2. Skeleton and muscular system

Functions of the muscular system

The main function of the muscular system is to produce movement of the body. Depending on the axis and plane, there are several different types of movements that can be performed by the musculoskeletal system. Some of the most important ones include:

Flexion of leg (Flexio cruris); Image: Paul Kim

Flexion of legFlexio cruris1/8Synonyms: Flexion of knee, Flexio genus

  • Flexion and extension: movement of decreasing or increasing the angle between the bones involved in the movement, respectively. This motion takes place in the sagittal plane around a frontal axis. An example of flexion is bending the leg at the knee joint, whereas extension would be straightening knee from a flexed position.
  • Adduction and abduction: movements of bringing the parts of the body towards or away from the midline, respectively. These movements are carried out in the frontal plane around a sagittal axis. For example, abduction of the arm at the shoulder joint involves moving the arm away from the side of the body, while adduction involves bringing it back towards the body.
  • Rotation is the movement in which a part of the body rotates around its vertical (longitudinal) axis in the transverse plane. This movement is defined relative to the midline, where internal rotation involves rotating the segment towards to the midline, while external rotation involves moving it away from the midline. Examples include lateral or medial rotation of the thigh.
  • Supination and pronation are special types of rotatory movements usually used to describe the movements of the forearm. Supination is essentially a lateral rotation of the forearm which turns the palms anteriorly (if the arm is anatomical position) or superiorly, when the elbow is flexed. These movements are also sometimes used to describe movements in the ankle and foot, in which supination means rolling the foot outwards, while pronation means rolling the foot inwards.

Both during movement and stationary positions, muscles contribute to the overall support and stability of joints. Many muscles and their tendons pass over joints and thereby stabilize the articulating bones and hold them in position. In addition, the muscles also play an important role in maintaining posture. While the movements occur mainly due to muscles intermittently contracting and relaxing, the posture is maintained by a sustained tonic contraction of postural muscles. These muscles act against gravity and stabilize the body during standing or walking. The postural muscles include the muscles of the back and abdominal muscles.

Another important function of muscles is heat production. Muscle tissue is one of the most metabolically active tissues in the body, in which approximately 85 percent of the heat produced in the body is the result of muscle contraction. This makes the muscles essential for maintaining normal body temperature. 

2. Skeleton and muscular system


Tendon (Tendo); Image: Paul Kim


A tendon is a tough, flexible band of dense connective tissue that serves to attach skeletal muscles to bones. Tendons are found at the distal and proximal ends of muscles, binding them to the periosteum of bones at their proximal (origin) and distal attachment (insertion) on the bone. As muscles contract, the tendons transmit the mechanical force to the bones, pulling them and causing movement.

Being made of dense regular connective tissue, the tendons have an abundance of parallel collagen fibers, which provide them with high tensile strength (resistance to longitudinal force). The collagen fibers within a tendon are organized into fascicles, and individual fascicles are ensheathed by a thin layer of dense connective tissue called endotenon. In turn, groups of fascicles are ensheathed by a layer of dense irregular connective tissue called epitenon. Finally, the epitenon is encircled with a synovial sheath and attached to it by a delicate connective tissue band called mesotenon.

2. Skeleton and muscular system

Muscle contraction

The most important property of skeletal muscles is its ability to contract. Muscle contraction occurs as a result of the interaction of myofibrils inside the muscle cells. This process either shortens the muscle or increases its tension, generating a force that either facilitates or slows down a movement. 

There are two types of muscle contraction; isometric and isotonic. A muscle contraction is deemed as isometric if the length of the muscle does not change during the contraction, and isotonic if the tension remains unchanged while the length of the muscle changes. There are two types of isotonic contractions: 

  • Concentric contraction, in which the muscle shortens due to generating enough force to overcome the imposed resistance. This type of contraction serves to facilitate any noticeable movement (e.g. lifting a barbell or walking on an incline).
  • Eccentric contraction, in which the muscle stretches due to the resistance being greater than the force the muscle generates. During an eccentric contraction, the muscle maintains high tension. This type of contraction usually serves to slow down a movement (e.g. lowering a barbell or walking downhill).
Eccentric and concentric muscle contractions (diagram)
Eccentric and concentric muscle contractions (diagram)
Motor neuron axon (Axon motoneuronis); Image: Paul Kim

Motor neuron axonAxon motoneuronis1/2

The sequence of events that results in the contraction of a muscle cell begins as the nervous system generates a signal called the action potential. This signal travels through motor neurons to reach the neuromuscular junction, the site of contact between the motor nerve and the muscle. A group of muscle cells innervated by the branches of a single motor nerve is called the motor unit.

The incoming action potential from the motor nerve initiates the release of acetylcholine (ACh) from the nerve into the synaptic cleft, which is the space between the nerve ending and the sarcolemma. The ACh binds to the receptors on the sarcolemma and triggers a chemical reaction in the muscle cell. This involves the release of calcium ions from the sarcoplasmic reticulum, which in turn causes a rearrangement of contractile proteins within the muscle cell. The main proteins involved are actin and myosin, which in the presence of ATP, slide over each other and pull on the ends of each muscle cell together, causing a contraction. As the nerve signal diminishes, the chemical process reverses and the muscle relaxes.

2. Skeleton and muscular system


Muscle fiber (Myofibra); Image: Paul Kim

Structurally, the skeletal muscles are composed of the skeletal muscle cells which are called the myocytes (muscle fibres, or myofibrils). Muscle fibers are specialized cells whose main feature is the ability to contract. They are elongated, cylindrical, multinucleated cells bounded by a cell membrane called sarcolemma. The cytoplasm of skeletal muscle fibers (sarcoplasm), contains contractile proteins called actin and myosin. These proteins are arranged into patterns, forming the units of contractile micro-apparatus called sarcomeres

Each muscle fiber is enclosed with a loose connective tissue sheath called endomysium. Multiple muscle fibers are grouped into muscle fascicles or muscle bundles, which are encompassed by their own connective tissue sheath called the perimysium. Ultimately, a group of muscle fascicles comprises a whole muscle belly which is externally enclosed by another connective tissue layer called the epimysium. This layer is continuous with yet another layer of connective tissue called the deep fascia of skeletal muscle, that separates the muscles from other tissues and organs. 

This structure gives the skeletal muscle tissue four main physiological properties:

  • Excitability – the ability to detect the neural stimuli (action potential);
  • Contractibility – the ability to contract in response to a neural stimulus;
  • Extensibility – the ability of a muscle to be stretched without tearing; 
  • Elasticity – the ability to return to its normal shape after being extended.

Learn everything about the skeletal muscle structure with our articles, video tutorials, quizzes and labelled diagrams.

2. Skeleton and muscular system

Skeletal muscles

The skeletal muscles are the main functional units of the muscular system. There are more than 600 muscles in the human body. They vary greatly in shape in size, with the smallest one being the stapedius muscle in the inner ear, and the largest one being the quadriceps femoris muscle in the thigh. 

The skeletal muscles of the human body are organized into four groups for every region of the body:

  • Muscles of the head and neck, which include the muscles of the facial expression, muscles of mastication, muscles of the orbit, muscles of the tongue, muscles of the pharynx, muscles of the larynx, and muscles of the neck
  • Muscles of the trunk, which include the muscles of the back, anterior and lateral abdominal muscles, and muscles of the pelvic floor
  • Muscles of the upper limbs, which include muscles of the shoulder, muscles of the arm, muscles of the forearm and muscles of the hand
  • Muscles of the lower limbs, which include hip and thigh muscles, leg muscles and foot muscles
2. Skeleton and muscular system

Muscular system

The muscular system is an organ system composed of specialized contractile tissue called the muscle tissue. There are three types of muscle tissue, based on which all the muscles are classified into three groups: 

  • Cardiac muscle, which forms the muscular layer of the heart (myocardium) 
  • Smooth muscle, which comprises the walls of blood vessels and hollow organs 
  • Skeletal muscle, which attaches to the bones and provides voluntary movement. 

Based on their histological appearance, these types are classified into striated and non-striated muscles; with the skeletal and cardiac muscles being grouped as striated, while the smooth muscle is non-striated. The skeletal muscles are the only ones that we can control by the power of our will, as they are innervated by the somatic part of the nervous system. In contrast to this, the cardiac and smooth muscles are innervated by the autonomic nervous system, thus being controlled involuntarily by the autonomic centers in our brain.

2. Skeleton and muscular system

Musculoskeletal system

The musculoskeletal system (locomotor system) is a human body system that provides our body with movement, stability, shape, and support. It is subdivided into two broad systems: 

  • Muscular system, which includes all types of muscles in the body. Skeletal muscles, in particular, are the ones that act on the body joints to produce movements. Besides muscles, the muscular system contains the tendons which attach the muscles to the bones.
  • Skeletal system, whose main component is the bone. Bones articulate with each other and form the joints, providing our bodies with a hard-core, yet mobile, skeleton. The integrity and function of the bones and joints is supported by the accessory structures of the skeletal system; articular cartilage, ligaments, and bursae.

Besides its main function to provide the body with stability and mobility, the musculoskeletal system has many other functions; the skeletal part plays an important role in other homeostatic functions such as storage of minerals (e.g., calcium) and hematopoiesis, while the muscular system stores the majority of the body’s carbohydrates in the form of glycogen.

This article will introduce you to the anatomy and function of the musculoskeletal system.

DefinitionA human body system that provides the body with movement, stability, shape, and support
ComponentsMuscular system: skeletal muscles and tendons
Skeletal system: bones, joints; associated tissues (cartilage, ligaments, joint capsule, bursae)
Function Muscles: Movement production, joint stabilization, maintaining posture, body heat production
Bones: Mechanical basis for movements, providing framework for the body, vital organs protection, blood cells production, storage of minerals
2. Skeleton and muscular system

Skeletal System Physiology

Support and Protection

The skeletal system’s primary function is to form a solid framework that supports and protects the body’s organs and anchors the skeletal muscles. The bones of the axial skeleton act as a hard shell to protect the internal organs—such as the brain and the heart—from damage caused by external forces. The bones of the appendicular skeleton provide support and flexibility at the joints and anchor the muscles that move the limbs.


The bones of the skeletal system act as attachment points for the skeletal muscles of the body. Almost every skeletal muscle works by pulling two or more bones either closer together or further apart. Joints act as pivot points for the movement of the bones. The regions of each bone where muscles attach to the bone grow larger and stronger to support the additional force of the muscle. In addition, the overall mass and thickness of a bone increase when it is under a lot of stress from lifting weights or supporting body weight.


Red bone marrow produces red and white blood cells in a process known as hematopoiesis. Red bone marrow is found in the hollow space inside of bones known as the medullary cavity. Children tend to have more red bone marrow compared to their body size than adults do, due to their body’s constant growth and development. The amount of red bone marrow drops off at the end of puberty, replaced by yellow bone marrow.


The skeletal system stores many different types of essential substances to facilitate growth and repair of the body. The skeletal system’s cell matrix acts as our calcium bank by storing and releasing calcium ions into the blood as needed. Proper levels of calcium ions in the blood are essential to the proper function of the nervous and muscular systems. Bone cells also release osteocalcin, a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar and fat deposition. The yellow bone marrow inside of our hollow long bones is used to store energy in the form of lipids. Finally, red bone marrow stores some iron in the form of the molecule ferritin and uses this iron to form hemoglobin in red blood cells.

Growth and Development

The skeleton begins to form early in fetal development as a flexible skeleton made of hyaline cartilage and dense irregular fibrous connective tissue. These tissues act as a soft, growing framework and placeholder for the bony skeleton that will replace them. As development progresses, blood vessels begin to grow into the soft fetal skeleton, bringing stem cells and nutrients for bone growth. Osseous tissue slowly replaces the cartilage and fibrous tissue in a process called calcification. The calcified areas spread out from their blood vessels replacing the old tissues until they reach the border of another bony area. At birth, the skeleton of a newborn has more than 300 bones; as a person ages, these bones grow together and fuse into larger bones, leaving adults with only 206 bones.

Flat bones follow the process of intramembranous ossification where the young bones grow from a primary ossification center in fibrous membranes and leave a small region of fibrous tissue in between each other. In the skull these soft spots are known as fontanels, and give the skull flexibility and room for the bones to grow. Bone slowly replaces the fontanels until the individual bones of the skull fuse together to form a rigid adult skull.

Long bones follow the process of endochondral ossification where the diaphysis grows inside of cartilage from a primary ossification center until it forms most of the bone. The epiphyses then grow from secondary ossification centers on the ends of the bone. A small band of hyaline cartilage remains in between the bones as a growth plate. As we grow through childhood, the growth plates grow under the influence of growth and sex hormones, slowly separating the bones. At the same time the bones grow larger by growing back into the growth plates. This process continues until the end of puberty, when the growth plate stops growing and the bones fuse permanently into a single bone. The vast difference in height and limb length between birth and adulthood are mainly the result of endochondral ossification in the long bones.

Diseases and Conditions

A number of musculoskeletal health issues, from arthritis to cancer, can impair our mobility and lead to loss of quality of life or even death. At other times, symptoms of joint pain can lead to diagnoses of other underlying health problems. Pay attention to joint pain and any changes you perceive in your ability to move, sharing those with your healthcare provider. Also, you can learn more about DNA health tests, which can tell you if you’re at a genetically higher risk of hemochromatosis—one of the most common hereditary disorders, causing joint pain—as well as Gaucher disease. Testing can also tell you if you’re an asymptomatic carrier of the genetic variant that you could pass along to your children.

2. Skeleton and muscular system


An articulation, or joint, is a point of contact between bones, between a bone and cartilage, or between a bone and a tooth. Synovial joints are the most common type of articulation and feature a small gap between the bones. This gap allows a free range of motion and space for synovial fluid to lubricate the joint. Fibrous joints exist where bones are very tightly joined and offer little to no movement between the bones. Fibrous joints also hold teeth in their bony sockets. Finally, cartilaginous joints are formed where bone meets cartilage or where there is a layer of cartilage between two bones. These joints provide a small amount of flexibility in the joint due to the gel-like consistency of cartilage.

2. Skeleton and muscular system

Parts of Bones

The long bones of the body contain many distinct regions due to the way in which they develop. At birth, each long bone is made of three individual bones separated by hyaline cartilage. Each end bone is called an epiphysis (epi = on; physis = to grow) while the middle bone is called a diaphysis (dia = passing through). The epiphyses and diaphysis grow towards one another and eventually fuse into one bone. The region of growth and eventual fusion in between the epiphysis and diaphysis is called the metaphysis (meta = after). Once the long bone parts have fused together, the only hyaline cartilage left in the bone is found as articular cartilage on the ends of the bone that form joints with other bones. The articular cartilage acts as a shock absorber and gliding surface between the bones to facilitate movement at the joint.

Looking at a bone in cross section, there are several distinct layered regions that make up a bone. The outside of a bone is covered in a thin layer of dense irregular connective tissue called the periosteum. The periosteum contains many strong collagen fibers that are used to firmly anchor tendons and muscles to the bone for movement. Stem cells and osteoblast cells in the periosteum are involved in the growth and repair of the outside of the bone due to stress and injury. Blood vessels present in the periosteum provide energy to the cells on the surface of the bone and penetrate into the bone itself to nourish the cells inside of the bone. The periosteum also contains nervous tissue and many nerve endings to give bone its sensitivity to pain when injured.

Deep to the periosteum is the compact bone that makes up the hard, mineralized portion of the bone. Compact bone is made of a matrix of hard mineral salts reinforced with tough collagen fibers. Many tiny cells called osteocytes live in small spaces in the matrix and help to maintain the strength and integrity of the compact bone.

Deep to the compact bone layer is a region of spongy bone where the bone tissue grows in thin columns called trabeculae with spaces for red bone marrow in between. The trabeculae grow in a specific pattern to resist outside stresses with the least amount of mass possible, keeping bones light but strong. Long bones have a spongy bone on their ends but have a hollow medullary cavity in the middle of the diaphysis. The medullary cavity contains red bone marrow during childhood, eventually turning into yellow bone marrow after puberty.