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The Muscles

Source: A Handbook Of Health

Importance of the Muscles. It wouldn't be of much use to smell food,
if we couldn't pick it up and bite it after we had reached it; or to see
danger, if we were not able to move away from it. Every animal that
lives, moves; and every movement, whether of the entire body from one
place to another, or of parts of the body changing their relations to
one another, or altering their shape, is carried out by an elastic,
self-moving body-stuff, which we call muscle.

All the work that we do, whether in earning our living, or catching our
food, or chewing it, or swallowing it and driving it through our food
tube, or pumping the blood through our arteries, or drawing air into our
lungs, is done by muscles. Hence, a very large part of the body has to
be made of muscles. In fact, our muscles, put together, weigh almost as
much as all the other stuffs in the body, making over forty per cent of
our weight.

How the Muscles Act. The commonest form of muscle that we see is the
red, lean meat of beef, mutton, or pork; and this will give us a good
idea of how our own muscles look. All muscles, whatever their size or
shape, are made up of little spindle-shaped or strap-shaped cells, or
wriggling body-cells arranged in bands or strings. The size of a given
muscle depends upon the number of cells that it contains.

The astonishing variety of movements which muscles can make is due to
the fact that they have the power when stirred up, or stimulated, of
changing their shape. As most of the muscle substance is arranged in
bands, this change of shape on the part of the tiny cells that make up
the band means that the band grows thicker and at the same time
shorter,--just as a stretched rubber band does when it slackens,--so
that it pulls nearer together the bones or other structures to which it
is fastened at each end by fibrous cords called tendons, or sinews.
This shortening of the muscle band is known as contraction.

When you wish, for instance, to lift your hand toward your face, you
unconsciously send a message from your brain down the nerve cables in
your spinal cord, out through the nerve-wires of your neck and shoulder,
to the big biceps muscle on the front of your upper arm. This muscle
then contracts, or shortens, and pulls up the forearm and hand, by
bending the elbow joint. Just in proportion as the muscle becomes
shorter, it becomes thicker in the middle; and this you can readily
prove by grasping it lightly with your fingers when it contracts, and
feeling it bulge.[22]

The food tube is surrounded with muscles, as you will remember, for
moving the food along it, or churning it. These internal muscles,
requiring only the presence of food to cause them to act, and not
needing attention on the part of the brain or the will, are known as the
involuntary (without the will) muscles.

The great group of the voluntary, or bone-moving muscles, which move
with the will and are under our direct control, may be divided roughly
into two divisions--those that move the trunk, or body proper, and run,
for the most part, lengthwise of it; and those that move the limbs.

On the body, they may be divided into two great sheets--one running up
the front, and the other up the back. When those running up the front of
the body contract, they naturally bend the back, and pull the head and
shoulders forward and downward. Or, as when you spring up and catch the
branch of a tree or a horizontal bar with your hands, these same muscles
will pull the lower part of the body and legs upward, so that you can
climb into the tree.

The largest and thickest bands of these front body muscles are found
over the abdomen, or stomach, where you can feel them thicken and harden
when you bend your body forward and pull with your arms, as in hauling
on a rope. By their pressure upon the intestines, they give the bowels
valuable support, assist in their movements, and help the circulation of
the blood through them; so that it is of considerable importance to keep
this entire group of muscles well toned up by exercises, such as
swinging your arms back over your head, and then down between your legs;
bending the head and shoulders backward and forward; swinging the legs
up over the body, either when hanging from a bar or lying on your back.
Proper exercising and toning up of these muscles will often cure
constipation and dyspepsia, by their influence upon the bowels and
stomach, and also keep one from taking on fat around the waist too

On the back of the body, the muscle-sheet has grown into great, thick
ropes of muscle on each side of the backbone, which you can feel
hardening and softening in the small of the back, when you stoop down or
lift weights. These are the muscles that hold the body erect, and keep
the back straight when you stand, and are the largest and hardest
working group of muscles in the body. Every minute that you sit, or
stand, they are at work; and that is why they so often get tired out,
and ache, and you say you have a backache. They have to work harder to
keep you erect or upright when you are standing perfectly still than
when you walk or run, so that standing perfectly still is the hardest
work you can do. Next to standing still, the hardest thing is to sit
still, as you probably have found out. If it were not for these great
muscles of the back and abdomen, we should double up like a jack-knife,
either forward or backward, when we tried to stand up. It is not our
skeleton that keeps us stiff or erect, but our muscles.

If you want to keep straight and erect, and thus have a good carriage,
you must keep these great body muscles well trained and exercised by
swinging movements, such as bending the back forward, standing with your
feet apart and then swinging your head and shoulders down and between
your legs; or, with your heels together, swinging your hands down till
the fingers touch the ground; or by the different exercises that either
bend your back, or hold it stiff and erect. Swinging from a bar, rowing,
digging with a spade, chopping or sawing wood, dancing, rope-skipping,
ball-playing, hop-scotch, and wrestling, all develop these muscles
finely and are good for both boys and girls.

Other strands of these muscles branch out to fasten themselves to the
shoulder blades and shoulders, where they help to draw the arm back as
for a blow, pull the shoulders into position when you stand upright, or,
when you have leaned forward and grasped something with the hand, help
to pull up the arm and lift it from the ground. These muscles are quite
important in holding the shoulders back and giving a good shape to the
chest and good carriage of the upper part of the body and head. They are
called into play in all exercises like striking, batting,
tennis-playing, ball-throwing, swinging, shoveling, swimming, as well as
in pulling, in lifting weights, in swinging an axe or handling a broom.

The muscles of the limbs are almost as numerous as those of the trunk of
the body, and even more complex. Most of them, on both arms and legs,
are in two great groups--one known as the benders, or flexors,
which, when they shorten, bend the limb; and the other, the
straighteners, or extensors, which straighten or extend it.

On the front of the arm, for instance, we have the large biceps
(two-headed) muscle, which runs from the shoulder to the bone of the
forearm just below the elbow and, when it shortens, bends the elbow and
lifts the arm toward the body.

On the back of the upper arm is the triceps (three-headed) muscle,
which is fastened at its lower end to a big spur of bone, the point of
the elbow; when it shortens, acting lever fashion, it straightens or
extends the arm. If this is done quickly, the fist is swung outward
with force enough to strike quite a sharp blow, though, as you know, if
you wish to hit really hard, you have to strike with the weight and
muscles of the full arm and the body behind it, or, as we say, from the

In the lower limbs, the muscles are larger because they have heavier
work to do, supporting and moving the whole weight of the body; but they
are simpler in their arrangement since they have not such a variety of
movements to carry out. The principal muscle in the thigh is the great
muscle running down the front of the thigh, and fastening to the upper
border of the patella, or knee cap. This muscle, when it shortens,
straightens or extends the limb, or lifts the foot from the ground and
swings it forward as in walking, or raises the knee up toward the body
when we are sitting or lying down. You can easily tell how much it is
used in walking by remembering how stiff and sore it gets when you have
taken an unusually long tramp, particularly if there has been much
hill-climbing in it. On the back of the thigh, runs another great group
of muscles, which bend or flex the limb when they shorten. When the knee
is bent, you can feel their tendons, or sinews, stand out as hard cords
beneath the knee; hence, this group is called the ham-string

How the Muscles are Fed. Our muscles are not only the largest, but the
livest part of our bodies. Their contractions and movements are caused
by their tiny explosions (like the chugging of an automobile, except
that we can't hear them); and in this way they burn up the largest part
of the food-fuel which we eat--mostly in the form of sugar. When they
have burned up their surplus food-fuel, they call for more; and when
this demand has been telegraphed to the brain, we say we are hungry, and
that exercise has given us an appetite. While the muscles are at work,
they demand that large supplies of fresh fuel shall be brought to them
through the blood vessels; and this makes the heart beat harder and
faster, and improves the circulation. As they burn up this fuel, they
form smoke and ashes, or waste materials, which must be got rid of--the
fluid part by perspiration from the surface of the skin, and through the
kidneys, and the gas, or smoke, through the lungs. This is the reason
why, during exercise, we breathe faster and deeper than at other times,
and why our skin begins first to glow and then to perspire.

If these waste-materials form in the muscles faster than the blood can
wash them out, they poison the muscle-cells and we begin to feel tired,
or fatigued. This is why our muscle-cells are often so stiff and sore
next morning after a long tramp, or a hard day's work, or a football
game. A hot bath or a good rub-down takes the soreness out of the
muscles by helping them to get these poisonous wastes out of their

Thus when we play or run or work, we are not only exercising our muscles
and making them gain strength and skill, but we are stirring up, or
stimulating, almost every part of our body to more vigorous and
healthful action.

Indeed, as our muscles alone, of all our body stuffs, are under the
control of the will, our only means of deliberately improving our
appetites, or strengthening our hearts or circulation, or invigorating
our lungs, or causing a large part of our brains and minds to grow and
develop, is through muscular exercise. This is why nature has taken care
to make us all so exceedingly fond of play, games, and sports of all
sorts, in the open air, when we are young; and, as we grow older, to
enjoy working hard and fighting and hustling, as we say; and that is
the reason, also, why we are now making muscular exercise such an
important part of education.

Next: The Stiffening Rods Of The Body-machine

Previous: The Plumbing And Sewering Of The Body

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