The Musculoskeletal System
At the highest level, the (whole) muscle is composed of many strands of tissue called fascicles. These are the strands of muscle that we see when we cut red meat or poultry. Each fascicle is composed of fasciculi which are bundles of muscle fibers. The muscle fibers are in turn composed of tens of thousands of thread-like myofybrils, which can contract, relax, and elongate (lengthen). The myofybrils are (in turn) composed of up to millions of bands laid end-to-end called sarcomeres. Each sarcomere is made of overlapping thick and thin filaments called myofilaments. The thick and thin myofilaments are made up of contractile proteins, primarily actin and myosin.
How Muscles Contract
When a muscle fiber contracts, it contracts completely. There is no such thing as a partially contracted muscle fiber. Muscle fibers are unable to vary the intensity of their contraction relative to the load against which they are acting. If this is so, then how does the force of a muscle contraction vary in strength from strong to weak? What happens is that more muscle fibers are recruited, as they are needed, to perform the job at hand. The more muscle fibers that are recruited by the central nervous system, the stronger the force generated by the muscular contraction.
Fast and Slow Muscle Fibers
These three muscle fiber types (Types 1, 2A, and 2B) are contained in all muscles in varying amounts. Muscles that need to be contracted much of the time (like the heart) have a greater number of Type 1 (slow) fibers. When a muscle first starts to contract, it is primarily Type 1 fibers that are initially activated, then Type 2A and Type 2B fibers are activated (if needed) in that order. The fact that muscle fibers are recruited in this sequence is what provides the ability to execute brain commands with such fine-tuned tuned muscle responses. It also makes the Type 2B fibers difficult to train because they are not activated until most of the Type 1 and Type 2A fibers have been recruited. HFLTA states that the the best way to remember the difference between muscles with predominantly slow-twitch fibers and muscles with predominantly fast-twitch fibers is to think of "white meat" and "dark meat". Dark meat is dark because it has a greater number of slow-twitch muscle fibers and hence a greater number of mitochondria, which are dark. White meat consists mostly of muscle fibers which are at rest much of the time but are frequently called on to engage in brief bouts of intense activity. This muscle tissue can contract quickly but is fast to fatigue and slow to recover. White meat is lighter in color than dark meat because it contains fewer mitochondria.
endomysium - The innermost fascial sheath that envelops individual muscle fibers.
perimysium - The fascial sheath that binds groups of muscle fibers into individual fasciculi (see section Muscle Composition).
epimysium - The outermost fascial sheath that binds entire fascicles (see section Muscle Composition).
These connective tissues help provide suppleness and tone to the muscles.
Cooperating Muscle Groups
These muscles cause the movement to occur. They create the normal range of movement in a joint by contracting. Agonists are also referred to as prime movers since they are the muscles that are primarily responsible for generating the movement.
These muscles act in opposition to the movement generated by the agonists and are responsible for returning a limb to its initial position.
These muscles perform, or assist in performing, the same set of joint motion as the agonists. Synergists are sometimes referred to as neutralizers because they help cancel out, or neutralize, extra motion from the agonists to make sure that the force generated works within the desired plane of motion.
These muscles provide the necessary support to assist in holding the rest of the body in place while the movement occurs. Fixators are also sometimes called stabilizers.
As an example, when you flex your knee, your hamstring contracts, and, to some extent, so does your gastrocnemius (calf) and lower buttocks. Meanwhile, your quadriceps are inhibited (relaxed and lengthened somewhat) so as not to resist the flexion (see section Reciprocal Inhibition). In this example, the hamstring serves as the agonist, or prime mover; the quadricep serves as the antagonist; and the calf and lower buttocks serve as the synergists. Agonists and antagonists are usually located on opposite sides of the affected joint (like your hamstrings and quadriceps, or your triceps and biceps), while synergists are usually located on the same side of the joint near the agonists.
Larger muscles often call upon their smaller neighbors to function as synergists.
The following is a list of commonly used agonist/antagonist muscle pairs:
Types of Muscle Contractions
This is a contraction in which no movement takes place, because the load on the muscle exceeds the tension generated by the contracting muscle. This occurs when a muscle attempts to push or pull an immovable object.
This is a contraction in which movement does take place, because the tension generated by the contracting muscle exceeds the load on the muscle. This occurs when you use your muscles to successfully push or pull an object. Isotonic contractions are further divided into two types:
What Happens When You Stretch
Once the muscle fiber is at its maximum resting length (all the sarcomeres are fully stretched), additional stretching places force on the surrounding connective tissue (see section Connective Tissue). As the tension increases, the collagen fibers in the connective tissue align themselves along the same line of force as the tension.
Hence when you stretch, the muscle fiber is pulled out to its full length sarcomere by sarcomere, and then the connective tissue takes up the remaining slack. When this occurs, it helps to realign any disorganized fibers in the direction of the tension. This realignment is what helps to rehabilitate scarred tissue back to health.
When a muscle is stretched, some of its fibers lengthen, but other fibers may remain at rest. The current length of the entire muscle depends upon the number of stretched fibers (similar to the way that the total strength of a contracting muscle depends on the number of recruited fibers contracting). According to SynerStretch you should think of "little pockets of fibers distributed throughout the muscle body stretching, and other fibers simply going along for the ride". The more fibers that are stretched, the greater the length developed by the stretched muscle.
There are two kinds of muscle fibers: intrafusal muscle fibers and extrafusal muscle fibers. Extrafusil fibers are the ones that contain myofibrils (see section Muscle Composition) and are what is usually meant when we talk about muscle fibers. Intrafusal fibers are also called muscle spindles and lie parallel to the extrafusal fibers. Muscle spindles, or stretch receptors, are the primary proprioceptors in the muscle. Another proprioceptor that comes into play during stretching is located in the tendon near the end of the muscle fiber and is called the golgi tendon organ. A third type of proprioceptor, called a pacinian corpuscle, is located close to the golgi tendon organ and is responsible for detecting changes in movement and pressure within the body.
When the extrafusal fibers of a muscle lengthen, so do the intrafusal fibers (muscle spindles). The muscle spindle contains two different types of fibers (or stretch receptors) which are sensitive to the change in muscle length and the rate of change in muscle length. When muscles contract it places tension on the tendons where the golgi tendon organ is located. The golgi tendon organ is sensitive to the change in tension and the rate of change of the tension.
The Stretch Reflex
One of the reasons for holding a stretch for a prolonged period of time is that as you hold the muscle in a stretched position, the muscle spindle habituates (becomes accustomed to the new length) and reduces its signaling. Gradually, you can train your stretch receptors to allow greater lengthening of the muscles. Some sources suggest that with extensive training, the stretch reflex of certain muscles can be controlled so that there is little or no reflex contraction in response to a sudden stretch. While this type
of control provides the
opportunity for the greatest gains in flexibility, it also provides the greatest risk of injury if used improperly. Only consummate professional athletes and dancers at the top of their sport (or art) are believed to actually possess this level of muscular control.
Components of the Stretch Reflex
The reason that the stretch reflex has two components is because there are actually two kinds of intrafusal muscle fibers: nuclear chain fibers, which are responsible for the static component; and nuclear bag fibers, which are responsible for the dynamic component.
Nuclear chain fibers are long and thin, and lengthen steadily when stretched. When these fibers are stretched, the stretch reflex nerves increase their firing rates (signaling) as their length steadily increases. This is the static component of the stretch reflex.
Nuclear bag fibers bulge out at the middle, where they are the most elastic. The stretch-sensing nerve ending for these fibers is wrapped around this middle area, which lengthens rapidly when the fiber is stretched. The outer-middle areas, in contrast, act like they are filled with viscous fluid; they resist fast stretching, then gradually extend under prolonged tension. So, when a fast stretch is demanded of these fibers, the middle takes most of the stretch at first; then, as the outer-middle parts extend, the middle can shorten somewhat. So the nerve that senses stretching in these fibers fires rapidly with the onset of a fast stretch, then slows as the middle section of the fiber is allowed to shorten again. This is the dynamic component of the stretch reflex: a strong signal to contract at the onset of a rapid increase in muscle length, followed by slightly "higher than normal" signaling which gradually decreases as the rate of change of the muscle length decreases.
The Lengthening Reaction
Such inhibition of the antagonistic muscles is not necessarily required. In fact, co-contraction can occur. When you perform a sit-up, one would normally assume that the stomach muscles inhibit the contraction of the muscles in the lumbar, or lower, region of the back. In this particular instance however, the back muscles (spinal erectors) also contract. This is one reason why sit-ups are good for strengthening the back as well as the stomach.
When stretching, it is easier to stretch a muscle that is relaxed than to stretch a muscle that is contracting. By taking advantage of the situations when reciprocal inhibition does occur, you can get a more effective stretch by inducing the antagonists to relax during the stretch due to the contraction of the agonists. You also want to relax any muscles used as synergists by the muscle you are trying to stretch. For example, when you stretch your calf, you want to contract the shin muscles (the antagonists of the calf) by flexing your foot. However, the hamstrings use the calf as a synergist so you want to also relax the hamstrings by contracting the quadricep (i.e., keeping your leg straight).
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