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13.13: Muscle Contraction

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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.

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.

You can watch this occurring in a video animation at the link below. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7V-zFVnFkWg&feature=related

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.

Actin, myosin and muscle contraction are discussed at http://www.youtube.com/user/khanacademy#p/c/7A9646BC5110CF64/45/zopoN2i7ALQ (9:38).

Additional information about muscle contraction is available at http://www.youtube.com/user/khanacademy#p/c/7A9646BC5110CF64/46/LiOfeSsjrB8 (9:22) and http://www.youtube.com/user/khanacademy#p/c/7A9646BC5110CF64/47/SauhB2fYQkM (14:42).

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.


Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.

  1. Draw a sacromere.
  2. What happens when a sarcomere contracts?
  3. Describe the molecular events that occur during skeletal muscle contraction.
  4. What is creatine phosphate?
  5. Describe the role of tropomyosin.
  6. What is the role of calcium ions?


1. Explain how muscles contract according to the sliding filament theory.

2. A serious neck injury may leave a person paralyzed from the neck down. Explain why.

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At Grade


Date Created:

Feb 24, 2012

Last Modified:

Jul 30, 2014
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