Rapid Force Production in Children and Adults: Mechanical and Neural Contributions

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Abstract

Purpose

Children demonstrate lower force production capacities compared with adults, which has often been attributed to “neuromuscular immaturity.” However, tendon stiffness, which influences both the electromechanical delay (EMD) and rate of force development (RFD) in adults, is lower in children and may influence rapid force production. The aims of this study were 1) to document EMD and RFD variation as a function of age, 2) to determine the relationships between tendon stiffness and parameters relating to rapid force production in children and adults, and 3) to estimate the relative neural and mechanical contributions to age-related changes in force production by examining the effects of tendon stiffness and muscle activation rate (rate of EMG increase [REI]) on RFD.

Methods

Achilles tendon stiffness, EMD, RFD, and REI were measured during plantarflexion contractions in 47 prepubertal children (5–12 yr) and 19 adults. Relationships were determined between 1) stiffness and EMD, 2) stiffness and RFD, and 3) REI and RFD. The relative contributions of age, stiffness, and REI on RFD were determined using a multiple regression analysis. Age-related differences in tendon stiffness, EMD, RFD, and REI were also examined according to chronological age (5–6, 7–8, and 9–10 yr) and compared with adults.

Results

Increases in tendon stiffness with age were correlated with decreases in EMD (r < −0.83). Stiffness and REI could account for up to 35% and 30% of RFD variability in children, respectively, which increased to 58% when these variables were combined.

Conclusions

Both neural and mechanical factors influence rapid force production in prepubertal children. Children’s longer EMD and slower RFD indicate a less effective development and transfer of muscular forces, which may have implications for complex movement performance.

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