Several skeletal muscles can be divided into sub-modules, called neuromuscular compartments (NMCs), which are thought to be controlled independently and to have distinct biomechanical functions. We looked for distinct muscle activation patterns in the triceps surae muscle (TS) using surface electromyography (EMG) during voluntary contraction. Nine subjects performed isometric and isotonic plantar flexions combined with forces along pre-defined directions. Besides the forces under the ball of the foot, multi-channel surface EMG was measured with electrodes homogeneously distributed over the entire TS. Using principal component analysis, common (global) components were omitted from the EMG signals, thereby estimating muscle activity sufficiently accurate to track fine fluctuations of force during an isotonic contraction (r = 0.80 ± 0.09). A subsequent cluster analysis showed a topographical organization of co-activated parts of the muscle that was different between subjects. Low and negative correlations between the EMG activity within clusters were found, indicating a substantial heterogeneity of TS activation. The correlations between cluster time series and forces at the foot in specific directions differed substantially between clusters, showing that the differentially activated parts of the TS had specific biomechanical functions. © 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.