Advances in Physiology Education

Hand-held model of a sarcomere to illustrate the sliding filament mechanism in muscle contraction

Karnyupha Jittivadhna, Pintip Ruenwongsa, Bhinyo Panijpan


From our teaching of the contractile unit of the striated muscle, we have found limitations in using textbook illustrations of sarcomere structure and its related dynamic molecular physiological details. A hand-held model of a striated muscle sarcomere made from common items has thus been made by us to enhance students' understanding of the sliding filament mechanism as well as their appreciation of the spatial arrangements of the thick and thin filaments. The model proves to be quite efficacious in dispelling some alternative conceptions held by students exposed previously only to two-dimensional textbook illustrations and computer graphic displays. More importantly, after being taught by this hand-held device, electronmicrographic features of the A and I bands, H zone, and Z disk can be easily correlated by the students to the positions of the thick and thin elements relatively sliding past one another. The transverse expansion of the sarcomere and the constancy of its volume upon contraction are also demonstrable by the model.

  • myofilament lattice
  • contraction mechanism
  • actin
  • myosin
  • learning tool

educational media on muscle physiology are presented to students in many different forms, such as in textbooks, with CD-ROMs, and by tutorials on the internet. Three-dimensional (3-D) anatomic models have also been developed to demonstrate the workings of the musculoskeletal system. However, to our knowledge, there are no publications in science educational journals on 3-D pedagogical models that illustrate the mechanism operating at the cellular level. Thus, the majority of basic structural illustrations of muscle contraction are two-dimensional (2-D) schematic representations, static computer models, and simple graphic animations.

In our teaching of first- and second-year undergraduates in biology and life sciences, we have found that most of them harbor misconceptions that are attributable to previous exposures to 2-D illustrations. These schematic representations usually show the typical view of the sarcomere in longitudinal sections with or without the transverse view, making a large number of students consider the muscle sarcomere as a thin flat sheet. Moreover, some students even see muscle contraction as that of exactly one sarcomere. Another alarming finding is that in drawing the sliding-filament model, sarcomere shortening is quite commonly portrayed as a decrease of the volume of the whole sarcomere because the transverse thickening is ignored. The latter representation cannot capture the more correct sarcomere bulging upon its shortening. Morton and others (10) have recently reported some common misconceptions, e.g., the mechanic of muscle contraction among sport exercise science students. The prevalence of misconceptions in students from primary to tertiary levels indicates that the generally available classroom teaching materials do not appear to achieve the desired outcomes. Thus, it would be desirable to have learning tools to remedy the situation.

As part of an effort to introduce beginning students to fundamental concepts in muscle contraction, we developed a simple, inexpensive, movable 3-D model of the sarcomere to facilitate the understanding of the sliding-filament mechanism and sarcomere transverse expansion. Here, we describe how to assemble the model using common and inexpensive materials and ways to show its molecular physiological details for different target audience students. The educational efficacy of the model is also discussed.


Assembling the model.

A 3-D model for teaching the mechanics of muscle contraction (Fig. 1A) was designed to overcome the limitations of 2-D textbook or graphic illustrations in terms of the end-on arrangement of the filament lattice of the sarcomere, the striation change accompanying the change in sarcomere length, and the relatively constant volume of a sarcomere throughout this change in length. To build a model of one sarcomeric unit, the following materials are needed: 3 circle-cut clear acrylic plates of 11.5 cm in diameter, 48 balloon sticks of 11 cm long each, 48 pieces of 1-in. screws that fit the balloon sticks, 14 balloon sticks of 8 cm long, 14 stiff wires that snugly fit the 8-cm balloon sticks (12 cm long), 7 plastic pipes (15 mm × 18 cm), 14 pieces of foam rubber (5 × 5 cm), 14 plastic spring key chains, and 6 strips of clear plastic sheetings (6 × 33 cm). These materials are shown in Fig. 1C.

Fig. 1.

The sarcomere model. A: longitudinal features. B: end-on view. C: component parts for fabricating the model.

The construction of the model starts with the two end plates representing the Z disk. Figure 2 shows a filament lattice of the vertebrate striated muscle in the overlap region of the sarcomere (9). Thick filaments are represented by solid circles and thin filaments are represented by smaller open circles (Fig. 2). To prepare the Z disk structure, the arrangement of the two filaments is marked on two circle-cut clear plastic plates together with seven extra dots laid closely to the thick filament marks. Holes are drilled through these marks on the 2 end plates, giving rise to 7 holes for the stiff wires and 7 spring holes at which the coil-spring structures representing titin are inserted and 24 screw holes at which the balloon sticks of 11 cm long representing the thin filaments are finally secured. To prepare the M line structure, the hexagonal arrangement of the thick filament is marked on the third circle-cut clear plastic plate. Drilling through the marked positions provides seven holes through which the plastic pipes representing the thick filaments are inserted and fixed in place with a light coat of Super Glue.

Fig. 2.

Diagram of the filament lattice of vertebrate striated muscle in the overlap region of the sarcomeres (9). Thick filaments are represented by solid circles; thin filaments are represented by smaller open circles.

Each coil-spring structure representing titin is made from a plastic coil, an 8-cm-long balloon stick, thick and stiff wires that snugly fit inside the hollow balloon stick, and foam rubber. Fabrication of the titin begins by wrapping the foam rubber around one end of the balloon stick associated with an end of the plastic spring and then inserting the wrapping into the pipe so that the balloon stick is embedded and the spring projects outward. The stiff wire as the inner core of the coil spring structure is inserted into the hollow of the balloon stick and fixed to the end plate at the drilled holes marked for the thick filament by flattening its outer end. The spring responsible for the elasticity of the model extends from the end of the thick filament and is inserted into its hole on the end plate. It is important that the balloon stick embedded in the pipe should be sized to closely accommodate the stiff wires so as to keep the stiff wires moving straight when the sliding of myofilaments is demonstrated. Fixing and inserting all components should be made from the inner part to the outer part of model. Strips of clear plastic sheetings representing the side wall of each sarcomere are screw fixed to the end plates and used to demonstrate the transverse dimensional change of the sarcomere upon a change in length.

Student use of the model.

Our sarcomere model has been used for instructing students from secondary to tertiary levels. Apart from classroom usage, the model has been displayed in the university's Open House exhibitions on science and technology, giving secondary students the opportunity to participate in the model handling activity. All participants were organized into groups of two to four students during 45 min of the learning period. Generally, students were first engaged with the idea that all skeletal muscles operate by shortening. Students were then encouraged to discuss other ways that the muscle can perform work. Verbal answers were in the form of arguments and defenses. After the discussion group, student volunteers, having previously been exposed to textbook presentations of sarcomere contraction during their earlier school years, were checked for their prior knowledge before starting the model handling activity (pretest). All students were then allowed to manipulate the model themselves in groups under the instructor's guidance, gave reasoned arguments about some structural attributes of the model, and corrected their misunderstandings. At this stage, only students who took the pretest survey were again given another survey (posttest). During the following instructional period, students were made to realize that the contractile units of the muscle scale from the sarcomere level up to the whole muscle fiber level and again up to the level of an entire recruitment group of motor units. All of the sarcomeres in such a group are assumed to operate homogeneously, with similar activation, lengths, and velocity (13). A single sarcomere can thus be construed to represent groups of a similar motor unit type.

Evaluating the model.

To assess the educational potential of the model, a seven-item multiple-choice questionnaire, incorporating some common student misconceptions from the authors' experiences, was administered as the pretest and posttest, with both containing the same questions. These are questions on the contractile machinery of a sarcomere, the occurrence in a sarcomere during a normal contraction and relaxation of the muscle, and the volume change in sarcomere shortening (Fig. 3). Students participated in this study voluntarily and anonymously, and each student was provided with a written consent form. Each student answered the questions individually, but they were allowed to discuss the material as a group of two to four students. During the pretest, students were also allowed to consult the textbooks provided for them. To avoid the problem of interference between the pretest and posttest, students had to return the pretest sheet to the instructor before model handling activities, and no corrections were made in the meantime. Feedback from the students was collected at the end of the activity session by means of informal interviews to learn about the usefulness of the model.

Fig. 3.

Questions and responses to the pretest and posttest.


Features and durability of the model.

The 3-D model of the sarcomere so designed is roughly cylindrical when stretched as the side wall (made from strips of clear plastic sheetings) straightens (Fig. 1A). This model has ordered arrangements of the thick and thin filaments in a functional contractile unit of the muscle between two Z disks. The order in contractile assemblies is brought about by the sarcomeric Z disks and M line structures. The M line in the middle is seen as a transverse band that hemisects the sarcomere and is responsible for the packing of the thick filaments, as described in the literature (12). The thick filaments are arranged in register in the center of the sarcomere, forming an A band and having twofold rotation axes: flipping the picture of a sarcomere around an axis by 180° yields an identical picture. The actin-containing thin filaments are attached to the Z disks at either end of the sarcomere organizing radially around each thick filament (4). The end-on view of the sarcomere model shows one thick filament surrounded by six thin filaments hexagonally arranged and one thin filament surrounded by three equidistant thick filaments triangularly arranged (9) (Fig. 1B). Thus, the thin filaments order themselves side by side on their own in the I bands and then overlap with the thick filaments in peripheral regions of the A band and terminate just before the center of the sarcomere, leaving a gap of the H zone (4). The model also includes an additional coil-spring structure, simulating the giant protein titin (8), which provides the backbone to the sarcomere. Titins in the A band region are integral with the thick filament, whereas the titin part between the end of the thick filament and Z disk is attached to Z disks at the two ends of the model.

Sarcomere contraction can be demonstrated by pushing the two Z disks inward (Fig. 4). During sarcomere shortening, the thin filaments of the I band move toward the center of the thick filaments of the A band. This leads to a reduction of the I band and H zone, whereas the A band remains relatively the same. The distance between the Z disk and the edge of the H zone also remains constant at all stages during the process. Displaced volume during sarcomere shortening is represented by the widening of the midpoint radius of a bulge of the side wall.

Fig. 4.

In the constant-volume sarcomere contraction, the redistributed volume is shown by the widening of the midpoint radius of a bulge of the side wall.

A repeating linear array of sarcomeres along a single myofibril is presented to the students as a linear arrangement of individual models connected through a zigzag pattern of a spring that simulates the simplified elastic Z filaments (Fig. 5A). The linker between two models is constructed based on the ultrastructure of the Z disk featuring the cross-link filaments, α-actinin Z filaments that maintain diametrically opposed thin filaments (7).

Fig. 5.

Models showing a repeating linear array of sarcomeres. A: two adjacent sarcomeres connected through elastic cross-links. B: simultaneous shortening of the sarcomere showing stretching of the elastic cross-links.

Simultaneous shortening of the sarcomere can be demonstrated by having some students pushing together a series of spring-linked model of sarcomeres. In this activity, students will learn that during muscle contraction, the Z disks still form the fixed points at the ends of the sarcomere to which the actin filaments are attached, and this occurs by the stretching of elastic Z filament during force production (Fig. 5B).

This model, used by us as a teaching tool for various groups of large number of students, has proved to be durable since it has been used for >5 yr with ∼600 students and does not require elaborate maintenance. The most important aspect of ensuring the physical durability of our model is the strength of the plastic spring that is responsible for connecting the thick filament with the Z disk structures and conferring much of the elasticity.

Student perceptions of the model.

Secondary and tertiary students that participated in the model-handling activity responded positively to the model. The majority of students remarked during the activity that they preferred the 3-D model to static 2-D textbook presentations for the following three reasons. The first is that the model, in a more concrete manner, helps the students learn the relative longitudinal arrangement of the myofilaments when the sarcomere is in the relaxed or contracted position. The second is that when handled, even if it is not exactly the same as the process in the muscle, it is much easier to visualize the sliding filament and to appreciate that the sarcomere maintains a constant volume throughout changes in sarcomere length. Finally, this model of the sarcomere is novel to the students and facilitates learning in an interesting and realistic way.

Efficacy of the model as a teaching tool.

The model evaluation has so far involved 343 students (278 high school students from public and private schools and 65 undergraduates from public universities). Survey questions and responses are shown in Fig. 3. The findings from the pretest survey showed that 158 (46.1%), 75 (21.9%), 197 (57.4%), 187 (54.5%), 21 (6.1%), 117 (34.1%), and 23 (6.7%) participating students provided the correct answers to questions 1–7, respectively. To investigate the enhanced understanding, the participating students again completed a posttest survey during the manipulation of model. From the posttest survey, 301 (87.8%), 329 (95.9%), 343 (100%), 343 (100%), 331 (96.5%), 306 (89.2%), and 323 (94.2%) participating students provided the correct responses for questions 1–7.

The students' ability to correctly answer the questions on the posttest showed a dramatic improvement over their responses on the pretest, which contained the same questions on the arrangement of sarcomeres within a single myofibril, the contractile machinery of a sarcomere, the spatial arrangement of the thick and thin filaments, the occurrence in a sarcomere during a normal contraction and relaxation of the muscle, and the displaced volume in sarcomere shortening.


Our low-cost, home-made tangible sarcomere model provides a mechanical 3-D model of the sarcomere for learning the mechanism by which a sarcomere contracts and returns to a normal relaxed position. Changes in the banding pattern of the model that accompany the changes in sarcomere length fit the sliding filament model proposed independently by Andrew Huxley and Rolf Niedergerke and by Hugh Huxley and Jean Hanson in 1954 (2, 6). Their model has formed the basis for a hypothesis known as the sliding filament theory of muscle contraction. A caveat to note here is that in this activity, the model handler actively pushes the Z disks; in actual muscle cells, the relative motion of the Z disks as a result of the sliding between the thick and thin filaments is an internal energy-driven process during muscle contraction (4).

Upon contraction, each striated muscle structure changes its length but maintains its volume almost perfectly, as seen in the bulging of the flexed biceps. Consistent with this fact, the myofibril sarcomere thickens as it shortens and also appears to maintain a constant volume accounting for axial tension (1). This mechanism requires the presence of a flexible boundary at the surface of muscle fiber, that is, the sarcolemma, to serve as a container for maintaining the constant volume but not for transmitting active tension; this is accomplished by means of the intermolecular forces of the sarcoplasmic fluid (11). The volume redistribution in the sarcomere, in reality, is shown by the thickening of the longitudinal section (1) and the change in packing density of the filament lattice (3, 5). Our model suffers from some shortcomings, such as the change in transverse spacings between the filaments during sarcomere contraction/relaxation; instead, the displaced volume in sarcomere shortening can only be seen by the bulging of the midpoint of the side wall. Also, the closer spacings of boundary thick filaments cannot be shown. Limitations such as these need to be explicitly discussed with students whenever this movable model is used.

If one wishes, the volume (V) of a sarcomere can be reasonably determined from this model by the following equation: V = π × r2 × l (cross-sectional area times sarcomere length), where r is the radius of the myofibril cylinder (midpoint radius of an arc formed by the side walls) and l is the length of sarcomere. Any larger segment of the myofilament lattice can also reasonably be determined by this formula. Incidentally, the energetics of a pressure-volume work at a constant volume would be simplified by having one of the variable constants.

Our 3-D hand-held sarcomere model has proven to be quite efficacious in dispelling some alternative conceptions held by students previously exposed to only 2-D textbook illustrations and computer graphic displays. A large majority of students no longer consider the sarcomere as a thin flat sheet, view muscle contraction as that of exactly one sarcomere, or assume that the myofilaments shorten during a contraction. This physical representation can also capture the more correct sarcomere bulging upon its shortening. This model is appropriate for frequent interactive teaching with various groups of students, since it is easy to handle, robust, and does not require elaborate maintenance.

In addition to the model above, we have supported our students with a Thai language multimedia CD, which provides information and explanations on various aspects of muscle physiology and other actin-based macromolecular movements. The multimedia CD also contains a FLASH animation simulating graphically the dynamism of the sarcomere, especially the relative movement of the filaments and their “3-D” arrangements. We also included several types of questions to which students have to respond. Answers and feedbacks are provided where appropriate.


This work was supported by a graduate fellowship from the Tertiary Education Commission, Ministry of Education (to K. Jittivadhna).


The authors thank Pitakpong Kompudsa and Jiraporn Thanpaew (Institute for Innovative Learning, Mahidol University) for the generosity in providing technical support.


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