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Muscle Movement

When you lift a weight, a complex set of actions takes place in the muscles of your arms so as to allow the movement to take place but also to ensure no damage is done to the muscles. Let us consider what happens in the Triceps and Biceps.

How do muscles contract?

Muscle fibres are long, thin, tapered cylindrical cells full of the mechanisms required to convert chemical energy into movement. Fibres are arranged parallel to each other and usually lengthways. A sheath of collagen surrounds individual fibres. Bundles of fibres and the whole muscle are surrounded by more connective tissue. Blood vessels, motor neurons (the sort of nerve that innervates muscle fibres) and other nerves wind in between the bundles.

The contractile apparatus in each muscle fibre is arranged in parallel long cylindrical strands, called myofibrils. Actin and myosin are the contractile protein polymers contained in myofibrils and they too are long and lie parallel and lengthways. Using energy derived from ATP, the actin and myosin "filaments" attach via cross bridges and slide past each other in opposite directions, thus causing a contraction.

Just like an oar in a rowing boat, it reaches out from the myosin filament (or rowing boat) and grabs on to the actin (or water) and pulls the actin towards it and then pushes it away. The cross-bridge oar is then recycled so it can grab on to another bit of actin (water) and so continue the contraction. This is the "sliding filament' and cross-bridge theories which explains how muscles shorten.

Reciprocal Inhibition

When the Biceps (the agonistic muscle) contracts a signal is sent to the Triceps (the antagonistic muscle) to relax, to allow movement.

Stretch Reflex

Within the Triceps, and all muscles, there is a special muscle fibre known as the annulo-spiral receptor. This receptor is sensitive to the rate and extent the Triceps is being stretched. As the Triceps lengthens this receptor sends a signal, proportional to the amount and rate of stretch, to tell the Triceps to contract. This is a safety mechanism to prevent the Triceps being overstretched.

Inverse Stretch Reflex

Contained in the tendon of each muscle is the Golgi tendon receptor. This receptor is sensitive to the build-up of tension when a muscle is either stretched or contracted. The receptor has a tension threshold that causes the tension to be released when it gets too high. As the Biceps contracts and the threshold is exceeded then a signal is sent to the Biceps causing it to relax. This mechanism prevents damage being done to the Biceps should the weight be to heavy or the movement is too fast.

As the Triceps lengthens the combined effect of the stretching action and the stretch reflex contraction will cause a build-up of tension in the Triceps tendon. When the threshold is reached, the receptor will send a message to the Triceps muscle causing it to relax. This will allow the Triceps to be stretched even further.

Muscle Soreness

Muscle soreness that occurs some 24 to 48 hours after intense exercise usually involves eccentric contractions (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness). This causes increases in intracellular pressure that irritates the nerve endings, producing swelling and local pain.

Related References

The following references provide additional information on this topic:

  • MARSDEN, C. D., MERTON, P. A. and MORTON, H. B. (1976) Stretch reflex and servo action in a variety of human muscles. The Journal of Physiology, 259 (2), p. 531-560
  • CHEUNG, K., HUME, P. A. and MAXWELL, L. (2003) Delayed onset muscle soreness. Sports Medicine33 (2), p. 145-164

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2001) Muscle Movement [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

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