Muscles are highly specialized to contract forcefully. Muscles are powered by muscle cells, which contract individually within a muscle to generate force. This force is needed to create movement.
There are over 600 muscles in the human body; they are responsible for every movement we make, from pumping blood through the heart and moving food through the digestive system, to blinking and chewing. Without muscle cells, we would be unable to stand, walk, talk, or perform everyday tasks.
Types of Muscle
There are three types of muscle:
- Skeletal Muscle
Responsible for body movement.
- Cardiac Muscle
Responsible for the contraction of the heart.
- Smooth Muscle
Responsible for many tasks, including movement of food along intestines, enlargement and contraction of blood vessels, size of pupils, and many other contractions.
Skeletal Muscle Structure and Function
Skeletal muscles are attached to the skeleton and are responsible for the movement of our limbs, torso, and head. They are under conscious control, which means that we can consciously choose to contract a muscle and can regulate how strong the contraction actually is. Skeletal muscles are made up of a number of muscle fibers. Each muscle fiber is an individual muscle cell and may be anywhere from 1 mm to 4 cm in length. When we choose to contract a muscle fiber—for instance we contract our bicep to bend our arm upwards—a signal is sent from our brain via the spinal cord to the muscle. This signals the muscle fibers to contract. Each nerve will control a certain number of muscle fibers. The nerve and the fibers it controls are called a motor unit. Only a small number of muscle fibers will contract to bend one of our limbs, but if we wish to lift a heavy weight then many more muscles fibers will be recruited to perform the action. This is called muscle fiber recruitment.
Each muscle fiber is surrounded by connective tissue called an external lamina. A group of muscle fibers are encased within more connective tissue called the endomysium. The group of muscle fibers and the endomysium are surrounded by more connective tissue called the perimysium. A group of muscle fibers surrounded by the perimysium is called a muscle fasciculus. A muscle is made up of many muscle fasciculi, which are surrounded by a thick collagenous layer of connective tissue called the epimysium. The epimysium covers the whole surface of the muscle.
Muscle fibers also contain many mitochondria, which are energy powerhouses that are responsible for the aerobic production of energy molecules, orATP molecules. Muscle fibers also contain glycogen granules as a stored energy source, and myofibrils, which are threadlike structures running the length of the muscle fiber. Myofibrils are made up of two types of protein: 1) Actin myofilaments, and 2) myosin myofilaments. The actin and myosin filaments form the contractile part of the muscle, which is called
the sarcomere. Myosin filaments are thick and dark when compared with actin filaments, which are much thinner and lighter in appearance. The actin and myosin filaments lie on top of one another; it is this arrangement of the filaments that gives muscle its striated or striped appearance. When groups of actin and myosin filaments are bound together by connective tissue they make the myofibrils. When groups of myofibrils are bound together by connective tissue, they make up muscle fibers.
The ends of the muscle connect to bone through a tendon. The muscle is connected to two bones in order to allow movement to occur through a joint. When a muscle contracts, only one of these bones will move. The point where the muscle is attached to a bone that moves is called the insertion. The point where the muscle is attached to a bone that remains in a fixed position is called the origin.
How Muscles Contract
Muscles are believed to contract through a process called the Sliding Filament Theory. In this theory, the muscles contract when actin filaments slide over myosin filaments resulting in a shortening of the length of the sarcomeres, and hence, a shortening of the muscle fibers. During this process the actin and myosin filaments do not change length when muscles contract, but instead they slide past each other.
During this process the muscle fiber becomes shorter and fatter in appearance. As a number of muscle fibers shorten at the same time, the whole muscle contracts and causes the tendon to pull on the bone it attaches to. This creates movement that occurs at the point of insertion.
For the muscle to return to normal (i.e., to lengthen), a force must be applied to the muscle to cause the muscle fibers to lengthen. This force can be due to gravity or due to the contraction of an opposing muscle group.
Skeletal muscles contract in response to an electric signal called an action potential. Action potentials are conducted along nerve cells before reaching the muscle fibers. The nerve cells regulate the function of skeletal muscles by controlling the number of action potentials that are produced. The action potentials trigger a series of chemical reactions that result in the contraction of a muscle.
When a nerve impulse stimulates a motor unit within a muscle, all of the muscle fibers controlled by that motor unit will contract. When stimulated, these muscle fibers contract on an all-or-nothing basis. The all- or-nothing principle means that muscle fibers either contract maximally along their length or not at all. Therefore, when stimulated, muscle fibers contract to their maximum level and when not stimulated there is no contraction. In this way, the force generated by a muscle is not regulated by the level of contraction by individual fibers, but rather it is due to the number of muscle fibers that are recruited to contract. This is called muscle fiber recruitment. When lifting a light object, such as a book, only a small number of muscle fibers will be recruited. However, those that are recruited will contract to their maximum level. When lifting a heavier weight, many more muscle fibers will be recruited to contract maximally.
When one muscle contracts, another opposing muscle will relax. In this way, muscles are arranged in pairs. An example is when you bend your arm at the elbow: you contract your bicep muscle and relax your tricep muscle. This is the same for every movement in the body. There will always be one contracting muscle and one relaxing muscle. If you take a moment to think about these simple movements, it will soon become obvious that unless the opposing muscle is relaxed, it will have a negative effect on the force generated by the contracting muscle.
A muscle that contracts, and is the main muscle group responsible for the movement, is called the agonist or prime mover. The muscle that relaxes is called the antagonist. One of the effects that regular strength training has is an improvement in the level of relaxation that occurs in the opposing muscle group. Although the agonist/antagonist relationship changes, depending on which muscle is responsible for the movement, every muscle group has an opposing muscle group.
Below are examples of agonist and antagonist muscle group pairings:
Smaller muscles may also assist the agonist during a particular movement. The smaller muscle is called the synergist. An example of a synergist would be the deltoid (shoulder) muscle during a press-up. The front of the deltoid provides additional force during the press-up; however, most of the force is applied by the pectoralis major (chest). Other muscle groups may also assist the movement by helping to maintain a fixed posture and prevent unwanted movement. These muscle groups are called fixators. An example of a fixator is the shoulder muscle during a bicep curl or tricep extension.
Types of Muscular Contraction
This is a static contraction where the length of the muscle, or the joint angle, does not change. An example is pushing against a stationary object such as a wall. This type of contraction is known to lead to rapid rises in blood pressure.
This is a moving contraction, also known as dynamic contraction. During this contraction the muscle fattens, and there is movement at the joint.
Types of Isotonic Contraction
This is when the muscle contracts and shortens against a resistance. This may be referred to as the lifting or positive phase. An example would be the lifting phase of the bicep curl.
This occurs when the muscle is still contracting and lengthening at the same time. This may be referred to as the lowering or negative phase.
Muscle Fiber Types
Not all muscle fibers are the same. In fact, there are two main types of muscle fiber:
- Type I
Often called slow-twitch or highly- oxidative muscle fibers
- Type II
Often called fast-twitch or low- oxidative muscle fibers
Additionally, Type II muscle fibers can be further split into Type IIa and Type IIb. Type IIb fibers are the truly fast twitch fibers, whereas Type IIa are in between slow and fast twitch. Surprisingly, the characteristics of Type IIa fibers can be strongly influenced by the type of training undertaken. Following a period of endurance training, they will start to strongly resemble Type I fibers, but following a period of strength training they will start to strongly resemble Type IIb fibers. In fact, following several years of endurance training they may end up being almost identical to slow-twitch muscle fibers.
Type I (Slow-Twitch Muscle Fibers)
Slow-twitch muscle fibers contain moremitochondria, the organelles that produce aerobic energy. They are also smaller, have better blood supply, contract more slowly, and are more fatigue resistant than their fast-twitch brothers. Slow-twitch muscle fibers produce energy, primarily, through aerobic metabolism of fats and carbohydrates. The accelerated rate of aerobic metabolism is enhanced by the large numbers of mitochondria and the enhanced blood supply. They also contain large amounts of myoglobin, a pigment similar to hemoglobin that also stores oxygen. The myoglobin provides an additional store of oxygen for when oxygen supply is limited. This extra oxygen, along with the slow-twitch muscle fibers’ slow rate of contraction, increases their endurance capacity and enhances their fatigue resistance. Slow-twitch muscle fibers are recruited during continuous exercise at low to moderate levels.
Type IIb (Fast-Twitch Low-oxidative Muscle Fibers)
These fibers are larger in size, have a decreased blood supply, have smaller mitochondria and less of them, contract more rapidly, and are more adapted to produce energy anaerobically (without the need for oxygen) than slow-twitch muscle fibers. Their reduced rate of blood supply, together with their larger size and fewer mitochondria, makes them less able to produce energy aerobically, and are therefore, not well suited to prolonged exercise. However, their faster rate of contraction, greater levels of glycogen, and ability to produce much greater amounts of energy anaerobically make them much more suited to short bursts of energy. Because of their greater speed of contraction and reduced blood supply, they are far less fatigue resistant than slow- twitch fibers, and they tire quickly during exercise.
Numbers of Slow and Fast-Twitch Fibers
The number of slow and fast-twitch fibers contained in the body varies greatly between individuals and is determined by a person’s genetics. People who do well at endurance sports tend to have a higher number of slow-twitch fibers, whereas people who are better at sprint events tend to have higher numbers of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Both the slow twitch and fast-twitch fibers can be influenced by training. It is possible through sprint training to improve the power generated by slow twitch fibers, and through endurance training, it is possible to increase the endurance level of fast-twitch fibers. The level of improvement varies, depending on the individual, and training can never make slow-twitch fibers as powerful as fast- twitch, nor can training make fast-twitch fibers as fatigue resistant as slow-twitch fibers.
Cardiac Muscle Structure and Function
Cardiac muscle cells are only found in the heart. They are elongated and contain actin and myosin filaments, which formsarcomeres; these join end to end to formmyofibrils. The actin and myosin filaments give cardiac muscle a striated appearance. The striations are less numerous than in skeletal muscle. Cardiac muscles contain high numbers of mitochondria, which produce energy through aerobic metabolism. An extensive capillary network of tiny blood vessels supply oxygen to the cardiac muscle cells. Unlike the skeletal muscle cells, the cardiac cells all work as one unit, all contracting at the same time. In short, the sinoatrial node at the top of the heart sends an impulse to the atrioventricular node, which sends a wave of polarization that travels from one heart cell to another causing them all to contract at the same time.
Smooth Muscle Structure and Function
Smooth muscle cells are variable in function and perform numerous roles within the body. They are spindle shaped and smaller than skeletal muscle and contain fewer actin and myosin filaments. The actin and myosin filaments are not organized into sarcomeres, so smooth muscles do not have a striated appearance. Unlike other muscle types, smooth muscle can apply a constant tension. This is called smooth muscle tone. Smooth muscle cells have a similar metabolism to skeletal muscle, producing most of their energy aerobically. As such, they are not well adapted to producing energy anaerobically.1
For more information on muscle physiology, click on the links below:
Skeletal Muscle Physiology
Fast Twitch versus Slow Twitch
Actin and Myosin: the Romeo and Juliet of Muscle Cells