Kat Thomson

Muscular System on the MCAT

Woman lifting weights to illustrate muscular system MCAT - image by Magoosh

A big part of scoring well on the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems section is familiarizing yourself with muscular system MCAT content. Below, we’ll go over some key facts about skeletal muscles, smooth muscle contraction, and more.

For a super handy PDF version of this material, and for more MCAT resources, click the link below!

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Organization of Skeletal Muscles

First and foremost, here’s a simple breakdown of how skeletal muscle is organized:

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Muscular system MCAT breakdown - image by Magoosh

You’ll also need to understand the difference between smooth muscle and skeletal muscle, which we’ve broken down for you here:

Function Contraction Appearance
Smooth Muscle Surround organs (except for the heart) and blood vessels Involuntary Nonstriated or tapered
Skeletal Muscle Moves the skeleton Voluntary Striated, multinucleated

Sarcomere MCAT Structure and the Sliding Filament Model

Understanding how muscles actually work is also key to success on the MCAT. Muscle contraction occurs when the motor protein, myosin, pulls on actin. The filaments move past one another, shortening the sarcomere and generating muscle tension.

For reference, sarcomere is the smallest functional unit of muscle, visible as striations on muscle cells.

The sliding filament model, as seen below, is used to represent this function in the muscular system. MCAT questions may pertain to any of the follow aspects of muscle contraction:

Sliding filament model - image by Magoosh

Muscle Components

To better understand the above model, it helps to know the various components of muscle and how they help facilitate contraction:

Component Definition Effect on Contraction
Thick filament Composed of myosin Myosin heads bind to actin
Thin filament Composed of actin Slides past myosin
Z-Line Mark the borders of the sarcomere. Site of connection for actin. Moves closer together
M-line Midline of the sarcomere No change
I Band Contains only thin filaments Shortens
H Band Contains only thick filaments Shortens
A Band The length of the thick filaments No change

And when trying to memorize the functions of each of the above muscle components, here is one of our favorite memorization tips:

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  • “The letter H is thicker than I”
    H Band = Thick filament
    I Band = Thin filament

    “HI is short for Hello”
    H and band I shorten in contraction

A Final Word on Muscular System MCAT Questions

Scoring well on the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems section of the MCAT requires knowledge about the muscular system. Specifically, you’ll want a deep understanding of the interrelated parts and how they come together to create contraction and movement.

For more MCAT practice, check out Magoosh’s MCAT prep, which includes 380 lessons, 745+ practice questions, personalized email assistance, and more!

Happy studying and good luck!


  • Kat Thomson

    Kat is the Senior Curriculum Manager at Magoosh with a specialty in the MCAT. She has a BA from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Ph.D. in medical sociology from the University of California, San Francisco, where she earned the Distinguished Dissertation Award in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Kat has been teaching premed and nursing students since 2005 as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of San Francisco, Bowdoin, and the University of California, Berkeley, while collaborating on multiple research projects and publications. In addition to the MCAT, Kat has taught courses in Research Methods, Gender, Global and Environmental Health, and others. She is passionate about increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in medicine and helping students get into the medical schools of their dreams. You can join Kat on Instagram and YouTube.

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