A common belief is that a healthy muscular system simply requires strong, developed muscles. Although strengthening muscles is an important component of muscular health, it’s not the only factor. The muscular system is actually a vast and intricate system throughout the body that interacts with other major systems including the cardiovascular, respiratory, and nervous systems. Muscles produce every movement, from the automatic, unconscious movements including digestion and breathing, to the complex motions such as sprinting, jumping, or weight lifting.
This article will give you an overview of the components of the muscular system and provide tips for keeping your muscular system in peak shape.
Types of Muscles
When you think of muscles, images of the pectoralis of the chest or quadriceps of the upper leg probably come to mind. These make up one of three types of muscle in the human body:
#1: Skeletal muscles are attached to bones by tendons and they consciously control movement. They include all the muscles we learn in anatomy (including the pecs and quads) and aim to train with resistance workouts. Other examples are the hamstrings of the upper legs, the lats and erector spinae of the back, and biceps and triceps of the upper arm.
#2: Smooth muscles line the inside of blood vessels and organs, including the stomach. Smooth muscle cannot be controlled consciously and thus acts involuntarily to move food along the digestive tract and maintain circulation.
#3: Cardiac muscles are located in the heart and pump blood throughout the body, acting involuntarily through the nervous system.
Facts About the Muscular System
The muscular system is composed of specialized cells called muscle fibers. Their main function is contractibility: The brain sends a message to the muscle fibers to contract and relax to initiate movement. Thick and thin filaments within each muscle fiber slide past each other to create movement and exert force.
Muscles are a major producer of body heat, generating 85 percent of the body’s heat. Muscles are also a primary consumer of glucose, using as much as 90 percent of the glucose transported within the blood. Studies estimate that for every 10 percent increase in muscle mass, you get an 11 percent increase in insulin sensitivity. Greater glucose use and insulin sensitivity mean your metabolism is working more effectively and you will have lower risk of diabetes.
Muscle is more metabolically expensive than body fat, requiring more calories to maintain, which is why building and maintaining muscle is a key component of any plan aimed at long-term weight loss.
Healthy muscle has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. Emerging research shows that muscle releases myokines, which are molecules that act similarly to hormones and have beneficial effects within the muscular system and on other cells in the body.
Top Ways To Maximize Muscular Health & Function
Keeping the muscular system healthy should start with an exercise training program that prioritizes weight training. With a periodized program that ensures progressive overload so that you continually elicit adaptations, it is possible to improve muscle strength and development. A well-designed program should include distinct phases that emphasize the following components:
Volume with higher reps and moderate loads to increase muscle mass.
High intensities with higher weights and lower reps to target the high-threshold muscle fibers involved in maximal strength.
Power with ballistic training such as jumping or throwing to train the hardest to reach dormant muscle fibers for speed.
Training should also incorporate conditioning to train the aerobic components of skeletal muscle and maximize function of the heart. Conditioning is most effective when done in an interval format in which you alternate effort with recovery. A range of training intensities can be effective, from moderate-effort intervals to all-out sprints. Steady-state exercise can also be beneficial for the muscular system, especially as a recovery tool after muscle-damaging training. If you feel sore the day after tough workout, a brisk walk or bike ride will improve blood flow to damaged tissue and ease muscle pain.
What you eat greatly impacts the health of your muscles. Your diet should prioritize whole foods and include high-quality protein, complex carbs, and healthy fat.
Every meal should include high-quality protein. Muscles are made up mostly of protein. Amino acids in protein stimulate protein synthesis, which is the mechanism by which the body builds muscle. Any time you replenish the pool of amino acid building blocks it’s a good thing, triggering tissue rebuilding. High-quality proteins include red meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, and milk products.
Whole carbohydrates are also important because plant foods provide an array of nutrients necessary for optimal health of the muscular system and serve as the main fuel source during intense physical activity. Including an array of vegetables, fruit, legumes, and whole grains can help keep the muscular system healthy.
Healthy dietary fat from both saturated and unsaturated sources will improve muscle function and recovery. For example, fish oil appears to have an anabolic effect, improving protein synthesis and reducing inflammation after intense training. Nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, butter, and whole fat dairy can all provide nutrients that aid the muscular system.
Many vitamins and minerals play a role in muscular health. Magnesium in particular plays a key role in muscle relaxation. Vitamin D also acts on every cell in the body, improving muscle function and strength. Eating a well-rounded diet and supplementing strategically will ensure you provide the nutrients for a happy muscular system.
Hydration is important for overall health and plays a primary role in muscle function. Water works with essential electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium that are necessary for muscle strength and control. Water is also necessary for protein synthesis and hormone release, making dehydration the enemy of muscle recovery.
Warming up plays a primary role in muscle health, preparing you for the rigors of training. A targeted warm up that raises heart rate and activates the muscles that you are intending to train will set you up for a high-quality workout. Warm-ups don’t have to last long but they should be vigorous enough to induce a light sweat and target the whole body so that you are able to give it your all in your workout.
Recovery can be done many ways but a few proven strategies include the following:
Body work—massage, foam rolling, and other body work modalities aid muscle recovery and improve neuromuscular drive.
Post-workout nutrition—protein stimulates tissue repair while certain nutrients and foods can ease muscle soreness including coffee, blueberries, curcumin, and taurine.
Sleep—high-quality sleep allows the body to metabolize toxins produced during training, while also optimizing hormone release for better muscular health and function.
Stretching—poor flexibility will compromise your muscles ability to exert force and leads to increased pain and degeneration around the joint. Regular stretching can improve range of motion and muscular function.
For more information on optimizing muscular system health, read the Hardcore Athlete’s Guide To Muscle Recovery.