Although cycling is a seemingly simple, reciprocal task, muscles must adapt their function to satisfy changes in mechanical demands induced by higher crank torques and faster pedalling cadences. We examined whether muscle function was sensitive to these changes in mechanical demands across a wide range of pedalling conditions. We collected experimental data of cycling where crank torque and pedalling cadence were independently varied from 13 to 44 N m and 60 to 140 rpm. These data were used in conjunction with musculoskeletal simulations and a recently developed functional index-based approach to characterise the role of human lower-limb muscles. We found that in muscles that generate most of the mechanical power and work during cycling, greater crank torque induced shifts towards greater muscle activation, greater positive muscle–tendon unit (MTU) work and a more motor-like function, particularly in the limb extensors. Conversely, with faster pedalling cadence, the same muscles exhibited a phase advance in muscle activity prior to crank top dead centre, which led to greater negative MTU power and work and shifted the muscles to contract with more spring-like behaviour. Our results illustrate the capacity for muscles to adapt their function to satisfy the mechanical demands of the task, even during highly constrained reciprocal tasks such as cycling. Understanding how muscles shift their contractile performance under varied mechanical and environmental demands may inform decisions on how to optimise pedalling performance and to design targeted cycling rehabilitation therapies for muscle-specific injuries or deficits.

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