So far, some previous studies have reported measurements of muscle hardness (Horikawa et al. 1993; Kashima et al. 2004). Since it doesn’t request muscle tension and can measure at relax posture, participants are out of risk, pain and fatigue while measurement. Furthermore, most of devices for muscle hardness are small and light, which make possible to carry around. In addition, measurement by the ultrasound muscle hardness meter can simultaneously measure both muscle thickness and hardness, which save the measurement time and labor. The measurement of muscle hardness would have a potential to spread as tool for assessment of muscle ability in the field of health promotion.
In the anterior thigh, the subcutaneous fat and two muscles (rectus femoris muscle and vastus intermedius muscle) are located on the thigh bone. In both sex groups, the compression ratios are larger in the muscle tissues than the subcutaneous fat tissue, despite that the muscle is the inner side of the subcutaneous fat. When the tissue is pressed by a given force from the surface, the force is attenuated in deeper layer. Consequently, the compression ratio becomes smaller in the inner layer than outer layer if the hardness is uniform throughout the tissue. Based on these laws, lower compression ratio of the muscle means that the muscle is less hard (in other word, softer) than the subcutaneous fat. On the other hand, the vastus intermedius muscle indicated higher compression ratio than the rectus femoris. Because the vastus intermedius muscle is located at the inner side of the rectus femoris muscle. Therefore, the higher compression ratio in the vastus intermedius muscle would be mainly due to attenuation of force. Moreover, this theory can also explain the significantly higher compression ratio in the male muscles because the higher muscle thickness would attenuate the force applied by the muscle hardness meter.
In the male groups, the muscle thickness was significantly correlated to the MVIC. Many previous studies have been reporting the positive relationships of muscle cross-sectional area and thickness in the thigh to muscle strength and torque of knee extension in male adults. However, their correlation coefficient ranged between around 0.5 to 0.8 (Akima et al. 2001; Freilich et al. 1995; Kanehisa et al. 1994; Maughan et al. 1983b). The correlation coefficient in the present study was 0.412, which was relatively lower than those of other studies. Freilich et al. (1995) reported correlation coefficient (r) of 0.55 (n=58). The range of the thickness in their participants (about 25 mm to 65 mm) is larger than those in the present study (23.6 to 47.5 mm). The correlation coefficient would increase if the wider distribution in the muscle thickness is adopted.
In the female group, no significant correlation was found between muscle thickness and MVIC. Although many previous studies have been reporting significant correlation coefficient between muscle cross-sectional area in the thigh and maximal muscle strength or peak torque of knee extension in sex groups, the coefficients were lower in female group than male group (e.g. Akima et al. (2001): male r=0.827, female r=0.657, Maughan et al. (1983b): r=0.59, female r=0.51, Kanehisa et al. (1994): male r=0.707, female r=0.636). Furthermore, the maximal muscle tension against a give muscle area is pointed out to be lower in female, comparing male (Akima et al. 2001; Kanehisa et al. 1994). The present study also showed same trends that muscle strength against a given muscle thickness was significantly lower in female. This sex difference is considered to be oriented by lower contribution of muscle quantity to muscle strength in female, as described in next paragraph.
Some previous studies reported that female adults showed lower increase in muscle mass (Walts et al. 2008) and muscle fiber cross-sectional area (Martel et al. 2006) upon muscle strength training, compared with male adults. Delmonico et al. (2005) suggested that strength training-induced increase in peak power depends on muscular hypertrophy in men, but not in women. In addition, Yasuda et al. (2005) using short-term limb immobilization found that loss of isometric knee extensor peak torque was highly correlated with atrophy in the cross-sectional area of the entire quadriceps muscles for males, but not for females. On the basis of these previous findings, the change of muscle strength in females would not be more strongly accompanied by a change of muscle quantity including muscle thickness, compared with that in males. This suggests that muscle quality in females would contribute more to muscle strength, which was supported by the results of a higher correlation between compression ratio and muscle strength.
The female group showed a higher correlation coefficient between muscle compression ratio and MVIC, compared with the male group. Muscle strength is determined by not only muscle quantity, such as measured by muscle thickness in the present study, but also muscle quality. In females, muscle compression ratio was found to be independent of muscle thickness, and had a relationship to muscle strength. Namely, it is highly possible that a muscle’s compression ratio reflects muscle quality. In the present study, because the muscle hardness was measured in a supine position without knee extension and muscle tension, the anterior thigh muscle was not stretched. Accordingly, the compression ratio would reflect the hardness itself of the muscle tissue against the direction of compression by the ultrasound hardness meter. It is considered that females with higher muscle strength had superior qualitative properties in the muscles, instead of muscle hypertrophy. Some previous studies reported that isometric strength and isokinetic peak torque of knee extension are associated with ultrasound echo intensity and suggested that these relationships are caused by the difference in the amount of connective and adipose tissues in the muscles (Cadore et al. 2012; Fukumoto et al. 2012). Thus, the tissue composition of muscle might differ in association with the levels of muscle strength, which reflect the muscle hardness against a force perpendicular to the direction of the muscle fibers, although the mechanism involved is not clear from these findings.
In females, the combination of muscle thickness and muscle compression ratio increased the predictability of muscle strength from r=0.225 (only muscle thickness) to r=0.573. Although this predictability is not necessarily high, it corresponds to that by muscle cross-sectional area (e.g. Maughan et al. (1983b): female r=0.51, Kanehisa et al. (1994): female r=0.636). Considering the convenience of the measurements, the assessment of these combinations using the ultrasound muscle hardness meter would be more useful for adults to promote their health in the community, compared with that of muscle cross-sectional area by MRI and CT. Assessment using the ultrasound muscle hardness meter should also become an effective method for the middle-aged and elderly who are subjected to a greater risk in muscle strength tests. Future research should be directed toward other female age groups. In contrast, in males, the above combination was not effective to estimate muscle strength because the two variables were linked to each other. As previously described, the force applied by a hardness meter is attenuated in deeper layers. Because the male group had greater muscle thickness, their compression ratio was significantly higher than in the female group. Accordingly, the compression ratio in males might more strongly reflect the influence of muscle thickness, for example, force attenuation, not muscle hardness itself. The present study used a force of 10 N to compress the tissue. This force might be insufficient to compress the whole muscle in the male group, and might need to be adjusted for each gender.
In conclusion, these findings suggested that the combination of muscle thickness and hardness as assessed by the ultrasound muscle hardness meter is capable of effectively estimating muscle strength of knee extension without muscle contraction especially in females.