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To investigate the ability of ultrasonography to estimate muscle activity, we measured architectural parameters (pennation angles, fascicle lengths, and muscle thickness) of several human muscles (tibialis anterior, biceps brachii, brachialis, transversus abdominis, obliquus internus abdominis, and obliquus externus abdominis) during isometric contractions of from 0 to 100% maximal voluntary contraction (MVC). Concurrently, electromyographic (EMG) activity was measured with surface (tibialis anterior only) or fine-wire electrodes. Most architectural parameters changed markedly with contractions up to 30% MVC but changed little at higher levels of contraction. Thus, ultrasound imaging can be used to detect low levels of muscle activity but cannot discriminate between moderate and strong contractions. Ultrasound measures could reliably detect changes in EMG of as little as 4% MVC (biceps muscle thickness), 5% MVC (brachialis muscle thickness), or 9% MVC (tibialis anterior pennation angle). They were generally less sensitive to changes in abdominal muscle activity, but it was possible to reliably detect contractions of 12% MVC in transversus abdominis (muscle length) and 22% MVC in obliquus internus (muscle thickness). Obliquus externus abdominis thickness did not change consistently with muscle contraction, so ultrasound measures of thickness cannot be used to detect activity of this muscle. Ultrasound imaging can thus provide a noninvasive method of detecting isometric muscle contractions of certain individual muscles.

Original publication




Journal article


Muscle Nerve

Publication Date





682 - 692


Adult, Electromyography, Female, Humans, Male, Middle Aged, Muscle Contraction, Muscle Fibers, Skeletal, Muscle, Skeletal, Ultrasonography