The activation of muscles can be studied by measuring the activity of a representative set of single motor units in a muscle or by measuring the surface electromyographic (EMG) activity of a muscle that results from the contribution of a large number of motor units. In this study we have developed a model showing how the direction dependence of the amplitude of the EMG activity during isometric contractions can be understood from the recruitment thresholds of single motor units when force is applied in various directions within a plane. The model predicts that the direction with the largest EMG activity (called the “preferred direction”) corresponds to the direction in which the largest number of motor units is recruited. If one assumes homogeneous activation of a population of motor units, this preferred direction can be shown to be equivalent to the direction in which the recruitment threshold of the motor units is smallest. The experimental data show that, for most muscles in the human arm, the amplitude of surface EMG activity for a constant, isometric force at the wrist was proportional to the cosine of the angle between the muscle's preferred direction and the direction of force. As predicted by the model, the preferred direction coincided with the direction in which the recruitment threshold of motor units was smallest. Musculus deltoideus anterior had a more complicated directional sensitivity for surface EMG activity that could not be well fit by a single cosine function. This effect could be explained by the finding of two subpopulations of motor units within that muscle, each with a different recruitment behavior.