Reported specific tension measurements for human skeletal muscle vary widely. This variability could be due, at least in part, to the determination of the physiological cross-sectional area (PCSA) of the muscles. In the present study, serial magnetic resonance images were taken every 10 mm along the lower leg of 8 male subjects to calculate the volume and subsequently the PCSAs of the individual muscles producing plantar flexor and dorsiflexor torques. Maximum plantar flexor and dorsiflexor voluntary isometric torques were determined at ankle joint angles of 90, 100, 110, and 120 degrees. Peak tendon force estimated from torque and moment arm measurements was more than fourfold higher in the plantar flexors (3,623 +/- 136 N) than in the dorsiflexors (832 +/- 19 N). PCSAs were about eight- and threefold higher than the anatomic cross-sectional areas at the level of maximum girth of the calf for the plantar flexor and dorsiflexor groups, respectively. Mean muscle volume and PCSA were 4.6 and 12 times larger in the plantar flexors compared with the dorsiflexors, respectively. The PCSAs of both plantar flexors (r = 0.92) and dorsiflexors (r = 0.80) were highly correlated with the tendon tension of the respective muscle groups. The maximum specific tension was more than twofold higher in dorsiflexors than in plantar flexors. These data suggest that factors other than PCSA contribute to the force output potential of ankle plantar flexors and dorsiflexors in humans.