When you speculate as to what might be the smallest muscle in the body, the temptation may be to first consider something like the muscles in your calves or forearms — areas of your body that you regard in a secondary or tertiary manner, and that you train according to that categorization. After all, no one of sound mind ever goes to the gym and trains only their calves or their forearms; if they train those muscle groups at all, it’s usually during leg and arms workouts (respectively), and usually following the targeting of the much larger muscle groups in each of those areas.
But in reality, your calves and forearms are gigantic compared to what actually constitutes your body’s smallest muscles.
Where is the most minuscule muscle, and how do I go about flexing it?
First of all, the smallest muscle in your body isn’t something capable of being flexed, prominently displayed through the shimmering sweat of a post-workout pump, or showcased at a New Jersey beachfront. In fact, it probably isn’t something that would immediately register in your brain as being a muscle in the first place. More than likely, you’d dismiss it as being a nerve of some kind.
Unless ears start becoming the sexiest, trendiest new body part, it would probably never dawn on you that your ear is fashioned out of several muscles, and that the smallest muscle in the human body would rest within the middle portion of it, with a length of just over one millimeter. The stapedius is a skeletal muscle — meaning that it attaches to a bone by a tendon — and is also striated. It’s appropriately partnered with the smallest bone in the body, which is the stapes bone, and its role is to stabilize the stapes.
That sounds totally underwhelming and unimpressive. What am I supposed to do with an ear muscle?
The better question is: What would you do without it? For starters, your life would quickly start to suck, and you’d descend into an irrecoverable state of madness as every single noise generated in your surrounding environment would suddenly ring deafeningly in your eardrum. That’s because the stapedius reins in the stapes, thereby keeping sound-induced vibrations under control. Otherwise, the freely floating stapes would cause all noises to register within your eardrum as intolerably loud.
How did people even discover this thing if it’s so tiny?
The stapedius actually took quite a while to locate within the panoply of human anatomy, and then took even longer to gain acceptance for what it rightfully is: the most miniature of muscles.
Even though publications like the San Francisco Call were reporting by 1910 that the stapedius was the tiniest muscle in the body, it appears that some people didn’t welcome that news because there wasn’t an interesting hook to it. Nearly two decades later in 1929, several papers of the era, including the Daily Oklahoman and the Okmulgee Daily Times, still reported with confidence that the levator labii superioris alaeque nasi, positioned in the upper lip and close to the nose, was the smallest muscle in the body. Their joy in reporting this was driven by the ironic angle that the smallest muscle in the body also had the longest name of any muscle. It was sort of like the joy in Spud Webb — the shortest player in the NBA at 5-foot-7 — reigning for a season as the Slam Dunk Champion. People were honestly annoyed when the even smaller Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues ruined a portion of that narrative when his 5-foot-3 physique was drafted into the NBA after the following season.
Anyway, it wasn’t until 1942, during the heart of World War II, that the stapedius was widely reported to be the rightful owner of the smallest-muscle crown thanks to scientific testing that unveiled its full significance. As a sign of the times — and a reminder of just how broad the scope of news coverage has been at different moments in human history — the discovery of the stapedius’ true function was reported by The Gazette and Daily (“Muscle of Ear Protection Against Excessive Noise”), and was featured just above an editorial about a psychiatrist predicting the crushing depression that would overcome the German people when they learned of their inferiority (“Nazis Due for Shock When They Learn They Are Not Super Race”).
Knowing this doesn’t leave me feeling better equipped to dominate in the weight room.
No, but you’re better equipped to win a trivia contest. You’re right, though: I can’t say this information is going to prove to be very beneficial for you in the gym. If you’ve reached the point in your fitness progression where you can now focus your strength-training efforts on the muscles of your ear, you’re either delusional, or you’re ready to compete for Mr. Olympia. Whatever the case, it’s unlikely “sun’s out, guns out” is gonna become “sun’s out, stapedius out” anytime soon.