Motor units, defined as a motoneuron and all of its associated muscle fibers, are the basic functional units of skeletal muscle. Their activity represents the final output of the central nervous system, and their role in motor control has been widely studied. However, there has been relatively little work focused on the mechanical significance of recruiting variable numbers of motor units during different motor tasks. This review focuses on factors ranging from molecular to macroanatomical components that influence the mechanical output of a motor unit in the context of the whole muscle. These factors range from the mechanical properties of different muscle fiber types to the unique morphology of the muscle fibers constituting a motor unit of a given type and to the arrangement of those motor unit fibers in three dimensions within the muscle. We suggest that as a result of the integration of multiple levels of structural and physiological levels of organization, unique mechanical properties of motor units are likely to emerge.
Copyright 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.