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Fast Twitch Fibres

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Biology

Did you know that there are different muscle fibres in our muscles? How about the specific characteristics of each type? Do you think the composition of muscle fibres in the arms of a boxer and the legs of a marathon runner is the same? Stay tuned because this article will explain your questions!

The characteristics of fast and slow-twitch muscle fibres

There are two main types of skeletal myofibers (muscle cells), slow-twitch fibres and fast-twitch fibres. The ratio of different myofibers varies between muscles and individuals.


Slow-twitch fibres

Slow-twitch fibres are also known as type I fibres. These myofibers contract more slowly than fast-twitch fibres and generate less powerful contractions. Type I fibres are red due to large amounts of myoglobin and the large numbers of mitochondria. Myoglobin is an oxygen-binding protein with a higher affinity for oxygen than haemoglobin (Figure 2). Therefore, myoglobin in the myofibres assists in unloading and delivering oxygen from the blood haemoglobin to the muscle fibre. These features allow type I muscle fibres to generate large amounts of ATP through the aerobic respiration cycle and avoid lactic acid build-up. As a result, type I muscle fibres are resistant to fatigue and can produce repeated, low-intensity contractions for an extended period, making them best suited for endurance type capabilities.

In a nutshell, the slow-twitch fibre adaptations are:

  1. High myoglobin content
  2. A rich supply of blood vessels for delivering oxygen and glucose
  3. High numbers of mitochondria

The muscles containing type I fibres are often postural muscles such as those in the neck and spine due to their endurance needs. In addition, athletes such as marathon runners have a higher number of type I fibres. Both genetics and training are important determinants of muscle fibre compositions.

The calf muscles in the lower leg and the back muscles involved in maintaining posture contain slow-twitch muscle fibre.

Equilibrium dissociation curve

Fast Twitch Fibres oxygen dissociation curve oxygen carried by haemoglobin myoglobin StudySmarterFigure 1. Oxygen dissociation curve - oxygen dissociation when carried by haemoglobin and myoglobin. Source: Odeta Razmaite - StudySmarter Originals.

The affinity level of a molecule refers to how well it can interact and bind with another and is reported by the equilibrium dissociation constant (KD).

Myoglobin and haemoglobin bind to oxygen. "pO2" refers to the partial pressure of oxygen, and “saturation” refers to how saturated myoglobin and haemoglobin are with oxygen. As the partial pressure of oxygen gas increases, the oxygen saturation also increases until haemoglobin/myoglobin are saturated. Myoglobin has a higher affinity for oxygen and will become saturated with oxygen at lower pressures.

Fast-twitch fibres

Fast-twitch fibres are also known as type II fibres. They are capable of contracting rapidly and more strongly than the slow-twitch fibres. However, type II muscle fibres are not suited for prolonged contraction and are only adapted for short bursts of powerful contractions. Type II fibres are further subdivided into two types:

Type IIa

Type IIa fibres are also sometimes referred to as fast oxidative fibres and are a hybrid of type I and II fibres. These fibres possess large numbers of mitochondria and myoglobin; as a result, they are red. They generate and break down ATP rapidly by employing aerobic and anaerobic metabolism. Type IIa muscle fibres can produce fast, intense muscle contractions with relative amounts of fatigue resistance. However, they are more prone to fatigue than type I fibres.

Type IIa fibres are recruited for activities that require high intensity, such as sprinting and weightlifting.

Type IIb

Type IIb fibres are also commonly known as fast glycolytic fibres. They contain a small amount of myoglobin and, as a result, are white. Fast glycolytic fibres contain very few mitochondria and mainly generate ATP via anaerobic respiration (glycolysis alone) at a slow rate. However, they can use ATP rapidly. This results in short and rapid bursts of power followed by fatigue. Type IIb fibres are the largest of the three fibre types.

Type IIb fibres can be turned into type IIa by long-duration training, allowing them to be more resistant to fatigue.

Similar to the type IIa fibres, type IIb fibres are suited for speed, strength, and power type activities, but they are less resistant to fatigue. Activities such as heavyweight training with 1-3 reps, powerlifting, and 100 m sprints predominantly require type IIb muscle fibres.

Bicep muscles and muscles that move the eyes consist of fast-twitch muscle fibres.

A comprehensive comparison between different muscle fibre types is in Table 1.

Table 1. Comparison of different skeletal muscle fibres.

Characteristics

Skeletal Muscle Fibre Types

Slow Twitch fibre (Type I)

Fast Oxidative Twitch fibre (Type Ia)

Fast Glycolytic Twitch fibre (Type IIb)

Aerobic (oxidative) capacity

High

Moderate

Low

Anaerobic (glycolytic) capacity

Low

High

Highest

Lactate removal rate

Low

Highest

High

Number of capillaries

High

Moderate

Low

Contractile velocity

Slow

Fast

Fastest

Contractile force

Low

High

Highest

Power

Low

High

Highest

Main fuel

Fatty acids

Fatty acids and glycogen

Glycogen

Colour

Red

Red to pink

White

Myoglobin content

High

High

Low

Resistance to fatigue

High

Moderate

Low

Type of activity

Endurance activities

Assist type I and IIb

Strength activities

Muscle fibre diameter

Small

Intermediate

Large

Determinants of the muscle fibre composition

Our muscles are not composed of only one type of muscle fibre. Instead, they are a combination of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibres. The composition of the fibre types in muscles depends on one’s genetics, physical activity level, and age.

Genetics

The genes we inherit from our parents determine many things including our muscle composition.

Further details about this are beyond the scope of the course specification.

Physical activity level

Individuals with no athletic occupation tend to have a 50:50 ratio of fast and slow-twitch fibres. The composition of the top-performing and professional athletes, however, differs. Power athletes such as weightlifters and sprinters tend to have a higher ratio of type II fibres, while endurance athletes such as marathon and long-distance runners have more type I fibres.

Age

As we age, we start to lose our lean muscle mass. This is accompanied by a decline in our fast-twitch fibre content. The loss of lean muscle mass can contribute to age-related pathologies such as metabolic dysfunction and increased risk of falls. Resistance training can prevent this loss.

Fast Twitch Fibres - Key takeaways

  • There are three types of muscle fibres
    • Slow-twitch or type I
    • Fast oxidative twitch fibres or type IIa
    • Fast glycolytic twitch fibres or type IIb
  • Type I fibres have high numbers of mitochondria and myoglobin. They are fatigue resistant and are best suited for endurance type activities.
  • Type IIa fibres have moderate numbers of mitochondria and myoglobin. They are moderately resistant to fatigue and are suited for endurance and strength activities.
  • Type IIb fibres have few numbers of mitochondria and myoglobin. They get easily fatigued but have a high glycolytic capacity. This means they are best suited for strength type activities.
  • Various factors come together to determine the composition of muscle fibres in a muscle. They include:
    • Genetics
    • Physical activity level
    • Age

Fast Twitch Fibres

Yes, you can change your muscle fibre type with training. Type IIb fibres can be converted to type I or type IIa through low resistance with high repetition or long duration with low-intensity training.

Fast-twitch fibres are the largest of the three muscle fibre types. Their diameter is between 50 and 100μm.

High resistance training, such as lifting heavy weights, deadlifts, and sprinting can help develop fast-twitch muscle fibres.

Fast oxidative (IIa) and fast glycolytic (IIb) fibres.

The calf muscles in the lower leg and the back muscles involved in maintaining posture mainly contain slow-twitch muscle fibre. 

Bicep muscles and muscles that move the eyes are made up of fast-twitch muscle fibres.

Final Fast Twitch Fibres Quiz

Question

Slow-twitch muscle fibres mainly use _______ respiration?

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Answer

Aerobic

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Question

Fast-twitch muscle fibres mainly use _______ respiration?

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Answer

Anaerobic

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Question

What are the characteristics of slow-twitch muscle fibres contraction?


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Answer

Slow, less powerful, used over a longer period.

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Question

What are the characteristics of fast-twitch muscle fibres contraction?


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Answer

Rapid, more powerful, used over a shorter period.

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Question

What activities are the slow-twitch fibres best suited for?


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Answer

Endurance type activities

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Question

Where would you be likely to find slow-twitch fibres? Why?


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Answer

Neck and back muscles. They need to contract for long periods to maintain the body in an upright posture.

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Question

Where would you be likely to find fast-twitch fibres? Why?


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Answer

Bicep muscle. They are used for short bursts of intense activity like lifting a heavy dumbbell.

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Question

Which muscle fibre contains large stores of glycogen? why?


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Answer

Fast-twitch fibre. Glycogen provides a source of glucose for rapid glycolysis to generate ATP.

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Question

Which muscle fibre contains large amounts of myoglobin? why?


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Answer

Slow-twitch fibres. Myoglobin helps in the delivery of oxygen from the blood to the tissues

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Question

Which muscle fibre type contains more mitochondria?


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Answer

Slow-twitch fibres

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