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Shortening of muscle fibres during stretch of the active cat medial gastrocnemius muscle: the role of tendon compliance.

  • R I Griffiths
Publication Date
May 01, 1991


1. The length of muscle fibres in the medial gastrocnemius (MG) muscle of the anaesthetized cat was measured using ultrasound techniques. During the course of 'isometric' contractions, the muscle fibres shortened by stretching the compliant tendons, until the muscle fibres could no longer produce enough force to stretch the tendons further. At optimal muscle length (Lo) the maximal shortening of muscle fibres was 28%. 2. At muscle lengths much longer than Lo, 'isometric' contractions produced a slow shortening of the muscle fibres as the tendons were stretched and this resulted in a slow rise in tension. This phenomenon, usually referred to as 'creep', is due to low power at long muscle fibre length. This study shows that the series compliance present in the tendons is the major contributor to 'creep' in the cat MG muscle. As the tendons stretched during the course of the contraction, the average sarcomere length became shorter providing greater filament overlap and increasing power. 3. Slow to medium speed stretches applied shortly after the onset of contraction, as occurs in cat MG during walking and trotting, were entirely taken up in the tendons and the muscle fibres actually shortened throughout the imposed muscle stretch. 4. When early stretches were applied at muscle lengths longer than Lo, stretch of the muscle resulted in a peak force that was less than if the stretch had not been applied. This was the reverse of the situation for stretches at lengths less than Lo. When stretch was applied after attaining peak force, the force was greatly enhanced and the muscle fibres were also stretched. 5. Using the same techniques in a freely walking cat, the muscle fibres shortened by 1.0 +/- 0.3 mm during the stance phase of the step-cycle when the muscle was being stretched, in 198 consecutive step-cycles. 6. The tendons act as a mechanical buffer to protect muscle fibres from damage during eccentric contractions. 7. Since stretches of the MG muscle are not faithfully imposed on the muscle fibres, studies of muscle spindle function during locomotion need to take into consideration these effects of tendon compliance. The dominant view, when the foot lands on the ground during normal locomotion, is that muscle spindles are stretched along with the muscle resulting in reflex enhancement of contractile force. This study shows that the muscle fibres do not stretch under these circumstances, except at high speeds of locomotion when the stretch rate is also high.


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