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  • Sports science is a discipline that studies the application of scientific principles and techniques with the aim of improving sporting performance, (giving athletes the sporting edge), and there are different routes that athletes can take to gain that advantage.

    Strength training is vital for an athlete’s preparation for successful participation in their chosen sport. We explore what that involves – the structure and physiology of muscles, biomechanics and New Zealand research on strength training and how this has affected some athletic performances.

    Why are muscles important?

    On average, muscles make up about 40% of a person’s body weight. Muscles let us move both within our bodies (like the heart pumping or stomach contracting) and the obvious movements that we can see (like the eyes blinking or legs running to catch the bus).

    However, muscles do much more than this. They also help you to:

    • maintain posture
    • stabilise joints
    • keep your body at the right temperature

    In fact, without your muscles, it would be impossible to do anything. Your brain may have the idea but it is the muscles of your body that carry it out. Muscles do everything from allowing you to walk to keeping your blood flowing and passing food through your digestive system.

    What does muscle look like?

    Muscle is what we know as meat (as in steak or chops) or as the flesh of fish. Muscle is the most plentiful tissue in many animals. Take a closer look at muscle structure and muscle types.

    How many muscles?

    Usually we think about the muscles that we can see, like the bulging bicep muscles in our upper arms, but the human body is made up of over 630 muscles, most of which we can’t see at all.

    Nature of science

    Scientists make observations and develop their explanations using inference, imagination and creativity. Often they use models to help other scientists understand their theories. A diagram is an example of an explanatory model. Diagrams demonstrate the creativity required by scientists to use their observations to develop models and to communicate their explanations to others.

    Some cool muscle facts:

    • The smallest muscle in the human body is the stapedius which is only 0.1 millimetre long. It is the muscle which is attached to the tiny stirrup bone in your ear, which sends vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear
    • The largest muscle is the gluteus maximus. It is the uppermost of the three gluteal muscles that make up the human buttocks
    • The tongue is not just one muscle – it is made up of 16 different muscles
    • The busiest muscles in your body are the eye muscles (that cause you to blink) and your heart muscle (that causes your heart to beat). Both contract more than 100,000 times a day!

    Muscles move

    Muscles and tendons combine with the bones in our body to help us move. Tendons attach muscles to bones.

    Muscles can only contract and then relax – they can never push. So for every body movement there are muscles that contract to make the bones move and others that contract to pull the bones back to their original position.

    Groups of muscles work together. For example when the biceps muscle contracts to flex (bend) the forearm, the triceps muscle relaxes. To extend (straighten) the forearm the biceps relaxes and the triceps contracts.

    The energy used to power muscle contractions is adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

    Muscle performance

    There are three major factors that affect how well your muscles perform: strength, power and endurance. Muscle strength can be safely measured by estimating an athlete's one repitition maximum (1RM).

    Take up the challenge

    Student activities include a mixture of physical challenges to test the muscles, written challenges to test the brain and models to explore muscles and forces. They provide excellent opportunities to explore the science capabilities and the nature of science.

    Physical activities

    Written activities

    Models in science

    • Biceps curl models and measures the force in the biceps muscle.
    • Muscle dissection uses a chicken leg to compare red and while flesh and function.

    Question bank

    The The sporting edge – question bank provides a list of questions on the physiology and the biomechanics of muscles and at strength training. The key question is how strength training can improve sporting performance. The questions support an inquiry approach.

    Key terms

    For explanations of key concepts, see The sporting edge – key terms.

    Timeline - breaking the 4-minute mile

    This timeline follows the quest to hold the world's fastest one-mile record.

      Published 21 June 2007, Updated 12 April 2018 Referencing Hub articles
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