Air muscles (also known as a McKibben artificial muscle or braided pneumatic actuators) were originally developed by J.L. McKibben in the 1950's as an orthotic appliance for polio patients.
Here's how they work:
The muscle consists of a rubber tube (bladder or core) that is surrounded by a tubular braided fiber mesh sleeve. When the bladder is inflated the mesh expands radially and contracts axially (since the mesh fibers are inextensible), shortening the overall length of the muscle and subsequently producing a pulling force.
Air muscles have performance characteristics very similar to human muscles- the force exerted decreases as the muscle contracts. This is due to the change in the interweave angle of the braided mesh as the muscle contracts- as the mesh expands radially in a scissors like motion it exerts less force due to the weave angle becoming increasingly shallow as the muscle contracts (see the diagram below- figure A shows that the muscle will contract to a greater degree than figure C given an equal increase in bladder pressure).The videos show this effect as well. Air muscles can contract up to 40% of their length, depending on the method and materials of their construction.
Gas law states that if you increase pressure you also increase the volume of an expandable cylinder (provided temperature is constant.) The expanding volume of the bladder is ultimately constrained by the physical properties of the braided mesh sleeve so in order to create a greater pulling force you need to be able to increase the effective volume of the bladder- the pulling force of the muscle is a function of the length and diameter of the muscle as well as its ability to contract due to the properties of the mesh sleeve (construction material, number of fibers, interweave angle) and bladder material.
I constructed two different sized muscles using similar materials to demonstrate this principle- they both were operated at the same air pressure (60psi) but had different diameters and lengths. The small muscle really starts to struggle when some weight is put on it while the larger muscle has no problems at all.
Here are a couple of videos showing both of the constructed air muscles in action.
Now let's go make some muscles!