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Motor-unit Discharge Rates In Maximal Voluntary Contractions Of Three Human Muscles.

F. Bellemare, J. Woods, R. Johansson, B. Bigland-ritchie
Published 1983 · Psychology, Medicine

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Single motor-unit firing rates have been recorded during maximal voluntary contractions using tungsten microelectrodes. Over 300 units from four subjects were sampled from each of three muscles. These were the biceps brachii, adductor pollicis, and soleus, chosen because of known differences in their fiber-type composition and contractile properties. In all cases the contraction maximality was assured by delivering single supramaximal shocks during the voluntary contractions. All motor units were deemed to have already been fully activated if no additional force resulted. Thus for each muscle, the firing rates elicited by a maximal voluntary effort are sufficient to generate a fully fused tetanus in each motor unit. For the biceps brachii and adductor pollicis muscles, the mean firing rates (+/- SD) were 31.1 +/- 10.1 and 29.9 +/- 8.6 Hz, respectively, while for soleus they were only 10.7 +/- 2.9 HZ. For each muscle the firing rates distribution covered approximately a four-fold range about the mean value. The mean firing rates for each muscle varied roughly in proportion to their respective twitch contraction and half relaxation times. These contractile time measurements for both biceps brachii and adductor pollicis agreed well with the mean values reported for human fast-twitch motor units, while those for soleus fell in the range observed for human slow-twitch units. An argument is presented that suggests that, in response to voluntary effort, the range of discharge rates of each motor-unit pool is limited to those only just sufficient to produce maximum force in each motor unit. This suggestion is based on the relationship between the range of motor-unit firing frequencies observed during maximum voluntary contractions, their range of contraction times, and the stimulation frequencies required for maximum force generation. The implications of this hypothesis for motor control are discussed.
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