The Frequency of Motor Neuron Stimulation

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A Myogram of a Muscle Twitch

A single muscle twitch has a latent period, a contraction phase when tension increases, and a relaxation phase when tension decreases. During the latent period, the action potential is being propagated along the sarcolemma. During the contraction phase, Ca++ ions in the sarcoplasm bind to troponin, tropomyosin moves from actin-binding sites, cross-bridges form, and sarcomeres shorten. During the relaxation phase, tension decreases as Ca++ ions are pumped out of the sarcoplasm and cross-bridge cycling stops.

Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

A single action potential from a motor neuron will produce a single contraction in the muscle fibers of its motor unit. This isolated contraction is called a twitch. A twitch can last for a few milliseconds or 100 milliseconds, depending on the muscle type. The tension produced by a single twitch can be measured by a myogram, an instrument that measures the amount of tension produced over time. Each twitch undergoes three phases. The first phase is the latent period, during which the action potential is being propagated along the sarcolemma and Ca++ ions are released from the SR. This is the phase during which excitation and contraction are being coupled but contraction has yet to occur. The contraction phase occurs next. The Ca++ ions in the sarcoplasm have bound to troponin, tropomyosin has shifted away from actinbinding sites, cross-bridges formed, and sarcomeres are actively shortening to the point of peak tension. The last phase is the relaxation phase, when tension decreases as contraction stops. Ca++ ions are pumped out of the sarcoplasm into the SR, and cross-bridge cycling stops, returning the muscle fibers to their resting state.

Although a person can experience a muscle “twitch,” a single twitch does not produce any significant muscle activity in a living body. A series of action potentials to the muscle fibers is necessary to produce a muscle contraction that can produce work. Normal muscle contraction is more sustained, and it can be modified by input from the nervous system to produce varying amounts of force; this is called a graded muscle response. The frequency of action potentials (nerve impulses) from a motor neuron and the number of motor neurons transmitting action potentials both affect the tension produced in skeletal muscle.

The rate at which a motor neuron fires action potentials affects the tension produced in the skeletal muscle. If the fibers are stimulated while a previous twitch is still occurring, the second twitch will be stronger. This response is called wave summation, because the excitation-contraction coupling effects of successive motor neuron signaling is summed, or added together. At the molecular level, summation occurs because the second stimulus triggers the release of more Ca++ ions, which become available to activate additional sarcomeres while the muscle is still contracting from the first stimulus. Summation results in greater contraction of the motor unit.

If the frequency of motor neuron signaling increases, summation and subsequent muscle tension in the motor unit continues to rise until it reaches a peak point. The tension at this point is about three to four times greater than the tension of a single twitch, a state referred to as incomplete tetanus. During incomplete tetanus, the muscle goes through quick cycles of contraction with a short relaxation phase for each. If the stimulus frequency is so high that the relaxation phase disappears completely, contractions become continuous in a process called complete tetanus.

During tetanus, the concentration of Ca++ ions in the sarcoplasm allows virtually all of the sarcomeres to form cross-bridges and shorten, so that a contraction can continue uninterrupted (until the muscle fatigues and can no longer produce tension).


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: