The capacity of inspiratory muscles to generate esophageal pressure at several lung volumes from functional residual capacity (FRC) to total lung capacity (TLC) and several flow rates from zero to maximal flow was measured in five normal subjects. Static capacity was 126 +/- 14.6 cmH2O at FRC, remained unchanged between 30 and 55% TLC, and decreased to 40 +/- 6.8 cmH2O at TLC. Dynamic capacity declined by a further 5.0 +/- 0.35% from the static pressure at any given lung volume for every liter per second increase in inspiratory flow. The subjects underwent progressive incremental exercise to maximum power and achieved 1,800 +/- 45 kpm/min and maximum O2 uptake of 3,518 +/- 222 ml/min. During exercise peak esophageal pressure increased from 9.4 +/- 1.81 to 38.2 +/- 5.70 cmH2O and end-inspiratory esophageal pressure increased from 7.8 +/- 0.52 to 22.5 +/- 2.03 cmH2O from rest to maximum exercise. Because the estimated capacity available to meet these demands is critically dependent on end-inspiratory lung volume, the changes in lung volume during exercise were measured in three of the subjects using He dilution. End-expiratory volume was 52.3 +/- 2.42% TLC at rest and 38.5 +/- 0.79% TLC at maximum exercise.