Journal of Comparative Physiology B

, Volume 179, Issue 1, pp 57–66 | Cite as

Motor unit recruitment for dynamic tasks: current understanding and future directions

  • Emma F. Hodson-Tole
  • James M. WakelingEmail author


Skeletal muscle contains many muscle fibres that are functionally grouped into motor units. For any motor task there are many possible combinations of motor units that could be recruited and it has been proposed that a simple rule, the ‘size principle’, governs the selection of motor units recruited for different contractions. Motor units can be characterised by their different contractile, energetic and fatigue properties and it is important that the selection of motor units recruited for given movements allows units with the appropriate properties to be activated. Here we review what is currently understood about motor unit recruitment patterns, and assess how different recruitment patterns are more or less appropriate for different movement tasks. During natural movements the motor unit recruitment patterns vary (not always holding to the size principle) and it is proposed that motor unit recruitment is likely related to the mechanical function of the muscles. Many factors such as mechanics, sensory feedback, and central control influence recruitment patterns and consequently an integrative approach (rather than reductionist) is required to understand how recruitment is controlled during different movement tasks. Currently, the best way to achieve this is through in vivo studies that relate recruitment to mechanics and behaviour. Various methods for determining motor unit recruitment patterns are discussed, in particular the recent wavelet-analysis approaches that have allowed motor unit recruitment to be assessed during natural movements. Directions for future studies into motor recruitment within and between functional task groups and muscle compartments are suggested.


Neuromechanics Electromyography Skeletal muscle 


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© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Applied PhysiologyGeorgia Institute of TechnologyAtlantaUSA
  2. 2.School of KinesiologySimon Fraser UniversityBurnabyCanada

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