The effect of fast and slow motor unit activation on whole-muscle mechanical performance: the size principle may not pose a mechanical paradox

Date Published:

May 22


The output of skeletal muscle can be varied by selectively recruiting different motor units. However, our knowledge of muscle function is largely derived from muscle in which all motor units are activated. This discrepancy may limit our understanding of in vivo muscle function. Hence, this study aimed to characterize the mechanical properties of muscle with different motor unit activation. We determined the isometric properties and isotonic force-velocity relationship of rat plantaris muscles in situ with all of the muscle active, 30% of the muscle containing predominately slower motor units active or 20% of the muscle containing predominately faster motor units active. There was a significant effect of active motor unit type on isometric force rise time (p < 0.001) and the force-velocity relationship (p < 0.001). Surprisingly, force rise time was longer and maximum shortening velocity higher when all motor units were active than when either fast or slow motor units were selectively activated. We propose this is due to the greater relative effects of factors such as series compliance and muscle resistance to shortening during sub-maximal contractions. The findings presented here suggest that recruitment according to the size principle, where slow motor units are activated first and faster ones recruited as demand increases, may not pose a mechanical paradox, as has been previously suggested.


Holt, N CWakeling, J MBiewener, A AengAR055648/AR/NIAMS NIH HHS/Research Support, N.I.H., ExtramuralEngland2014/04/04 06:00Proc Biol Sci. 2014 Apr 2;281(1783):20140002. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2014.0002. Print 2014 May 22.