Nearly all muscle models and most motor control concepts assume that forces from individual muscle fibers and motor units sum in an additive manner once effects of in-series tendon compliance are taken into account. Due to the numerous mechanical linkages between individual fibers, though, it is unclear whether this assumption is warranted. This work examined motor unit force summation over a wide range of muscle forces in the cat soleus. Nonadditive summation implies a nonlinear summation of motor unit forces. Summation nonlinearities were quantified during interactions of 10 individual motor units and 4 motor unit bundles containing approximately 10 units each. These protocols allowed motor unit force summation to be examined from approximately 0 to 25% of tetanic muscle force. Nonlinear summation was assessed by comparing the actual forces to the algebraic sum of individual units and bundles stimulated in isolation. Superadditive summation meant that the actual force exceeded the algebraic sum, whereas subadditive summation meant that the actual force was smaller than the algebraic sum. Experiments tested the hypothesis that superadditive summation occurs at low force levels when few motor units are recruited, whereas subadditive summation prevails above 10% of tetanic force. Results were consistent with this hypothesis. As in previous studies, nonlinear summation in the soleus was modest, but a clear transition from predominately superadditive to predominantly subadditive summation occurred in the range of 6-8% of tetanic force. The largest nonlinearities were transient and appeared at the onset of recruitment and derecruitment of groups of motor units. The results are discussed in terms of the mechanical properties of the connective tissue forming the tendon and linking muscle fibers.
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