When active muscles are stretched, our understanding of muscle function is stretched as well. Our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of concentric contraction has advanced considerably since the advent of the sliding filament theory, whereas mechanisms for increased force production during eccentric contraction are only now becoming clearer. Eccentric contractions play an important role in everyday human movements, including mobility, stability, and muscle strength. Shortly after the sliding filament theory of muscle contraction was introduced, there was a reluctant recognition that muscle behaved as if it contained an "elastic" filament. Jean Hanson and Hugh Huxley referred to this structure as the "S-filament," though their concept gained little traction. This additional filament, the giant titin protein, was identified several decades later, and its roles in muscle contraction are still being discovered. Recent research has demonstrated that, like activation of thin filaments by calcium, titin is also activated in muscle sarcomeres by mechanisms only now being elucidated. The mdm mutation in mice appears to prevent activation of titin, and is a promising model system for investigating mechanisms of titin activation. Titin stiffness appears to increase with muscle force production, providing a mechanism that explains two fundamental properties of eccentric contractions: their high force and low energetic cost. The high force and low energy cost of eccentric contractions makes them particularly well suited for athletic training and rehabilitation. Eccentric exercise is commonly prescribed for treatment of a variety of conditions including sarcopenia, osteoporosis, and tendinosis. Use of eccentric exercise in rehabilitation and athletic training has exploded to include treatment for the elderly, as well as muscle and bone density maintenance for astronauts during long-term space travel. For exercise intolerance and many types of sports injuries, experimental evidence suggests that interventions involving eccentric exercise are demonstrably superior to conventional concentric interventions. Future work promises to advance our understanding of the molecular mechanisms that confer high force and low energy cost to eccentric contraction, as well as signaling mechanisms responsible for the beneficial effects of eccentric exercise in athletic training and rehabilitation.
Keywords: giant sarcomeric proteins; muscle atrophy; muscle intrinsic properties; space travel; sports injury rehabilitation; titin/connectin; winding filament hypothesis.