This study compared the effects of repeated contractions and repeated passive stretches on the viscoelastic properties of muscle. The tibialis anterior (TA) muscles of eight anesthetized male New Zealand white rabbits were studied. In each rabbit, one hindlimb was randomly assigned to the repeated muscular contraction group (CON) and the contralateral hindlimb to the repeated passive stretch group (STRETCH). The passive tension at neutral length was measured in all muscles before and after both repeated muscular contractions or repeated passive stretches. In the CON hindlimb, the peroneal nerve was stimulated with a nerve stimulator for 1 s, and the resulting contractile force was measured. Stimulations were repeated every 10 s for a total of 10 contractions. In the STRETCH hindlimb, the TA was stretched from its shortest in vivo length to its maximum in vivo length 10 times at 20 cm x min-1. The maximum force generated during the first contraction in the CON group averaged 21.74 +/- 1.41 N, with a subsequent reduction with each muscle contraction to 13.66 +/- 0.81 N by the tenth contraction. The average peak tensile force in the STRETCH group was 17.39 +/- 2.61 N for the first passive stretch, decreasing to 13.57 +/- 1.84 by the tenth stretch. After repeated muscular contractions in the CON hindlimbs, the passive tension at neutral length decreased from 0.88 +/- 0.22 N to 0.42 +/- 0.08 N. After repeated passive stretches in the STRETCH hindlimbs, the passive tension at neutral length decreased from 1.16 +/- 0.17 N to 0.67 +/- 0.09 N. The percentage decreases in passive tension between the CON and STRETCH groups were not statistically significant (P = 0.24). The results show that stretching and contracting both result in tissue relaxation of the muscle-tendon unit. This finding may be a result of changes in the viscous elements of the connective tissue secondary to the forces generated by either stretches or contractions. This study suggests that well controlled isometric muscular contractions may result in decreased passive tension in a muscle at neutral length, a finding that one normally associates with passive stretching.