Types of Muscle Tissues

Overview of Muscle Tissues

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the different types of muscle
  • Explain contractibility and extensibility

Muscle is one of the four primary tissue types of the body, and the body contains three types of muscle tissue: skeletal muscle, cardiac muscle, and smooth muscle (Figure 7.2). All three muscle tissues have some properties in common; they all exhibit a quality called excitability as their plasma membranes can change their electrical states (from polarized to depolarized) and send an electrical wave called an action potential along the entire length of the membrane. While the nervous system can influence the excitability of cardiac and smooth muscle to some degree, skeletal muscle completely depends on signaling from the nervous system to work properly. On the other hand, both cardiac muscle and smooth muscle can respond to other stimuli, such as hormones and local stimuli.

This figure show the micrographs of skeletal muscle, smooth muscle, and cardiac muscle cells.
Figure 7.2. The Three Types of Muscle Tissue
The body contains three types of muscle tissue: (a) skeletal muscle, (b) smooth muscle, and (c) cardiac muscle. From top, LM × 1600, LM × 1600, LM × 1600. (Micrographs provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)

Differences among the three muscle types include the microscopic organization of their contractile proteins, location in the body, and control mechanisms. The actin and myosin proteins are arranged very regularly in the cytoplasm of individual muscle cells (referred to as fibers) in both skeletal muscle and cardiac muscle, which creates a pattern, or stripes, called striations. The striations are visible with a light microscope under high magnification (see Figure 7.2). Skeletal muscle fibers are multinucleated structures that compose the skeletal muscle. Cardiac muscle, found within the heart, have fibers with one to two nuclei and are physically and electrically connected to each other so that the entire heart contracts as one unit.  Skeletal muscle is found attached to bones and exhibits voluntary control while cardiac muscle is involuntary.

Because the actin and myosin are not arranged in such regular fashion in smooth muscle, the cytoplasm of a smooth muscle fiber (which has only a single nucleus) has a uniform, nonstriated appearance (resulting in the name smooth muscle). However, the less organized appearance of smooth muscle should not be interpreted as less efficient. Smooth muscle in the walls of arteries is a critical component that regulates blood pressure necessary to push blood through the circulatory system; and smooth muscle in the skin, visceral organs, and internal passageways is essential for moving all materials through the body.  Like cardiac muscle, smooth muscle is involuntarily controlled.

Cardiac Muscle

Cardiac muscle tissue is only found in the heart. Highly coordinated contractions of cardiac muscle pump blood into the vessels of the circulatory system. Similar to skeletal muscle, cardiac muscle is striated and organized into sarcomeres, possessing the same banding organization as skeletal muscle (Figure 7.3). However, cardiac muscle fibers are shorter than skeletal muscle fibers and usually contain only one nucleus, which is located in the central region of the cell. Cardiac muscle fibers also possess many mitochondria and myoglobin, as ATP is produced primarily through aerobic metabolism. Cardiac muscle fibers cells also are extensively branched and are connected to one another at their ends by intercalated discs. An intercalated disc allows the cardiac muscle cells to contract in a wave-like pattern so that the heart can work as a pump.

This image is a micrograph of cardiac muscle cells.
Figure 7.3. Cardiac Muscle Tissue
Cardiac muscle tissue is only found in the heart. LM × 1600. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)

Smooth Muscle

Smooth muscle (so-named because the cells do not have striations) is present in the walls of hollow organs like the urinary bladder, uterus, stomach, intestines, and in the walls of passageways, such as the arteries and veins of the circulatory system, and the tracts of the respiratory, urinary, and reproductive systems (Figure 7.4ab). Smooth muscle is also present in the eyes, where it functions to change the size of the iris and alter the shape of the lens; and in the skin where it causes hair to stand erect in response to cold temperature or fear.

This diagram shows the structure of smooth muscle. To the left of the figure, a small diagram of the stomach is shown. To its immediate right, a magnified view of the muscle fibers are shown and a further magnification highlights the structure of these cells. Below these drawings is a micrograph showing smooth muscle tissue cells.
Figure 7.4. Smooth Muscle Tissue
Smooth muscle tissue is found around organs in the digestive, respiratory, reproductive tracts and the iris of the eye. LM × 1600. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)

Interactive Link

View the University of Michigan WebScope to explore the tissue sample in greater detail:



Smooth muscle fibers are spindle-shaped (wide in the middle and tapered at both ends, somewhat like a football) and have a single nucleus; they range from about 30 to 200 μm (thousands of times shorter than skeletal muscle fibers), and they produce their own connective tissue, endomysium. Although they do not have striations and sarcomeres, smooth muscle fibers do have actin and myosin contractile proteins, and thick and thin filaments.