In an attempt to obtain insight in the forces developed by the parasternal intercostal muscles during breathing, changes in parasternal intramuscular pressure (PIP) were measured in 14 supine anesthetized dogs using a microtransducer method. In six animals, during bilateral parasternal stimulation a linear relationship between contractile force exerted on the rib and PIP was demonstrated (r greater than 0.95). In eight animals, during quiet active inspiration, substantial (55 +/- 11.5 cmH2O) PIP was developed. During inspiratory resistive loading and airway occlusion the inspiratory rise in PIP increased in proportion to the inspiratory fall in pleural pressure (r = 0.82). Phrenicotomy and vagotomy resulted in an increase in the inspiratory rise in PIP of 21% and 99%, respectively. During passive deflation, when the parasternal intercostals were passively lengthened, large rises (320 +/- 221 cmH2O) in intramuscular pressure were observed. During passive inflation intramuscular pressure remained constant or even decreased slightly (-8 +/- 25 cmH2O) as expected on the basis of the passive shortening of the muscles. PIP thus invariably increased when tension increased either actively or passively. From PIP it is clear that the parasternals exert significant forces on the ribs during respiratory maneuvers.