest more science-y explanations, but when you’re checking to see how a person is affected by a substance placed on a person, you are definitely assuming the existence of an aura. That’s how far out in left field it is.
There is almost no real AK research: no real scientist would bother with it, or get funding for it. It would be like studying the Nigerian email scam or a penis enlargement pill to see if it really works. Even The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine hasn’t bothered (and NCCAM exists to validate alternative medicine).
Diagnosing with applied kinesiology
Bogus prescriptions go nicely with bogus diagnosis, and so AK is used to answer questions like, “What does this body need?” The answer provided by the AKer is usually something equally preposterous or self-serving, such as a course of expensive spinal adjustments.
Many patients may be unaware of the absurdity of AK itself, but be suspicious of the unusually dubious prescription that follows — or AK may impress them so much that they let down their guard.
And AK does impress. That’s the secret to its commercial success: it certainly seems to work, if you don’t know what’s actually going on.
This is not a statue of a “facepalm”: it’s a depiction of “Cain After Killing His Brother Abel,” by Henri Vidal, found in the Tuileries Garden in Paris. In this framing, however, it is perfectly suited to the more modern intepretation! Photo by Alex E. Proimos.
How does applied kinesiology seem to work?
Patients are often wowed by “the AK effect” — they feel weaker or stronger in response to certain questions or substances, and they can see with their own eyes the effect of test on their arm, like watching a health-o-meter twitch.
I’ve personally experienced this phenomenon a few times, and was completely convinced by it while it was happening, back in the days when I was easier to convince of almost anything. I can even recall casually demonstrating AK to a few other people back in my own flaky youth! So AK certainly seems like it works, which is noteworthy — people believe in the benefits of many other snake oils with much less apparent evidence. In contrast, AK can be “demonstrated” with a convincing illusion.
But so does a stage hypnotist. AK exploits potent illusions based on the ideomotor and observer-expectancy or subject-expectancy (power of suggestion) effects. This is why a magician like James Randi knows exactly how to debunk AK (see also a more detailed video debunking).
Interestingly, AK fools practitioners just as readily as it fools patients: most are deluded true believers, not scam artists.
About Paul Ingraham
I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.