3.4.1. Muscle Function

“Muscle Function” is an adaptation of the chapter “Musculoskeletal System” from Concepts of Biology, by Samantha Fowler, Rebecca Roush, and James Wise, and the chapters “Overview of Muscle Tissues” and “Types of Muscle Fibers” from Anatomy and Physiology, by J. Gordon Betts, Kelly A. Young, James A. Wise, Eddie Johnson, Brandon Poe, Dean H. Kruse, Oksana Korol, Jody E. Johnson, Mark Womble, and Peter DeSaix. Both texts are published by OpenStax under a CC BY 4.0 license. Information that is not relevant to this course has been removed.


Muscles allow for movement such as walking, and they also facilitate bodily processes such as respiration and digestion. The body contains three types of muscle tissue: skeletal muscle, cardiac muscle, and smooth muscle (Figure



The skeletal muscle cells are long and appear striated due to the arrangement of their myofilaments. Each cell has multiple nuclei. Smooth muscle cells have no striations and only one nuclei per cell. Cardiac muscle cells are striated but have only one nucleus. The cells are arranged in branching bundles.
The body contains three types of muscle tissue: skeletal muscle, smooth muscle, and cardiac muscle. Notice that skeletal muscle cells are long and cylindrical, they have multiple nuclei, and the small, dark nuclei are pushed to the periphery of the cell. Smooth muscle cells are short, tapered at each end, and have only one nucleus each. Cardiac muscle cells are also cylindrical, but short. The cytoplasm may branch, and they have one or two nuclei in the center of the cell. Source: modification of work by NCI, NIH; scale-bar data from Matt Russell. Source: Overview of Muscle Tissue
Skeletal muscle tissue forms skeletal muscles, which attach to bones and sometimes the skin and control locomotion and any other movement that can be consciously controlled. Because it can be controlled intentionally, skeletal muscle is also called voluntary muscle. When viewed under a microscope, skeletal muscle tissue has a striped or striated appearance. This appearance results from the arrangement of the proteins inside the cell that are responsible for contraction. The cells of skeletal muscle are long and tapered and have multiple nuclei on the periphery of each cell.

Smooth muscle tissue occurs in the walls of hollow organs such as the intestines, stomach, and urinary bladder, and around passages such as in the respiratory tract and blood vessels. Smooth muscle has no striations, is not under voluntary control, and is called involuntary muscle. Smooth muscle cells have a single nucleus.

Cardiac muscle tissue is only found in the heart. The contractions of cardiac muscle tissue pump blood throughout the body and maintain blood pressure. Like skeletal muscle, cardiac muscle is striated, but unlike skeletal muscle, cardiac muscle cannot be consciously controlled and is called involuntary muscle. The cells of cardiac muscle tissue are connected to each other through intercalated disks and usually have just one nucleus per cell.

Skeletal Muscle Fiber Structure and Function

Each skeletal muscle fiber is a skeletal muscle cell. Within each muscle fiber are myofibrils, long cylindrical structures that lie parallel to the muscle fiber. Myofibrils run the entire length of the muscle fiber. They attach to the plasma membrane, called the sarcolemma, at their ends, so that as myofibrils shorten, the entire muscle cell contracts (Figure


Illustration shows a long, tubular skeletal muscle cell that runs the length of a muscle fiber. Bundles of fibers called myofibrils run the length of the cell. The myofibrils have a banded appearance.
A skeletal muscle fiber is surrounded by a plasma membrane called the sarcolemma, with a cytoplasm called the sarcoplasm. A muscle fiber is composed of many fibrils packaged into orderly units. The orderly arrangement of the proteins in each unit, shown as red and blue lines, gives the cell its striated appearance.

The striated appearance of skeletal muscle tissue is a result of repeating bands of the proteins actin and myosin that occur along the length of myofibrils.

Myofibrils are composed of smaller structures called myofilaments. There are two main types of myofilaments: thick filaments and thin filaments. Thick filaments are composed of the protein myosin. The primary component of thin filaments is the protein actin.

The thick and thin filaments alternate with each other in a structure called a sarcomere. The sarcomere is the unit of contraction in a muscle cell. Contraction is stimulated by an electrochemical signal from a nerve cell associated with the muscle fiber. For a muscle cell to contract, the sarcomere must shorten. However, thick and thin filaments do not shorten. Instead, they slide by one another, causing the sarcomere to shorten while the filaments remain the same length. The sliding is accomplished when a molecular extension of myosin, called the myosin head, temporarily binds to an actin filament next to it and through a change in conformation, bends, dragging the two filaments in opposite directions. The myosin head then releases its actin filament, relaxes, and then repeats the process, dragging the two filaments further along each other. The combined activity of many binding sites and repeated movements within the sarcomere causes it to contract. The coordinated contractions of many sarcomeres in a myofibril leads to contraction of the entire muscle cell and ultimately the muscle itself. The movement of the myosin head requires ATP, which provides the energy for the contraction.

Muscle Contraction

Muscle is one of the four primary tissue types of the body. All three muscle tissues have some properties in common; they all exhibit a quality called excitability as their plasma membranes can change their electrical states (from polarized to depolarized) and send an electrical wave called an action potential along the entire length of the membrane. While the nervous system can influence the excitability of cardiac and smooth muscle to some degree, skeletal muscle completely depends on signaling from the nervous system to work properly. On the other hand, both cardiac muscle and smooth muscle can respond to other stimuli, such as hormones and local stimuli.

The muscles all begin the actual process of contracting (shortening) when a protein called actin is pulled by a protein called myosin. This occurs in striated muscle (skeletal and cardiac) after specific binding sites on the actin have been exposed in response to the interaction between calcium ions (Ca2 ) and proteins (troponin and tropomyosin) that “shield” the actin-binding sites. Ca2 also is required for the contraction of smooth muscle, although its role is different: here Ca2 activates enzymes, which in turn activate myosin heads. All muscles require adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to continue the process of contracting, and they all relax when the Ca2  is removed and the actin-binding sites are re-shielded.

A muscle can return to its original length when relaxed due to a quality of muscle tissue called elasticity. It can recoil back to its original length due to elastic fibers. Muscle tissue also has the quality of extensibility; it can stretch or extend. Contractility allows muscle tissue to pull on its attachment points and shorten with force.

Differences among the three muscle types include the microscopic organization of their contractile proteins—actin and myosin. The actin and myosin proteins are arranged very regularly in the cytoplasm of individual muscle cells (referred to as fibers) in both skeletal muscle and cardiac muscle, which creates a pattern, or stripes, called striations. The striations are visible with a light microscope under high magnification. Skeletal muscle fibers are multi-nucleated structures that compose the skeletal muscle. Cardiac muscle fibers each have one to two nuclei and are physically and electrically connected to each other so that the entire heart contracts as one unit (called a syncytium).

Because the actin and myosin are not arranged in such regular fashion in smooth muscle, the cytoplasm of a smooth muscle fiber (which has only a single nucleus) has a uniform, non-striated appearance (resulting in the name smooth muscle). However, the less organized appearance of smooth muscle should not be interpreted as less efficient. Smooth muscle in the walls of arteries is a critical component that regulates blood pressure necessary to push blood through the circulatory system; and smooth muscle in the skin, visceral organs, and internal passageways is essential for moving all materials through the body.

Muscle Types

Two criteria to consider when classifying the types of muscle fibers are how fast some fibers contract relative to others, and how fibers produce ATP. Using these criteria, there are three main types of skeletal muscle fibers. Slow oxidative (SO) fibres contract relatively slowly and use aerobic respiration (oxygen and glucose) to produce ATP. Fast oxidative (FO) fibres have fast contractions and primarily use aerobic respiration, but because they may switch to anaerobic respiration (glycolysis), can fatigue more quickly than SO fibers. Lastly, fast glycolytic (FG) fibres have fast contractions and primarily use anaerobic glycolysis. The FG fibers fatigue more quickly than the others. Most skeletal muscles in a human contain(s) all three types, although in varying proportions.

The speed of contraction is dependent on how quickly myosin’s ATPase hydrolyzes ATP to produce cross-bridge action. Fast fibers hydrolyze ATP approximately twice as quickly as slow fibers, resulting in much quicker cross-bridge cycling (which pulls the thin filaments toward the center of the sarcomeres at a faster rate). The primary metabolic pathway used by a muscle fiber determines whether the fiber is classified as oxidative or glycolytic. If a fiber primarily produces ATP through aerobic pathways it is oxidative. More ATP can be produced during each metabolic cycle, making the fiber more resistant to fatigue. Glycolytic fibers primarily create ATP through anaerobic glycolysis, which produces less ATP per cycle. As a result, glycolytic fibers fatigue at a quicker rate.

The oxidative fibers contain many more mitochondria than the glycolytic fibers, because aerobic metabolism, which uses oxygen (O2) in the metabolic pathway, occurs in the mitochondria. The SO fibers possess a large number of mitochondria and are capable of contracting for longer periods because of the large amount of ATP they can produce, but they have a relatively small diameter and do not produce a large amount of tension. SO fibers are extensively supplied with blood capillaries to supply O2 from the red blood cells in the bloodstream. The SO fibers also possess myoglobin, an O2-carrying molecule similar to O2-carrying hemoglobin in the red blood cells. The myoglobin stores some of the needed O2 within the fibers themselves (and gives SO fibers their red color). All of these features allow SO fibers to produce large quantities of ATP, which can sustain muscle activity without fatiguing for long periods of time.

The fact that SO fibers can function for long periods without fatiguing makes them useful in maintaining posture, producing isometric contractions, stabilizing bones and joints, and making small movements that happen often but do not require large amounts of energy. They do not produce high tension, and thus they are not used for powerful, fast movements that require high amounts of energy and rapid cross-bridge cycling.

FO fibers are sometimes called intermediate fibres because they possess characteristics that are intermediate between fast fibers and slow fibers. They produce ATP relatively quickly, more quickly than SO fibers, and thus can produce relatively high amounts of tension. They are oxidative because they produce ATP aerobically, possess high amounts of mitochondria, and do not fatigue quickly. However, FO fibers do not possess significant myoglobin, giving them a lighter color than the red SO fibers. FO fibers are used primarily for movements, such as walking, that require more energy than postural control but less energy than an explosive movement, such as sprinting. FO fibers are useful for this type of movement because they produce more tension than SO fibers but they are more fatigue-resistant than FG fibers.

FG fibers primarily use anaerobic glycolysis as their ATP source. They have a large diameter and possess high amounts of glycogen, which is used in glycolysis to generate ATP quickly to produce high levels of tension. Because they do not primarily use aerobic metabolism, they do not possess substantial numbers of mitochondria or significant amounts of myoglobin and therefore have a white color. FG fibers are used to produce rapid, forceful contractions to make quick, powerful movements. These fibers fatigue quickly, permitting them to only be used for short periods. Most muscles possess a mixture of each fiber type. The predominant fiber type in a muscle is determined by the primary function of the muscle.

Physical Activity

Physical training alters the appearance of skeletal muscles and can produce changes in muscle performance. Conversely, a lack of use can result in decreased performance and muscle appearance. Although muscle cells can change in size, new cells are not formed when muscles grow. Instead, structural proteins are added to muscle fibers in a process called hypertrophy, so cell diameter increases. The reverse, when structural proteins are lost and muscle mass decreases, is called atrophy. Age-related muscle atrophy is called sarcopenia. Cellular components of muscles can also undergo changes in response to changes in muscle use.

Endurance Exercise

Slow fibers are predominantly used in endurance exercises that require little force but involve numerous repetitions. The aerobic metabolism used by slow-twitch fibers allows them to maintain contractions over long periods. Endurance training modifies these slow fibers to make them even more efficient by producing more mitochondria to enable more aerobic metabolism and more ATP production. Endurance exercise can also increase the amount of myoglobin in a cell, as increased aerobic respiration increases the need for oxygen. Myoglobin is found in the sarcoplasm and acts as an oxygen storage supply for the mitochondria.

The training can trigger the formation of more extensive capillary networks around the fiber, a process called angiogenesis, to supply oxygen and remove metabolic waste. To allow these capillary networks to supply the deep portions of the muscle, muscle mass does not greatly increase in order to maintain a smaller area for the diffusion of nutrients and gases. All of these cellular changes result in the ability to sustain low levels of muscle contractions for greater periods without fatiguing.

The proportion of SO muscle fibers in muscle determines the suitability of that muscle for endurance, and may benefit those participating in endurance activities. Postural muscles have a large number of SO fibers and relatively few FO and FG fibers, to keep the back straight. Endurance athletes, like marathon-runners also would benefit from a larger proportion of SO fibers, but it is unclear if the most-successful marathoners are those with naturally high numbers of SO fibers, or whether the most successful marathon runners develop high numbers of SO fibers with repetitive training. Endurance training can result in overuse injuries such as stress fractures and joint and tendon inflammation.

Resistance Exercise

Resistance exercises, as opposed to endurance exercise, require large amounts of FG fibers to produce short, powerful movements that are not repeated over long periods. The high rates of ATP hydrolysis and cross-bridge formation in FG fibers result in powerful muscle contractions. Muscles used for power have a higher ratio of FG to SO/FO fibers, and trained athletes possess even higher levels of FG fibers in their muscles. Resistance exercise affects muscles by increasing the formation of myofibrils, thereby increasing the thickness of muscle fibers. This added structure causes hypertrophy, or the enlargement of muscles, exemplified by the large skeletal muscles seen in body builders and other athletes. Because this muscular enlargement is achieved by the addition of structural proteins, athletes trying to build muscle mass often ingest large amounts of protein.

Except for the hypertrophy that follows an increase in the number of sarcomeres and myofibrils in a skeletal muscle, the cellular changes observed during endurance training do not usually occur with resistance training. There is usually no significant increase in mitochondria or capillary density. However, resistance training does increase the development of connective tissue, which adds to the overall mass of the muscle and helps to contain muscles as they produce increasingly powerful contractions. Tendons also become stronger to prevent tendon damage, as the force produced by muscles is transferred to tendons that attach the muscle to bone.

For effective strength training, the intensity of the exercise must continually be increased. For instance, continued weight lifting without increasing the weight of the load does not increase muscle size. To produce ever-greater results, the weights lifted must become increasingly heavier, making it more difficult for muscles to move the load. The muscle then adapts to this heavier load, and an even heavier load must be used if even greater muscle mass is desired.

If done improperly, resistance training can lead to overuse injuries of the muscle, tendon, or bone. These injuries can occur if the load is too heavy or if the muscles are not given sufficient time between workouts to recover or if joints are not aligned properly during the exercises. Cellular damage to muscle fibers that occurs after intense exercise includes damage to the sarcolemma and myofibrils. This muscle damage contributes to the feeling of soreness after strenuous exercise, but muscles gain mass as this damage is repaired, and additional structural proteins are added to replace the damaged ones. Overworking skeletal muscles can also lead to tendon damage and even skeletal damage if the load is too great for the muscles to bear.

Performance-Enhancing Substances

Some athletes attempt to boost their performance by using various agents that may enhance muscle performance. Anabolic steroids are one of the more widely known agents used to boost muscle mass and increase power output. Anabolic steroids are a form of testosterone, a male sex hormone that stimulates muscle formation, leading to increased muscle mass.

Endurance athletes may also try to boost the availability of oxygen to muscles to increase aerobic respiration by using substances such as erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone normally produced in the kidneys, which triggers the production of red blood cells. The extra oxygen carried by these blood cells can then be used by muscles for aerobic respiration. Human growth hormone (hGH) is another supplement, and although it can facilitate building muscle mass, its main role is to promote the healing of muscle and other tissues after strenuous exercise. Increased hGH may allow for faster recovery after muscle damage, reducing the rest required after exercise, and allowing for more sustained high-level performance.

Although performance-enhancing substances often do improve performance, most are banned by governing bodies in sports and are illegal for non-medical purposes. Their use to enhance performance raises ethical issues of cheating because they give users an unfair advantage over nonusers. A greater concern, however, is that their use carries serious health risks. The side effects of these substances are often significant, non-reversible, and in some cases fatal. The physiological strain caused by these substances is often greater than what the body can handle, leading to effects that are unpredictable and dangerous. Anabolic steroid use has been linked to infertility, aggressive behaviour, cardiovascular disease, and brain cancer.

Similarly, some athletes have used creatine to increase power output. Creatine phosphate provides quick bursts of ATP to muscles in the initial stages of contraction. Increasing the amount of creatine available to cells is thought to produce more ATP and therefore increase explosive power output, although its effectiveness as a supplement has been questioned.


Aging and Muscle Tissue

Although atrophy due to disuse can often be reversed with exercise, muscle atrophy with age, referred to as sarcopenia, is irreversible. This is a primary reason why even highly trained athletes succumb to declining performance with age. This decline is noticeable in athletes whose sports require strength and powerful movements, such as sprinting, whereas the effects of age are less noticeable in endurance athletes such as marathon runners or long-distance cyclists. As muscles age, muscle fibers die, and they are replaced by connective tissue and adipose tissue (Figure “Atrophy”). Because those tissues cannot contract and generate force as muscle can, muscles lose the ability to produce powerful contractions. The decline in muscle mass causes a loss of strength, including the strength required for posture and mobility. This may be caused by a reduction in FG fibers that hydrolyze ATP quickly to produce short, powerful contractions. Muscles in older people sometimes possess greater numbers of SO fibers, which are responsible for longer contractions and do not produce powerful movements. There may also be a reduction in the size of motor units, resulting in fewer fibers being stimulated and less muscle tension being produced.

Figure Atrophy

This image shows muscle atrophy. The left panel shows normal muscle and the right panel shows atrophied muscle.
Muscle mass is reduced as muscles atrophy with disuse.

Sarcopenia can be delayed to some extent by exercise, as training adds structural proteins and causes cellular changes that can offset the effects of atrophy. Increased exercise can produce greater numbers of cellular mitochondria, increase capillary density, and increase the mass and strength of connective tissue. The effects of age-related atrophy are especially pronounced in people who are sedentary, as the loss of muscle cells is displayed as functional impairments such as trouble with locomotion, balance, and posture. This can lead to a decrease in quality of life and medical problems, such as joint problems because the muscles that stabilize bones and joints are weakened. Problems with locomotion and balance can also cause various injuries due to falls.

Source: Exercise and Muscle Performance



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Fundamentals of Health and Physical Activity by Kerri Z. Delaney and Leslie Barker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.