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Muscle Contraction

Muscle fibers move in response to nerve signals by activating molecular servos that contract the fibers.

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Muscle Contraction

What makes a muscle contract?

It starts with a signal from the nervous system. So it starts with a signal from your brain. The signal goes through your nervous system to your muscle. Your muscle contracts, and your bones move. And all this happens incredibly fast.

Muscle Contraction

Muscle contraction occurs when muscle fibers get shorter. Literally, the muscle fibers get smaller in size. To understand how this happens, you need to know more about the structure of muscle fibers.

Structure of Muscle Fibers

Each muscle fiber contains hundreds of organelles called myofibrils. Each myofibril is made up of two types of protein filaments: actin filaments, which are thinner, and myosin filaments, which are thicker. Actin filaments are anchored to structures called Z lines (see Figure below). The region between two Z lines is called a sarcomere. Within a sarcomere, myosin filaments overlap the actin filaments. The myosin filaments have tiny structures called cross bridges that can attach to actin filaments.

Parts of a sarcomere

Sarcomere. A sarcomere contains actin and myosin filaments between two Z lines.

Sliding Filament Theory

The most widely accepted theory explaining how muscle fibers contract is called the sliding filament theory. According to this theory, myosin filaments use energy from ATP to “walk” along the actin filaments with their cross bridges. This pulls the actin filaments closer together. The movement of the actin filaments also pulls the Z lines closer together, thus shortening the sarcomere.

When all of the sarcomeres in a muscle fiber shorten, the fiber contracts. A muscle fiber either contracts fully or it doesn’t contract at all. The number of fibers that contract determines the strength of the muscular force. When more fibers contract at the same time, the force is greater.

Muscles and Nerves

Muscles cannot contract on their own. They need a stimulus from a nerve cell to “tell” them to contract. Let’s say you decide to raise your hand in class. Your brain sends electrical messages to nerve cells, called motor neurons, in your arm and shoulder. The motor neurons, in turn, stimulate muscle fibers in your arm and shoulder to contract, causing your arm to rise. Involuntary contractions of cardiac and smooth muscles are also controlled by nerves.


  • According to the sliding filament theory, a muscle fiber contracts when myosin filaments pull actin filaments closer together and thus shorten sarcomeres within a fiber.
  • When all the sarcomeres in a muscle fiber shorten, the fiber contracts.


  1. What is a sarcomere and Z-line?
  2. What are the two protein filaments of a myofibril?
  3. Explain how muscles contract according to the sliding filament theory.
  4. A serious neck injury may leave a person paralyzed from the neck down. Explain why.

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cross bridge Structure of myosin filament that attaches to actin filament.
motor neuron Type of neuron that carries nerve impulses from the central nervous system to muscles and glands.
myofibril Organelle of muscle fiber; composed of actin and myosin filaments.
myosin Filamentous protein involved in muscle contraction; forms thick filaments of myofibril in muscle cells.
sarcomere Region of myofibril between two Z-lines.
sliding filament theory Theory that explains muscle contraction by the sliding of myosin filaments over actin filaments within muscle fibers.
Z line Region of sarcomere where actin filaments are attached.
actin The monomeric subunit of microfilaments, one of the three major components of the cytoskeleton, and thin filaments, part of the myofibril in muscle cells.

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