1. For animals of all ages, during activation of skeletal muscles and the subsequent contraction, the balance between the force developed by the muscle and the external load determines whether the muscle shortens, remains at fixed length (isometric) or is lengthened. With maximum activation, the force developed is least during shortening, intermediate when muscle length is fixed and greatest during lengthening contractions. During lengthening contractions, when force is high, muscles may be injured by the contractions. 2. 'Frailty' and 'failure to thrive' are most frequently observed in elderly, physically inactive people. A 'frail' person is defined as one of small stature, with muscles that are atrophied, weak and easily fatigued. The condition of 'failure to thrive' is typified by a lack of response to well-designed programmes of nutrition and physical activity. 3. With ageing, skeletal muscle atrophy in humans appears to be inevitable. A gradual loss of muscle fibres begins at approximately 50 years of age and continues such that by 80 years of age, approximately 50% of the fibres are lost from the limb muscles that have been studied. For both humans and rats, the observation that the timing and magnitude of the loss of motor units is similar to that for muscle fibres suggests that the mechanism responsible for the loss of fibres and the loss of whole motor units is the same. The degree of atrophy of the fibres that remain is largely dependent on the habitual level of physical activity of the individual. 4. 'Master athletes' maintain a high level of fitness throughout their lifespan. Even among master athletes, performance of marathon runners and weight lifters declines after approximately 40 years of age, with peak levels of performance decreased by approximately 50% by 80 years of age. The success of the master athletes and of previously sedentary elderly who undertake well-designed, carefully administered training programmes provide dramatic evidence that age-associated atrophy, weakness and fatigability can be slowed, but not halted.