I have an idea for a story where humans on a low g planet with a dense atmosphere wear artificial wings to fly. I know that muscles they would use to produce a flight stroke would be in the upper body, specifically in the chest, arms, shoulders, and back, but what individual muscles would make the motion?

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    $\begingroup$ Googe "chest muscle", "shoulder muscle" and "back muscles". $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ If you have artificial wings why do you need any muscles to trigger flight action. Human's tend to use arm, leg and finger controls and have started to develop eye control technology. We do best with fingers, hands and arms for such controls. We'd probably even use AI to interpret our flight requirements. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 1:21
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    $\begingroup$ Note: the actual answer would be "all of them." Such a motion would quickly be optimized to take advantage of every bit of muscle strength that could be brought to bear. For some tangentally-related prior art, take a look at the sculling motion used to handle an oar. It is beautifully designed to transfer action through several parts of the body, always using each part for maximum impact. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 1:58
  • $\begingroup$ As another prior art, look at the upper body of a competitive butterfly swimmer. Try to find a weak muscle anywhere. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 2:00
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    $\begingroup$ The idea is discussed in this question in space exploration stack exchange space.stackexchange.com/questions/4701/… & used by Robert Heinlein in his story "the menace from earth" google.co.uk/… perhaps not to the extent of discussing in depth the specific muscles used, though Heinlein does use fingers to control individual flight feathers in his wing suits. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 10:00

3 Answers 3


As is the case with birds and bats, the Pectoralis Major and Pectoralis Minor muscles would be responsible for the downward stroke of the arms/wings.

Thi Infraspinatus is responsible for the upward stroke of the arms/wings, and the Rhomboid Major and Rhomboid Minor are responsible for pulling the scapula toward the spine.

The Deltoids would be responsible for raising the arms out to the sides of the body, but would not provide motive force.

See https://www.healthline.com/human-body-maps/shoulder-muscles


Its a big list.

  • Pectoralis major&minor.
  • Deltoïdeus
  • Trapezius
  • Subscapularis
  • Teres major&minor
  • Supraspinatus
  • Infraspinatus
  • Levator scapulae
  • Triceps brachii caput longum
  • Biceps brachii (breve and longum)
  • Subclavius
  • Rhomboideus minor&major

These are all directly going to be doing the wing movements (might have missed a few Sobotta isnt super easy to read at times) but the list is going to triple when you add indirect muscles like the serratus anterior that will stabilize the chest and prevent the direct muscles to pull bones and ligaments out of alignment.


All mammals and even birds share a common build.

They all have a spine with a rib cage, 2 anterior limbs and 2 posterior limbs. In some mammals the limbs changed to act as a wing or a fluke, but the basic blueprint is still the same.

The same applies to muscles. Depending on the lifestyle and movements of the animal, some muscles are bigger and stronger than in other species, but there are no additional muscles in places where other species don't have any.

So you can compare the muscles that birds and bats use to fly.

  • If your humans had wings shaped like bird wings (with uplift and gliding capabilities) they would mainly use the muscles in their chests.
  • If your humans had wings shaped like bat wings (thin membrane between flexible fingers) they would use the muscles in their chests and back.

Because the actual muscles depend on the form of your wings, I won't give you a list of individual muscle names. You have to do that research on your own.

But keep in mind that the bones of birds are much more lightweight than those of humans and the wingspan is much longer than the body length in birds and bats. So building individual wings like Ikarus probably won't work, even in an environment with less gravity. The wings probably need to be connected by springs or some other features that conserve energy and make it easier for humans to stay in the air.

  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps interesting because of your "lower gravity" comment: what-if.xkcd.com/30 $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 9:49
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    $\begingroup$ There's another problem with giving humans artifical muscle-powered wings. The wings need to be pretty close to the center of gravity, but in humans, that's located roughly at the navel, not at the arms. Look at pictures of birds in flight (remembering that feathers don't weigh much), or pictures of humans using hang gliders. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 19:26

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