The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

The musculoskeletal system of humans is not tuned to maximize the economy of locomotion


1Biology, University of Utah, 2Clinic for Trauma, Hand and Reconstructive Surgery, Div. Motor Research, Pathophysiology and Biomechanics, University Hospital Jena, 3Small Animal Clinic, University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover

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Humans are known to have energetically optimal walking and running speeds at which the cost to travel a given distance is minimized. We hypothesized that “optimal” walking and running speeds would also exist at the level of individual locomotor muscles. Additionally, because humans are 60 to 70% more economical when they walk than when they run, we predicted that the different muscles would exhibit a greater degree of tuning to the energetically “optimal” speed during walking than during running. To test these hypotheses, we used electromyography to measure the activity of 13 muscles of the back and legs over a range of walking and running speeds in human subjects and calculated the cumulative activity required from each muscle to traverse a kilometer. We found that activity of each of these muscles was minimized at specific walking and running speeds but the different muscles were not tuned to a particular speed in either gait. Although humans are clearly highly specialized for terrestrial locomotion compared to other great apes, the results of this study indicate that our locomotor muscles are not tuned to specific walking or running speeds and, therefore, do not maximize the economy of locomotion. This pattern may have evolved in response to selection to broaden the range of sustainable running speeds, to improve performance in motor behaviors not related to endurance locomotion or in response to selection for both.

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