10.5 Types of Muscle Fibers

Learning Objectives

Describe the types of skeletal muscle fibers

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Differentiate between slow oxidative fibers, fast oxidative fibers, and fast glycolytic fibers

Skeletal muscle fibers can be classified based on two criteria: 1) how fast do fibers contract relative to others, and 2) how do fibers regenerate ATP.  Using these criteria, there are three main types of skeletal muscle fibers recognized (Table 10.5.1). Slow oxidative (also called slow twitch or Type I) fibers contract relatively slowly and use aerobic respiration (oxygen and glucose) to produce ATP. Fast oxidative (also called fast twitch or Type IIa) fibers have relatively fast contractions and primarily use aerobic respiration to generate ATP. Lastly, fast glycolytic (also called fast twitch or Type IIx) fibers have relatively fast contractions and primarily use anaerobic glycolysis. Most skeletal muscles in a human body contain all three types, although in varying proportions.

The speed of contraction is dependent on how quickly myosin’s ATPase hydrolyzes ATP to produce cross-bridge action. Fast fibers hydrolyze ATP approximately twice as rapidly as slow fibers, resulting in much quicker cross-bridge cycling (which pulls the thin filaments toward the center of the sarcomeres at a faster rate).

The primary metabolic pathway used by a muscle fiber determines whether the fiber is classified as oxidative or glycolytic. If a fiber primarily produces ATP through aerobic pathways, then it is classified as oxidative. More ATP can be produced during each metabolic cycle, making the fiber more resistant to fatigue. Glycolytic fibers primarily create ATP through anaerobic glycolysis, which produces less ATP per cycle. As a result, glycolytic fibers fatigue at a quicker rate.

Slow oxidative fibers have structural elements that maximize their ability to generate ATP through aerobic metabolism.  These fibers contain many more mitochondria than the glycolytic fibers, as aerobic metabolism, which uses oxygen (O2) in the metabolic pathway, occurs in the mitochondria. This allows slow oxidative fibers to contract for longer periods because of the large amount of ATP they can produce, but they have a relatively small diameter and thus do not produce a large amount of tension.

In addition to increased numbers of mitochondria, slow oxidative fibers are extensively supplied with blood capillaries to supply O2 from the bloodstream.  They also possess myoglobin, an O2-binding molecule similar to hemoglobin in the red blood cells. The myoglobin stores some of the needed O2 within the fibers themselves and is partially responsible for giving oxidative fibers a dark red color.

The ability of slow oxidative fibers to function for long periods without fatiguing makes them useful in maintaining posture, producing isometric contractions, and stabilizing bones and joints.  Because they do not produce high tension, they are not used for powerful, fast movements that require high amounts of energy and rapid cross-bridge cycling.

Fast glycolytic fibers primarily use anaerobic glycolysis as their ATP source.  They have a large diameter and possess large volumes of glycogen which is used in glycolysis to generate ATP quickly.  Because of their reliance on anaerobic metabolism, these fibers do not possess substantial numbers of mitochondria, a limited capillary supply, or significant amounts of myoglobin, resulting in a white coloration for muscles containing large numbers of these fibers.

Fast glycolytic fibers fatigue quickly, permitting them to only be used for short periods.  However, during these short periods, the fibers are able to produce rapid, forceful contractions associated with quick, powerful movements.

These different fiber types can be easily identified in poultry. Imagine a turkey. The legs and thighs of the turkey are dark meat, due to their slow oxidative fibers and robust supply of blood vessels and myoglobin. Turkeys spend most of their days walking around looking for food, so their legs must be able to work all day without fatiguing. Alternately, turkey breast is white meat, due to its fast glycolytic fibers and relatively insubstantial supply of myoglobin and lesser blood supply. Turkeys do not fly long distances, but only need to get into trees to roost. Their breast tissue produces strong, rapid contractions, but only for very brief flights.

Fast oxidative fibers are sometimes called intermediate fibers because they possess characteristics that are intermediate between slow oxidative fibers and fast glycolytic fibers. These fibers produce ATP relatively quickly, and thus can produce relatively high amounts of tension, but because they are oxidative, they do not fatigue quickly.  Fast oxidative fibers are used primarily for movements, such as walking, that require more energy than postural control but less energy than an explosive movement.

Characteristic Fast Glycolytic Fast Oxidative Slow Oxidative
Other names Type IIx, Fast Twitch Type IIa, Fast Twitch Type I, Slow Twitch
Number of mitochondria Low High/moderate High
Resistance to fatigue Low High/moderate High
Predominant energy system Anaerobic Combination Aerobic
ATPase activity Highest/fastest High Low/slowest
Speed of shortening (Vmax) Highest High Low
Efficiency Low Moderate High
Strength (Specific tension) High High Moderate
Myoglobin Low Moderate High
Glycogen High Moderate Low
Table 10.5.1 Characteristics of Human Skeletal Muscle Fiber Types

Chapter Review

The three types of muscle fibers are slow oxidative, fast oxidative and fast glycolytic.  Slow oxidative fibers use aerobic metabolism to produce low power contractions over long periods and are slow to fatigue. Fast oxidative fibers use aerobic metabolism to produce ATP but produce higher tension contractions than slow oxidative fibers. Fast glycolytic fibers use anaerobic metabolism to produce powerful, high-tension contractions but fatigue quickly.

Review Questions

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. What changes occur at the cellular level in response to endurance training?
  2. What changes occur at the cellular level in response to resistance training?


fast glycolytic fiber
muscle fiber that primarily uses anaerobic glycolysis
fast oxidative fiber
intermediate muscle fiber that is between slow oxidative and fast glycolytic fibers
slow oxidative fiber
muscle fiber that primarily uses aerobic respiration


Answers for Critical Thinking Questions

  1. Endurance training modifies slow fibers to make them more efficient by producing more mitochondria to enable more aerobic metabolism and more ATP production. Endurance exercise can also increase the amount of myoglobin in a cell and formation of more extensive capillary networks around the fiber.
  2. Resistance exercises affect muscles by causing the formation of more actin and myosin, increasing the structure of muscle fibers.

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