Muscle function during movement is more than a simple, linear transformation of neural activity into force. The classic work loop technique has pioneered our understanding of muscle, but typically only characterizes function during unperturbed movement cycles, such as those experienced during steady walking, running, swimming and flying. Yet perturbations away from steady movement often place greater demands on muscle structure and function and offer a unique window into muscle's broader capacity. Recently, studies in diverse organisms from cockroaches to humans have started to grapple with muscle function in unsteady (perturbed, transient and fluctuating) conditions, but the vast range of possible parameters and the challenge of connecting in vitro to in vivo experiments are daunting. Here, we review and organize these studies into two broad approaches that extend the classic work loop paradigm. First, in the top-down approach, researchers record length and activation patterns of natural locomotion under perturbed conditions, replay these conditions in isolated muscle work loop experiments to reveal the mechanism by which muscle mediates a change in body dynamics and, finally, generalize across conditions and scale. Second, in the bottom-up approach, researchers start with an isolated muscle work loop and then add structural complexity, simulated loads and neural feedback to ultimately emulate the muscle's neuromechanical context during perturbed movement. In isolation, each of these approaches has several limitations, but new models and experimental methods coupled with the formal language of control theory give several avenues for synthesizing an understanding of muscle function under unsteady conditions.

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