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The potential benefits of functional electrically stimulated (FES) cycling for people with spinal cord injury (SCI) are limited by the power output (PO) attainable. To understand why PO and metabolic efficiency are low, it is helpful to distinguish the effect of the SCI from the effects of electrical stimulation. The purpose of this study was to determine the performance of electrically stimulated (ES) muscle under simpler conditions and in able-bodied people in order to answer two questions about the causes of the poor efficiency in FES cycling. Fifteen able-bodied subjects (26.6 years, six male) performed 5 min of intermittent isometric quadriceps contractions at 40% maximum voluntary contraction during both voluntary and ES activation. Subsequently, nine of them performed 5 min of ES intermittent concentric contractions at the same intensity. This intermittent quadriceps activation imitated the muscles' activity during FES cycling at 35 rpm. Metabolic measurements were recorded. Input power relative to the integral of torque produced ( W/Nmmiddots) was significantly higher during ES than voluntary isometric contractions. Efficiency of ES concentric contractions was 29.6 plusmn 2.9%. Respiratory exchange ratio was high during ES (1.00-1.01) compared with voluntary (0.91) contractions. ES is less economic than voluntary exercise during isometric contractions, probably due to the greater activation of fast muscle fibres. However, during ES concentric contractions, efficiency is near to the expected values for the velocity chosen. Thus there are additional factors that affect the inefficiency observed during FES cycling.