Types of Muscle Tissue: Skeletal, Cardiac & Smooth

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  • 0:58 Muscle histology
  • 3:12 Muscular contraction
  • 5:10 Regulation of contraction
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Lesson Transcript
John Simmons

John has taught college science courses face-to-face and online since 1994 and has a doctorate in physiology.

Expert Contributor
Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has a master's degree in cancer biology and has taught high school and college biology.

Have you ever wondered why muscle has different names such as striated, smooth, voluntary, or involuntary? This lesson describes the different types of muscle tissue based on their histology, mechanism of contraction, and regulation.

Muscle Tissue

The three types of muscle tissue.
Muscle Tissue Types

Muscle is one of four different tissues found in our bodies. The other general tissue types include epithelial tissue, connective tissue, and nervous tissue. Specifically, we have three different types of muscle tissue, including skeletal, cardiac, and smooth. Each type of muscle is unique in terms of its structure and its function. Regardless of the specific type, all muscle serves the same general function, and that is support and movement. In other words, muscles contract, thus causing the body and body parts to move. In this lesson, we will compare and contrast the three different muscle types in terms of their structure and function.

Muscle Histology

Tissues are made of cells, and a muscle cell is referred to as a myocyte or sometimes simply a muscle fiber because some are long and they look like a fiber. Let's first compare muscle tissue based on what you would see under a microscope; that is, its histology.

Both cardiac and skeletal muscle are termed striated muscle, as they have striations that run across their muscle fibers. In contrast, smooth muscle is not striated, and it's, well, smooth. The striations are end-to-end junctions of repeating units that are referred to as sarcomeres. A sarcomere is a functional unit of striated muscle, as it contains all the tools necessary for contraction. In this sense, you can think of a smooth muscle as a giant sarcomere. Skeletal and cardiac muscle, while both striated, can be distinguished based on arrangement of the fibers. While skeletal muscle fibers are long and linear, cardiac muscle fibers are short and branched.

Looking at skeletal muscle with a microscope, we can see the fibers stacked neatly together in a parallel arrangement. Additionally, these fibers are long, and they run the entire length of the muscle organ. I guess this is what my mother expected my room to look like - nice and orderly.

Skeletal muscle under a microscope
skeletal muscle under microscope

Cardiac muscle, on the other hand, looks more like my kid's room - a complete mess. As the myocytes are branched, they run in different directions as they interconnect with one another. Additionally, cardiac fibers are connected end-to-end with each other with special structures called intercalated discs. The intercalated discs, like the striations separating the sarcomeres, run across the fibers. However, they appear darker on the slide, and they allow for direct communication between the adjacent myocytes.

Cardiac muscle myocytes run in different directions.
Cardiac Muscle Structure

Smooth muscles have a characteristic spindle shape.

Smooth muscle has a spindle shape.
smooth muscle

Muscular Contraction

Skeletal muscle tissue is found in our skeletal muscles; for example, the biceps. Cardiac muscle is found in our heart, and smooth muscle is found in our visceral, or hollow, organs - for example, blood vessels and intestines. All muscles contract as a result of interaction between special proteins within the myocytes. Skeletal, cardiac, and smooth muscle cells synthesize the contractile proteins actin and myosin, which are needed for muscular contraction.

When the muscle cell is stimulated, actin and myosin interact in such a way to cause the cell to shorten and, thus, the muscle to contract. Furthermore, all muscles contract in response to intracellular calcium. In striated muscle, calcium binds to a regulatory protein called troponin, which allows actin and myosin to interact with each other. In smooth muscle, calcium binds to the regulatory protein calmodulin, which allows the contractile proteins to interact and, thus, the muscle to contract.

Actin and myosin interact during muscle cell stimulation, causing muscle contractions.
Muscular Contraction

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Additional Activities

Which Type of Muscle Am I Game?

Now that your students have covered the basic information about the different types of muscle tissue, it's time for them to demonstrate what they learned and understand about muscle tissue. Start this activity by telling your students that, working in pairs, they're going to create a game about the different types of muscle tissue. This activity needs to be completed on index cards.

Instruct your students to use pens/pencils to begin writing descriptions for each type of muscle. Then, have your students compose some clues on one side of index cards that include one or more portions of the descriptions of the types of muscle and the answer on the other side of the index cards. The clues can be for one, two or all three types of muscle tissue. Have your students write at least 15-20 different clues on the index cards for their activity.

The clues should include:

  • The tissues' histology, such as if it is striated
  • How they are regulated, such as if they are voluntary or involuntary.

Once the clues are complete, have the pairs of students make an answer sheet for their game. Then, have students exchange their games and solve the clues for the game they receive. After the student pairs have finished the games, have them return the games to the original pair so they can check their answers.

As an added bonus, you can go over the clues from each group together as a class to see how students did with each game. If there are any errors in the clues or answers, ask the class to revise them to improve the accuracy of the game.

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