Primary motor cortex (MI) plays an important role in voluntary motor behaviour, yet considerable debate remains on how neural processing within this brain region contributes to motor function. This article provides a brief review of the dominant conceptual frameworks used to interpret MI activity, notably servo-control during the 1970s and early 1980s, and sensorimotor transformations since that time. The former emphasized the use of feedback, but was abandoned because delays in sensory feedback could not permit sufficient feedback gains to generate observed patterns of limb movement. The latter framework focuses attention on identifying what coordinate frames, or representations, best describe neural processing in MI. However, studies have shown that MI activity correlates with a broad range of parameters of motor performance from spatial target location, hand or joint motion, joint torque and muscle activation patterns. Further, these representations can change across behaviours, such as from posture to movement. What do heterogeneous, labile neural representations mean and how do they help us understand how MI is involved in volitional motor control? Perhaps what is required is a new conceptual framework that re-focuses the experimental problem back on processes of control. Specifically, optimal feedback control has been proposed as a theory of the volitional motor system and it is argued here that it provides a rich, new perspective for addressing the role of MI and other brain regions in volitional motor control.