Applied kinesiology (AK) is a bogus method of diagnosis and prescription invented by chiropractor George Goodheart 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 zero relationship to kinesiology, which is the study of human movement. AK just hijacks the term to make itself sound more legitimate. Some practitioners dishonestly call themselves “kinesiologists” — or just fail to clarify.
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 and 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 Integrative Health hasn’t bothered (and NCCIH 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!
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 in Vancouver, Canada. I was a Registered Massage Therapist for a decade and the assistant editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve had many injuries as a runner and ultimate player, and I’ve been a chronic pain patient myself since 2015. Full bio. See you on Facebook or Twitter., or subscribe:
On this website, you might be surprised by what I have to say about believing in “ch’i.” I actually used to be a huge flake who believed almost anything: I have deep New Age roots. I’ve archived one of my oldest articles, which reads like a love letter to vitalism: The Anatomy of Vitality: What makes life tick? A poetic romp through the substance of vitality.
And here’s the complete list of all the other articles on the site that discuss vitalistic healing practices (or vitalism adjacent):
- Use the Force! The myth of healing energy in massage and bodywork — Reiki, therapeutic touch, and other “energy medicine” methods are culturally rich but scientifically bankrupt
- Does Craniosacral Therapy Work? — Craniosacral therapists make big promises, but their methods have failed to pass every fair scientific test of efficacy or plausibility
- The Chiropractic Controversies — An introduction to chiropractic controversies like aggressive billing, treating kids, and neck manipulation risks
- Does Spinal Manipulation Work? — Spinal manipulation, adjustment, and popping of the spinal joints and the subluxation theory of disease, back pain and neck pain
- Organ Health Does Not Depend on Spinal Nerves! — One of the key selling points for chiropractic care is the anatomically impossible premise that your spinal nerve roots are important to your general health
- Homeopathy Schmomeopathy — Homeopathy is not a natural or herbal remedy: it’s a magical idea with no possible basis in reality
- Does Arnica Gel Work for Pain? — A detailed review of popular homeopathic (diluted) herbal creams and gels like Traumeel, used for muscle pain, joint pain, sports injuries, bruising, and post-surgical inflammation
- Does Acupuncture Work for Pain? — A review of modern acupuncture evidence and myths, focused on treatment of back pain & other common chronic pains
- T’ai Chi Helps Fibromyalgia, but It’s Not “Alternative” Medicine — Despite a high profile boost from the New England Journal of Medicine, it’s still just gentle, elegant, and pleasant exercise
- The Tyranny of Yoga and Meditation — Do you really need to try them? How much do they matter for recovery from conditions like low back pain?
- Do You Believe in Qi? — How to embrace a central concept of Eastern mysticism without being a flake