The aim of the present study was to investigate the effect of an active stretch during the onset of a muscle contraction on subsequent active behaviour of the contractile machinery within an intact mammalian muscle-tendon complex. Muscle length and shortening velocity were studied because they may be important variables affecting this so-called prestretch effect. Seven gastrocnemius medialis (GM) muscles of the rat were examined. Tetanic, isovelocity shortening contractions from 3 mm above muscle optimum length (l0) to l0 - 2 mm, at velocities of 10–50 mm s-1 (dynamic experiments), were preceded by either an isometric contraction (PI) or an active stretch (PS). By imposing quick length decreases between the prephase and the concentric phase, all excess force generated in the prephase was instantaneously eliminated. This procedure only allowed small force changes during subsequent shortening (caused by the intrinsic properties of the contractile machinery). In this way, the influence of series elastic structures on subsequent muscle performance was minimized. Experiments were also performed at lengths ranging from l0 + 2.5 mm to l0 - 1.5 mm, keeping the length constant after the initial quick length changes (isometric experiments). For the dynamic experiments, enhancement of the performance of the contractile machinery (potentiation) was calculated as the ratio of the average force level over each millimetre of shortening during PS to that during PI conditions (PS/PI). For the isometric experiments, the PS/PI force ratio after 300 ms of stimulation was used. The main result of the present study confirmed results reported in the literature and experiments on isolated muscle fibres. For all conditions, a potentiation effect was found, ranging from about 2 to 16%. Muscle length appeared to have a large positive effect on the degree of potentiation. At the greatest lengths potentiation was largest, but at lengths below optimum a small effect was also found. A negative influence of shortening velocity was mainly present at increased muscle lengths (l0 + 2.5 mm and l0 + 1.5 mm). For the dynamic experiments, no interaction was found between the effects of muscle length and shortening velocity on potentiation. However, there was a clear difference between the isometric and dynamic responses: the dependence of potentiation on muscle length was significantly greater for the isometric contractions than for the dynamic ones. These isometric-dynamic differences indicate that the processes underlying prestretch effects operate differently under isometric and dynamic conditions.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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