You can twist it and bend it, you can lick your lips with it. You can do all kinds of acrobatics with your tongue, but don’t attempt any feats of strength with it. Because your tongue isn’t the strongest muscle in your body.
Surprised? So were we. Why have we always thought that this muscle, though not the biggest one, is the most powerful?
And where on Your Amazing Body is the strongest muscle, anyway? Let’s take a closer look at your tongue. It’s moist, pink, and covered in thousands of taste buds. Taste buds are just collections of nerve-like cells that run from your tongue to your brain, decoding the chemical compounds of food, and translating them into the sensation of taste.
Not only does the tongue supervise your sense of taste, but also helps you eat, turning all the solid food into a mash that you can then swallow. On the less gross side, it also makes speaking possible.
This hard worker is even keeping busy while you sleep – pushing saliva down your throat, and filtering out germs with its defence cells called lingual tonsils. That’s all sounds pretty impressive for a soft patty of flesh, right? But did you know that your tongue isn’t just one muscle, but rather eight?
That’s right, there are eight muscles forming your tongue. Unlike your biceps, tongue muscles don’t grow around a supporting bone. Instead, they develop into a muscular hydrostat – structure, similar to an elephant’s trunk or an octopus’s tentacles.
Four of those tongue muscles, called extrinsic muscles, are anchoring your tongue to your head and neck. The other four muscles, the intrinsic ones, make up your tongue’s body. They let you extend and contract it and move it around in all possible ways.
Ever noticed how flexible you tongue is? Just take a moment and see for yourself. Can you even remember the last time your tongue got tired? Most likely, the answer is “no”.
This tireless flexibility may have been what convinced us of the tongue’s incredible strength. But there are lots of ways of measuring strength. And the tongue doesn’t place first in any category.
So, if tongue isn’t your strongest muscle, then what is? If you define strength by brute force, then the winner is who’s the biggest. Your muscles are bundles of individual fibers. Those fibers contain small force generating structures – sarcomeres. The more sarcomeres a muscle has, the more power it can generate.
That makes the quadriceps on the front of your thighs; and the gluteus maximus of your buttocks the biggest, most powerful muscles of all. But does size always matter? Not if you measure the strength that your muscles are pulling with.
It takes a lot of strength to pull against the force of gravity. And that’s the job for your soleus – a part of your calf muscle. It makes standing, walking, running and shaking your body on the dance floor possible.
Then there’s the prize for delivering the greatest amount of pressure and it goes to is the masseter – the main muscle in your jaw. It lets you clench your teeth with a force of 25 kg (55 lb) on the incisors, and 90 kg (200 lb) on the molars. Jaw dropping, isn’t it?
But strength isn’t always measured in brute force. What about longevity? If the criteria includes overall work done in a lifetime, then your heart wins this strength competition.
It keeps beating 24/7, pumping 60 ml (2 oz) of blood at every beat. By your 70th birthday, the hardest working muscle in your body will have squeezed out around 2.5 billion beats.
So, although it may not be the strongest muscle in the body, this tireless hydrostat will never stop working. Good thing, because it’s essential for some of your most important jobs. So make sure to ‘watch your tongue!’ And keep discovering Your Amazing Body with us.
Did you know that the ability to touch the tip of your nose with your tongue is called Gorlin sign in medicine? Are you one of the 10% of people who are able to do that? I bet you’re going to try it now!
- “Fact Or Fiction?: The Tongue Is The Strongest Muscle In The Body”. Julia Calderone, Ben Fogelson. 2014. Scientific American. Accessed January 3 2019.
- “What Is The Strongest Muscle In The Human Body? (Everyday Mysteries: Fun Science Facts From The Library Of Congress)”. 2019. loc.gov. Accessed January 3 2019.
- “Tongue”. 2019. en.wikipedia.org. Accessed January 3 2019.