Mind & Body

Your Tongue Isn't One Muscle

Which is the strongest muscle? Some people say it's your glutes. Others say it's your jaw. Still others say it's your tongue. The muscle that wins this battle all depends on your definition of "strongest," but we can definitely say which one loses. The tongue is not the strongest muscle in the body. To begin with, it's not even one muscle — it's eight.

Sally Sells Seashells

The tongue may look like one behemoth of a muscle, but it's actually a matrix of many. And while the overwhelming majority of muscles in your body attach to a bone, many of the muscles in the tongue just attach to each other. They form what's called a muscular hydrostat: the same thing as an octopus arm or an elephant trunk. (We'll pause a minute to let you shake the eerie feeling of having a tentacle for a tongue).

The four muscles in the tongue that don't attach to anything are called the intrinsic muscles. Each one travels in a different direction, which helps your tongue perform such impressive gymnastics as tying a cherry stem or licking the beaters clean. Four more muscles anchor your tongue to your head: One attaches to the base of the skull, another to the throat, one on the lower jaw, and another stretches up to the roof of your mouth. Each of these muscles is bilateral, which means they're partially separated by a center line that helps them work on both sides of your mouth.

Battle of the Brawn

Ok, so the tongue isn't one muscle; it's a muscle system. But is it the strongest muscle system in the body? You can actually measure your tongue strength — or at least its endurance — with something called an Iowa oral performance instrument, which has you place a tiny balloon on your tongue and press up on it as hard as you can (here's a demonstration).

But the pressure your tongue can exert is nothing compared to the largest muscles in your body, like your quads and your glutes. Your jaw muscle is also in the running for the body's strongest, if only because it can produce more force with less energy thanks to the fact that it's attached to a shorter lever (i.e., your jaw). The bicep, in contrast, has to lift your forearm, which is a relatively long lever that requires more energy to move.

So yes, your tongue is made of eight muscles that have more in common with a tentacle than a trapezius. It may not be special for being the strongest, but it's still special for being really, really weird.

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Written by Ashley Hamer October 20, 2017

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