AbstractA novel finite element formulation suitable for computing efficiently the stiffness distribution in soft biological tissue is presented in this paper. For that purpose, the inverse problem of finite strain hyperelasticity is considered and solved iteratively. In line with Arnold et al (2010 Phys. Med. Biol. 55 2035), the computing time is effectively reduced by using adaptive finite element methods. In sharp contrast to previous approaches, the novel mesh adaption relies on an r-adaption (re-allocation of the nodes within the finite element triangulation). This method allows the detection of material interfaces between healthy and diseased tissue in a very effective manner. The evolution of the nodal positions is canonically driven by the same minimization principle characterizing the inverse problem of hyperelasticity. Consequently, the proposed mesh adaption is variationally consistent. Furthermore, it guarantees that the quality of the numerical solution is improved. Since the proposed r-adaption requires only a relatively coarse triangulation for detecting material interfaces, the underlying finite element spaces are usually not rich enough for predicting the deformation field sufficiently accurately (the forward problem). For this reason, the novel variational r-refinement is combined with the variational h-adaption (Arnold et al 2010) to obtain a variational hr-refinement algorithm. The resulting approach captures material interfaces well (by using r-adaption) and predicts a deformation field in good agreement with that observed experimentally (by using h-adaption).