In a standing position, the vertical projection of the center of mass passes in front of the ankle, which requires active plantar-flexor torque from the triceps surae to maintain balance. We recorded motor unit (MU) activity in the medial (MG) and lateral (LG) gastrocnemius muscle and the soleus (SOL) in standing balance and voluntary isometric contractions to understand the effect of functional requirements and descending drive from different neural sources on motoneuron behavior. Single MU activity was recorded in seven subjects with wire electrodes in the triceps surae. Two 3-min standing balance trials and several ramp-and-hold contractions were performed. Lateral gastrocnemius MU activity was rarely observed in standing. The lowest thresholds for LG MUs in ramp contractions were 20-35 times higher than SOL and MG MUs (P < 0.001). Compared with MUs from the SOL, MG MUs were intermittently active (P < 0.001), had higher recruitment thresholds (P = 0.022), and greater firing rate variability (P < 0.001); this difference in firing rate variability was present in standing balance and isometric contractions. In SOL and MG MUs, both recruitment of new MUs (R(2) = 0.59-0.79, P < 0.01) and MU firing rates (R(2) = 0.05-0.40, P < 0.05) were associated with anterior-posterior and medio-lateral torque in standing. Our results suggest that the two heads of the gastrocnemius may operate in different ankle ranges with the larger MG being of primary importance when standing, likely due to its fascicle orientation. These differences in MU discharge behavior were independent of the type of descending neural drive, which points to a muscle-specific optimization of triceps surae motoneurons.
Keywords: human; motor units; standing balance; triceps surae.