During sustained maximal voluntary contractions (MVCs), most fatigue occurs within the muscle, but some occurs because voluntary activation of the muscle declines (central fatigue), and some of this reflects suboptimal output from the motor cortex (supraspinal fatigue). This study examines whether supraspinal fatigue occurs during a sustained submaximal contraction of 5% MVC. Eight subjects sustained an isometric elbow flexion of 5% MVC for 70 min. Brief MVCs were performed every 3 min, with stimulation of the motor point, motor cortex, and brachial plexus. Perceived effort and pain, elbow flexion torque, and surface EMGs from biceps and brachioradialis were recorded. During the sustained 5% contraction, perceived effort increased from 0.5 to 3.9 (out of 10), and elbow flexor EMG increased steadily by ~60–80%. Torque during brief MVCs fell to 72% of control values, while both the resting twitch and EMG declined progressively. Thus the sustained weak contraction caused fatigue, some of which was due to peripheral mechanisms. Voluntary activation measured by motor point and motor cortex stimulation methods fell to 90% and 80%, respectively. Thus some of the fatigue was central. Calculations based on the fall in voluntary activation measured with cortical stimulation indicate that about two-thirds of the fatigue was due to supraspinal mechanisms. Therefore, sustained performance of a very low-force contraction produces a progressive inability to drive the motor cortex optimally during brief MVCs. The effect of central fatigue on performance of the weak contraction is less clear, but it may contribute to the increase in perceived effort.
Journal of Applied Psychology Vol. 103, p. 560-568