, Volume 36, Issue 11, pp 977-999
Date: 21 Nov 2012

The Stretch-Shortening Cycle

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Abstract

Neuromuscular fatigue has traditionally been examined using isolated forms of either isometric, concentric or eccentric actions. However, none of these actions are naturally occurring in human (or animal) ground locomotion. The basic muscle function is defined as the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC), where the preactivated muscle is first stretched (eccentric action) and then followed by the shortening (concentric) action. As the SSC taxes the skeletal muscles very strongly mechanically, its influence on the reflex activation becomes apparent and very different from the isolated forms of muscle actions mentioned above. The ground contact phases of running, jumping and hopping etc. are examples of the SSC for leg extensor muscles; similar phases can also be found for the upper-body activities. Consequently, it is normal and expected that the fatigue phenomena should be explored during SSC activities.

The fatigue responses of repeated SSC actions are very versatile and complex because the fatigue does not depend only on the metabolic loading, which is reportedly different among muscle actions. The complexity of SSC fatigue is well reflected by the recovery patterns of many neuromechanical parameters. The basic pattern of SSC fatigue response (e.g. when using the complete exhaustion model of hopping or jumping) is the bimodality showing an immediate reduction in performance during exercise, quick recovery within 1–2 hours, followed by a secondary reduction, which may often show the lowest values on the second day post-exercise when the symptoms of muscle soreness/damage are also greatest. The full recovery may take 4–8 days depending on the parameter and on the severity of exercise. Each subject may have their own time-dependent bimodality curve.

Based on the reviewed literature, it is recommended that the fatigue protocol is ‘completely’ exhaustive to reduce the important influence of inter-subject variability in the fatigue responses. The bimodality concept is especially apparent for stretch reflex responses, measured either in passive or active conditions. Interestingly, the reflex responses follow parallel changes with some of the pure mechanical parameters, such as yielding of the braking force during an initial ground contact of running or hopping. The mechanism of SSC fatigue and especially the bimodal response of performance deterioration and its recovery are often difficult to explain. The immediate post-exercise reduction in most of the measured parameters and their partial recovery 1–2 hours post-exercise can be explained primarily to be due to metabolic fatigue induced by exercise. The secondary reduction in these parameters takes place when the muscle soreness is highest.

The literature gives several suggestions including the possible structural damage of not only the extrafusal muscle fibres, but also the intrafusal ones. Temporary changes in structural proteins and muscle-tendon interaction may be related to the fatigue-induced force reduction. Neural adjustments in the supraspinal level could naturally be operative, although many studies quoted in this article emphasise more the influences of exhaustive SSC fatigue on the fusimotor-muscle spindle system. It is, however, still puzzling why the functional recovery lasts several days after the disappearance of muscle soreness. Unfortunately, this and many other possible mechanisms need more thorough testing in animal models provided that the SSC actions can be truly performed as they appear in normal human locomotion.