Obviously, our muscles are capable of generating differing levels of force during whole muscle contraction. Some actions require much more force generation than others; think of picking up a pencil compared to picking up a bucket of water. The question becomes, how can different levels of force be generated?
Multiple-Motor Unit Summation or Recruitment
It was mentioned earlier that all of the motor units in a muscle usually don't fire at the same time. One way to increase the amount of force generated is to increase the number of motor units that are firing at a given time. We say that more motor units are being recruited. The greater the load we are trying to move the more motor units that are activated. However, even when generating the maximum force possible, we are only able to use about 1/3 of our total motor units at one time. Normally they will fire asynchronously in an effort to generate maximum force and prevent the muscles from becoming fatigued. As fibers begin to fatigue they are replaced by others in order to maintain the force. There are times, however, when under extreme circumstances we are able to recruit even more motor units. You have heard stories of mothers lifting cars off of their children, this may not be total fiction. Watch the following clip to see how amazing the human body can be. Muscle recruitment. (Video Transcription Available)
Title: 1013_Summation_Tetanus.jpg; Author: OpenStax;Site: http://firstname.lastname@example.org:67/Anatomy-&-Physiology;License: This work is licensed by Rice University under a Creative Commons Attribution License License ( 3.0).
Recall that a muscle twitch can last up to 100 ms and that an action potential lasts only 1-2 ms. Also, with the muscle twitch, there is no refractory period so it can be re-stimulated at any time. If you were to stimulate a single motor unit with progressively higher frequencies of action potentials you would observe a gradual increase in the force generated by that muscle. This phenomenon is called wave summation. Eventually, the frequency of action potentials would be so high that there would be no time for the muscle to relax between the successive stimuli and it would remain totally contracted, a condition called tetanus. Essentially, with the high frequency of action potentials there isn't time to remove calcium from the cytosol. Maximal force, then, is generated with maximum recruitment, and; an action potential frequency sufficient to result in tetanus.
Length Tension Relationship
Muscle Length and Tension Graph. Title: 1011_Muscle_Length_and_Tension.jpg; Author: OpenStax;Site: https://books.byui.edu/-LhYT;License: This work is licensed by Rice University under a Creative Commons Attribution License License ( 3.0).
It has been demonstrated experimentally that the starting length of the sarcomere influences the amount of force the muscle can generate. This observation has to do with the overlap of the thick and thin filaments. If the starting sarcomere length is very short, the thick filaments will already be pushing up against the Z-disc and there is no possibility for further sarcomere shortening, and the muscle will be unable to generate as much force. On the other hand, if the muscle is stretched to the point where myosin heads can no longer contact the actin, then again, less force will be generated. Maximum force is generated when the muscle is at a length that allows every myosin head to contact the actin and the sarcomere has the maximum distance to shorten. In other words, the thick filaments are at the very ends of the thin filaments. These data were generated experimentally using frog muscles that were dissected out and stretched between two rods. Intact muscles in our bodies are not normally stretched very far beyond their optimal length due to the arrangement of muscle attachments and joints.
However, you can do a little experiment that will help you see how force is lost when a muscle is in a very short or a very stretched position. This experiment will use the muscles that help you pinch the pad of your thumb to the pads of your fingers. These muscles are near maximal stretch when you extend your arm and also extend your wrist. As your wrist is cocked back into maximal extension, try to pinch your thumb to your fingers. See how weak it feels? Now, gradually flex your wrist back to a straight or neutral position. You should feel your pinch get stronger. Now, flex your elbow and your wrist. With your wrist in maximal flexion, the muscles you use to pinch with are near their most shortened position. Try pinching again. It should feel weak. But, again, as you extend your wrist back to neutral you should feel your pinch get stronger.