After all these years of anatomical discovery, it doesn’t appear as if any true consensus has been reached as it pertains to how many muscles are present in the human body. Through what I’ve gleaned from internet searches, the most precise answer is 639, but enough sources have proposed estimates of “over 650,” “around 700” and “more than 700” that I’m hesitant to put much stock into it.
So let’s just say that there are at least 639 muscles in the human body. Because even on the low end of things, we have our work cut out for us as we sift through several hundreds of muscles to identify the one that provides us with the most prodigious source of anatomical might.
This should be an easy answer to provide, right?
Well, wait a second — don’t you want to hear the smart-ass answers first?
What do you mean by smart-ass answers?
You know the answers I’m talking about. Like how the tongue is the strongest muscle in the body because it has the ability to build someone up or tear them down. There’s also the one about how every time a muscle is torn it grows back stronger, and therefore, the folks who have had their hearts broken repeatedly have hearts that are now the strongest muscles in their bodies.
But I’ve heard that the heart actually is the strongest muscle in the body.
No, but people would like it to be for symbolic purposes. It’s certainly the hardest-working muscle in the body since it pumps blood incessantly, and if your heart ever decided it wanted just 20 minutes off to take a quick lunch break, your best-case scenario involves a diagnosis of irreparable brain damage.
Still, we should probably agree right now that if we want to assign a winner to this contest, we’re talking about selecting a muscle based on the total amount of force it provides against a surface. We’re not taking this opportunity to wax philosophically about the emotional significance of certain muscles, or to bestow what would be tantamount to a literal lifetime achievement award upon the heart.
Fair enough. So what are our contenders?
We’ve really only got two or three solid contenders for the title of “Strongest Muscle in the Body” that would capture the intended spirit of the honor.
The first is the masseter muscle in the jaw, because it produces the largest amount of measurable force of any single muscle in the body. Interestingly, there’s a strong correlation between biting strength and back development. That’s right: If you ever find yourself suffering from a perceived paucity of jaw strength, you should start cranking out pull-ups by the dozen.
In terms of the actual force the masseter is capable of producing, it’s been estimated that some people are capable of generating 700 newtons while chewing, which is a measurement of force equivalent to 157 pounds (and which has zero to do with eating Fig Newtons). Not too shabby for a muscle that’s barely more than an inch long.
A jaw muscle? That’s lame! What about a muscle with strength that I can show off at the beach?
I get it. I’ve never seen anyone hanging weight plates from a jaw harness to boost their mandibular power either.
So in this case, we can shift our attention to the glutes and focus on the gluteus maximus, which is the largest muscle in the body, and arguably the strongest in a rational sense. It plays a featured role in all of the explosive or load-bearing functions of the lower body.
The rectus femoris in the quadriceps muscle group is also a contender for the top spot on our list. Its strength is most adequately assessed with knee-extension movements, and best evidenced through actions like the snapping of a kick that strikes a soccer ball.
However, one of the problems with declaring either of these muscles to be the strongest is that they’re never truly isolated. Because your legs are so tightly packed and arranged to function in groups, it’s very difficult to determine the precise force that an isolated leg muscle is contributing toward a lift, jump or any other athletic endeavor. That said, their collective strength is visible in their ability to commonly enable weightlifters with legs of unimpressive size to leg press more than 1,000 pounds after only a moderate amount of lower-body strength training. Trust me: My chicken legs have been there.
So what answer should I provide if this comes up during a trivia contest?
Go with the masseter. On the basis of its size, and in relation to its proven application of force in comparison with other muscles that are capable of being isolated and having their strength measured, the masseter is the most technically correct.
And to provide one last smart-ass answer, maybe it can even save you from biting off more than you can chew.