When pennate muscle fibres shorten, the transverse deformation of fibres results in an increase in pennation angle of fascicles (bundles of fibres) and transverse deformation of muscle belly. Transverse shape changes of a muscle can influence force generation. Recent modelling studies predicted asymmetrical transverse deformations in the muscle fascicles in the gastrocnemii. However, these predictions have not been tested experimentally. Since muscle is a 3D entity it is important to explore the structural changes in a 3D perspective to enhance our understanding of the underlying structural mechanisms that have functional implications.
The medial and lateral gastrocnemius muscles from 12 subjects were imaged during plantarflexion movements on a dynamometer. The muscle belly was simultaneously scanned from two orthogonal directions using two ultrasound probes. Fascicle deformations were measured from the two orthogonal ultrasound scans to provide 3D information of muscle geometry.
Whilst transverse deformations in the medial gastrocnemius were similar from the two directions, the data for the lateral gastrocnemius confirm that transverse anisotropy can occur in the muscle fascicles. As the lateral gastrocnemius fascicle length shortened, the pennation angle increased and the fascicles bulged transversally in one direction (closest to the typical 2D scanning plane) while thinning in other orthogonal direction. It is suggested that the transverse deformation of the muscle fascicles depends on the stiffness of the aponeuroses, properties of connective tissue structures surrounding muscle, and compressive forces both internal and external to the muscle. These results highlight that muscle fascicles do not bulge uniformly and the implications for this behavior on muscle function remain largely unexplored.