Previous studies have used the muscle concentration of citrate + malate + fumarate to estimate tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle pool size in humans [e.g., Am. J. Physiol. 259 (Cell Physiol. 28): C834-C841, 1990]. Our purpose was to quantify changes in individual TCA cycle intermediates (TCAI) and total pool size by measuring the concentrations of the eight TCAI in human muscle. Eight males cycled to exhaustion (Exh) at approximately 70% of their maximal oxygen uptake, and biopsies were obtained from the vastus lateralis at rest and during exercise. Succinyl-CoA was not consistently detectable, but the sum of the other seven TCAI was 1.23 +/- 0.04 mmol/kg dry wt at rest, 4.80 +/- 0.25 and 4.87 +/- 0.30 mmol/kg after 5 and 15 min of exercise, respectively, and 3.08 +/- 0.15 mmol/kg at Exh. Pool size during exercise was approximately 50% higher than that seen in rodent muscle after intense electrical stimulation (Eur. J. Biochem. 110: 371-377, 1980). Relative changes in individual TCAI were not uniform, and no one intermediate was "representative" of the changes in total pool size. We conclude that changes in specific intermediates or total pool size cannot be used as indicators of cycle flux and that the apparent species differences in total pool size may reflect differences in fiber type composition, recruitment pattern, or relative intensity of contraction.