The role of motor unit rate modulation versus recruitment in repeated submaximal voluntary contractions performed by control and spinal cord injured subjects

Christine K. Thomas, Alejandro Del Valle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


The relative roles of motor unit firing rate modulation and recruitment were evaluated when individuals with cervical spinal cord injury (SCI) and able-bodied controls performed a brief (6 s), 50% maximal voluntary contraction (50% MVC; target contraction) of triceps brachii every 10 s until it required maximal effort to achieve the target force. Mean (±SD) endurance times for SCI and control subjects were 34±26 and 15±5 min, respectively, at which point significant reductions in maximal triceps force had occurred. Twitch occlusion analysis in controls indicated that force declines resulted largely from peripheral contractile failure. In SCI subjects, triceps surface EMG and motor unit potential amplitude declined in parallel suggesting failure at axon branch points and/or alterations in muscle membrane properties. The force of low threshold units, measured by spike-triggered averaging, declined in SCI but not control subjects, suggesting that higher threshold units fatigued in controls. Central fatigue was also obvious after SCI. Mean (±SD) MVC motor unit firing rates declined significantly with fatigue for control (24.6±7.1 to 17.3±5.1Hz), but not SCI subjects (25.9±12.7 to 20.1±9.7Hz). Unit firing rates were unchanged during target contractions for each subject group, but with the MVC rate decreases, units of SCI and control subjects were activated intensely at endurance time (88% and 99% MVC rates, respectively). New unit recruitment also maintained the target contractions although it was limited after SCI because many descending inputs to triceps motoneurons were disrupted. This resulted in sparse EMG, even during MVCs, but allowed the same unit to be recorded throughout. These EMG data showed that both unit recruitment and rate modulation were important for maintaining force during repeated submaximal intermittent contractions of triceps brachii muscles performed by SCI subjects. Similar results were found for control subjects. Muscles weakened by SCI may therefore provide a useful model in which to directly study motor unit rate modulation and recruitment during weak or strong voluntary contractions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)217-229
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Electromyography and Kinesiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2001


  • Axon branch point failure
  • Central fatigue
  • Peripheral fatigue
  • Surface EMG
  • Triceps brachii
  • Unit force

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine


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