Chapter 4 – Muscular Strength and Endurance

Muscle Fiber Types

Not all muscle fibers are the same. In fact, there are two main types of muscle fiber:

  1. Type I: often called slow-twitch or highly-oxidative muscle fibers
  2. Type II: often called fast-twitch or low-oxidative muscle fibers

Type I (Slow-Twitch or Highly-Oxidative Muscle Fibers)

Slow-twitch muscle fibers contain more mitochondria, the organelles that produce aerobic energy. They are also smaller, have better blood supply, contract more slowly, and are more fatigue resistant than their fast-twitch brothers. Slow-twitch muscle fibers produce energy, primarily, through aerobic metabolism of fats and carbohydrates. The accelerated rate of aerobic metabolism is enhanced by the large numbers of mitochondria and the enhanced blood supply. They also contain large amounts of myoglobin, a pigment similar to hemoglobin that also stores oxygen. The myoglobin provides an additional store of oxygen for when oxygen supply is limited. This extra oxygen, along with the slow-twitch muscle fibers’ slow rate of contraction, increases their endurance capacity and enhances their fatigue resistance.  Slow-twitch muscle fibers are recruited during continuous exercise at low to moderate levels.

Type II (Fast-Twitch or Low-Oxidative Muscle Fibers)

These fibers are larger in size, have a decreased blood supply, have smaller mitochondria and less of them, contract more rapidly, and are more adapted to produce energy anaerobically (without the need for oxygen) than slow-twitch muscle fibers. Their reduced rate of blood supply, together with their larger size and fewer mitochondria, makes them less able to produce energy aerobically, and are therefore, not well suited to prolonged exercise. However, their faster rate of contraction, greater levels of glycogen, and ability to produce much greater amounts of energy anaerobically make them much more suited to short bursts of energy. Because of their greater speed of contraction and reduced blood supply, they are far less fatigue resistant than slow-twitch fibers, and they tire quickly during exercise.

Additionally, Type II muscle fibers can be further split into Type IIa and Type IIb. Type IIb fibers are the truly fast twitch fibers, whereas Type IIa are in between slow and fast twitch. Surprisingly, the characteristics of Type IIa fibers can be strongly influenced by the type of training undertaken. Following a period of endurance training, they will start to strongly resemble Type I fibers, but following a period of strength training they will start to strongly resemble Type IIb fibers. In fact, following several years of endurance training they may end up being almost identical to slow-twitch muscle fibers.

Numbers of Slow and Fast-Twitch Fibers

The number of slow and fast-twitch fibers contained in the body varies greatly between individuals and is determined by a person’s genetics. People who do well at endurance sports tend to have a higher number of slow-twitch fibers, whereas people who are better at sprint events tend to have higher numbers of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Both the slow twitch and fast-twitch fibers can be influenced by training. It is possible through sprint training to improve the power generated by slow twitch fibers, and through endurance training, it is possible to increase the endurance level of fast-twitch fibers. The level of improvement varies, depending on the individual, and training can never make slow-twitch fibers as powerful as fast-twitch, nor can training make fast-twitch fibers as fatigue resistant as slow-twitch fibers.

Cardiac Muscle Structure and Function

Cardiac muscle cells are only found in the heart. They are elongated and contain actin and myosin filaments, which form sarcomeres; these join end to end to form myofibrils. The actin and myosin filaments give cardiac muscle a striated appearance. The striations are less numerous than in skeletal muscle. Cardiac muscles contain high numbers of mitochondria, which produce energy through aerobic metabolism. An extensive capillary network of tiny blood vessels supply oxygen to the cardiac muscle cells. Unlike the skeletal muscle cells, the cardiac cells all work as one unit, all contracting at the same time. In short, the sinoatrial node at the top of the heart sends an impulse to the atrioventricular node, which sends a wave of polarization that travels from one heart cell to another causing them all to contract at the same time.

Smooth Muscle Structure and Function

Smooth muscle cells are variable in function and perform numerous roles within the body. They are spindle shaped and smaller than skeletal muscle and contain fewer actin and myosin filaments. The actin and myosin filaments are not organized into sarcomeres, so smooth muscles do not have a striated appearance. Unlike other muscle types, smooth muscle can apply a constant tension. This is called smooth muscle tone.  Smooth muscle cells have a similar metabolism to skeletal muscle, producing most of their energy aerobically. As such, they are not well adapted to producing energy anaerobically.1

Skeletal Muscle Physiology

Fast Twitch versus Slow Twitch


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Health and Fitness for Life Copyright © 2019 by Dawn Markell and Diane Peterson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book