Purpose - The purpose of this paper is to apply virtual agonist-antagonist mechanisms (VAAMs) to robot joint control allowing for muscle-like functions and variably compliant joint motions. Biological muscles of animals have a surprising variety of functions, i.e. struts, springs and brakes. Design/methodology/approach - Each joint is driven by a pair of VAAMs (i.e. passive components). The muscle-like functions as well as the variable joint compliance are simply achieved by tuning the damping coefficient of the VAAM. Findings - With the VAAM, variably compliant joint motions can be produced without mechanically bulky and complex mechanisms or complex force/toque sensing at each joint. Moreover, through tuning the damping coefficient of the VAAM, the functions of the VAAM are comparable to biological muscles. Originality/value - The model (i. e. VAAM) provides a way forward to emulate muscle-like functions that are comparable to those found in physiological experiments of biological muscles. Based on these muscle-like functions, the robotic joints can easily achieve variable compliance that does not require complex physical components or torque sensing systems, thereby capable of implementing the model on small-legged robots driven by, for example, standard servo motors. Thus, the VAAM minimizes hardware and reduces system complexity. From this point of view, the model opens up another way of simulating muscle behaviors on artificial machines. Executive summary - The VAAM can be applied to produce variable compliant motions of a high degree-of-freedom robot. Only relying on force sensing at the end effector, this application is easily achieved by changing coefficients of the VAAM. Therefore, the VAAM can reduce economic cost on mechanical and sensing components of the robot, compared to traditional methods (e. g. artificial muscles).