Viscoelastic properties of muscle-tendon units. The biomechanical effects of stretching

Am J Sports Med. 1990 May-Jun;18(3):300-9. doi: 10.1177/036354659001800314.


Most muscle stretching studies have focused on defining the biomechanical properties of isolated elements of the muscle-tendon unit or on comparing different stretching techniques. We developed an experimental model that was designed to evaluate clinically relevant biomechanical stretching properties in an entire muscle-tendon unit. Our objectives were to characterize the viscoelastic behavior of the muscle-tendon unit and to consider the clinical applications of these viscoelastic properties. Rabbit extensor digitorum longus and tibialis anterior muscle-tendon units were evaluated using methods designed to simulate widely used stretching techniques. Additionally, the effects of varying stretch rates and of reflex influences were evaluated. We found that muscle-tendon units respond viscoelastically to tensile loads. Reflex activity did not influence the biomechanical characteristics of the muscle-tendon unit in this model. Experimental techniques simulating cyclic stretching and static stretching resulted in sustained muscle-tendon unit elongations, suggesting that greater flexibility can result if these techniques are used in the clinical setting. With repetitive stretching, we found that after four stretches there was little alteration of the muscle-tendon unit, implying that a minimum number of stretches will lead to most of the elongation in repetitive stretching. Also, greater peak tensions and greater energy absorptions occurred at faster stretch rates, suggesting that the risk of injury in a stretching regimen may be related to the stretch rate, and not to the actual technique. All of these clinically important considerations can be related to the viscoelastic characteristics of the muscle-tendon unit.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Models, Biological
  • Muscles / physiology*
  • Rabbits
  • Reflex, Stretch / physiology*
  • Tendons / physiology*