Muscular system

The muscular system is composed of specialized cells called muscle fibers. Their predominant function is contractibility. Muscles, attached to bones or internal organs and blood vessels, are responsible for movement. Nearly all movement in the body is the result of muscle contraction. Exceptions to this are the action of cilia, the flagellum on sperm cells, and amoeboid movement of some white blood cells.

The integrated action of joints, bones, and skeletal muscles produces obvious movements such as walking and running. Skeletal muscles also produce more subtle movements that result in various facial expressions, eye movements, and respiration.

In addition to movement, muscle contraction also fulfills some other important functions in the body, such as posture, joint stability, and heat production. Posture, such as sitting and standing, is maintained as a result of muscle contraction. The skeletal muscles are continually making fine adjustments that hold the body in stationary positions. The tendons of many muscles extend over joints and in this way contribute to joint stability. This is particularly evident in the knee and shoulder joints, where muscle tendons are a major factor in stabilizing the joint. Heat production, to maintain body temperature, is an important by-product of muscle metabolism. Nearly 85 percent of the heat produced in the body is the result of muscle contraction.

Muscle types

In the body, there are three types of muscle: skeletal (striated), smooth, and cardiac.

Skeletal Muscle

Skeletal muscle, attached to bones, is responsible for skeletal movements. The peripheral portion of the central nervous system (CNS) controls the skeletal muscles. Thus, these muscles are under conscious, or voluntary, control. The basic unit is the muscle fiber with many nuclei. These muscle fibers are striated (having transverse streaks) and each acts independently of neighboring muscle fibers.

Smooth Muscle

Smooth muscle, found in the walls of the hollow internal organs such as blood vessels, the gastrointestinal tract, bladder, and uterus, is under control of the autonomic nervous system. Smooth muscle cannot be controlled consciously and thus acts involuntarily. The non-striated (smooth) muscle cell is spindle-shaped and has one central nucleus. Smooth muscle contracts slowly and rhythmically.

Cardiac Muscle

Cardiac muscle, found in the walls of the heart, is also under control of the autonomic nervous system. The cardiac muscle cell has one central nucleus, like smooth muscle, but it also is striated, like skeletal muscle. The cardiac muscle cell is rectangular in shape. The contraction of cardiac muscle is involuntary, strong, and rhythmical.

Smooth and cardiac muscle will be discussed in detail with respect to their appropriate systems. This unit mainly covers the skeletal muscular system.

Muscle groups

There are more than 600 muscles in the body, which together account for about 40 percent of a person’s weight.

Most skeletal muscles have names that describe some feature of the muscle. Often several criteria are combined into one name. Associating the muscle’s characteristics with its name will help you learn and remember them. The following are some terms relating to muscle features that are used in naming muscles.

  • Size: vastus (huge); maximus (large); longus (long); minimus (small); brevis (short).
  • Shape: deltoid (triangular); rhomboid (like a rhombus with equal and parallel sides); latissimus (wide); teres (round); trapezius (like a trapezoid, a four-sided figure with two sides parallel).
  • Direction of fibers: rectus (straight); transverse (across); oblique (diagonally); orbicularis (circular).
  • Location: pectoralis (chest); gluteus (buttock or rump); brachii (arm); supra- (above); infra- (below); sub- (under or beneath); lateralis (lateral).
  • Number of origins: biceps (two heads); triceps (three heads); quadriceps (four heads).
  • Origin and insertion: sternocleidomastoideus (origin on the sternum and clavicle, insertion on the mastoid process); brachioradialis (origin on the brachium or arm, insertion on the radius).
  • Action: abductor (to abduct a structure); adductor (to adduct a structure); flexor (to flex a structure); extensor (to extend a structure); levator (to lift or elevate a structure); masseter (a chewer).


  1. Muscular System. National Cancer Institute.

Other informations

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