A novel series of experiments are performed on single cells using a bespoke AFM system where the response of cells to dynamic loading at physiologically relevant frequencies is uncovered. Measured forces for the untreated cells are dramatically different to cytochalasin-D (cyto-D) treated cells, indicating that the contractile actin cytoskeleton plays a critical role in the response of cells to dynamic loading. Following a change in applied strain magnitude, while maintaining a constant applied strain rate, the compression force for contractile cells recovers to 88.9 +/- 7.8% of the steady state force. In contrast, cyto-D cell compression forces recover to only 38.0 +/- 6.7% of the steady state force. Additionally, untreated cells exhibit strongly negative (pulling) forces during unloading half-cycles when the probe is retracted. In comparison, negligible pulling forces are measured for cyto-D cells during probe retraction. The current study demonstrates that active contractile forces, generated by actin-myosin cross-bridge cycling, dominate the response of single cells to dynamic loading. Such active force generation is shown to be independent of applied strain magnitude. Passive forces generated by the applied deformation are shown to be of secondary importance, exhibiting a high dependence on applied strain magnitude, in contrast to the active forces in untreated cells.Statement of significanceA novel series of experiments are performed on single cells using a bespoke AFM system where the response of cells to dynamic loading at physiologically relevant frequencies is uncovered. Contractile cells, which contain the active force generation machinery of the actin cytoskeleton, are shown to be insensitive to applied strain magnitude, exhibiting high resistance to dynamic compression and stretching. Such trends are not observed for cells in which the actin cytoskeleton has been chemically disrupted. These biomechanical insights have not been previously reported. This detailed characterisation of single cell active and passive stress during dynamic loading has important implications for tissue engineering strategies, where applied deformation has been reported to significantly affect cell mechanotransduction and matrix synthesis. (C) 2015 Acta Materialia Inc. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.