Hindlimb muscle function in relation to speed and gait: in vivo patterns of strain and activation in a hip and knee extensor of the rat (Rattus norvegicus)

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Understanding how animals actually use their muscles during locomotion is an important goal in the fields of locomotor physiology and biomechanics. Active muscles in vivo can shorten, lengthen or remain isometric, and their mechanical performance depends on the relative magnitude and timing of these patterns of fascicle strain and activation. It has recently been suggested that terrestrial animals may conserve metabolic energy during locomotion by minimizing limb extensor muscle strain during stance, when the muscle is active, facilitating more economical force generation and elastic energy recovery from limb muscle-tendon units. However, whereas the ankle extensors of running turkeys and hopping wallabies have been shown to generate force with little length change (<6% strain), similar muscles in cats appear to change length more substantially while active. Because previous work has tended to focus on the mechanical behavior of ankle extensors during animal movements, the actions of more proximal limb muscles are less well understood. To explore further the hypothesis of force economy and isometric behavior of limb muscles during terrestrial locomotion, we measured patterns of electromyographic (EMG) activity and fascicle strain (using sonomicrometry) in two of the largest muscles of the rat hindlimb, the biceps femoris (a hip extensor) and vastus lateralis (a knee extensor) during walking, trotting and galloping. Our results show that the biceps and vastus exhibit largely overlapping bursts of electrical activity during the stance phase of each step cycle in all gaits. During walking and trotting, this activity typically commences shortly before the hindlimb touches the ground, but during galloping the onset of activity depends on whether the limb is trailing (first limb down) or leading (second limb down), particularly in the vastus. In the trailing limb, the timing of the onset of vastus activity is slightly earlier than that observed during walking and trotting, but in the leading limb, this activity begins much later, well after the foot makes ground contact (mean 7% of the step cycle). In both muscles, EMG activity typically ceases approximately two-thirds of the way through the stance phase. While electrically active during stance, biceps fascicles shorten, although the extent of shortening differs significantly among gaits (P<0.01). Total average fascicle shortening strain in the biceps is greater during walking (23+/-3%) and trotting (27+/-5%) than during galloping (12+/-5% and 19+/-6% in the trailing and leading limbs, respectively). In contrast, vastus fascicles typically lengthen (by 8-16%, depending on gait) over the first half of stance, when the muscle is electrically active, before shortening slightly or remaining nearly isometric over much of the second half of stance. Interestingly, in the leading limb during galloping, vastus fascicles lengthen prior to muscle activation and exhibit substantial shortening (10+/-2%) during the period when EMG activity is recorded. Thus, patterns of muscle activation and/or muscle strain differ among gaits, between muscles and even within the same muscle of contralateral hindlimbs (as during galloping). In contrast to the minimal strain predicted by the force economy hypothesis, our results suggest that proximal limb muscles in rats operate over substantial length ranges during stance over various speeds and gaits and exhibit complex and changing activation and strain regimes, exemplifying the variable mechanical roles that muscles can play, even during level, steady-speed locomotion.


Gillis, G BBiewener, A Aeng1F32 AR08559-01/AR/NIAMS NIH HHS/Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.England2001/09/05 10:00J Exp Biol. 2001 Aug;204(Pt 15):2717-31.