The present study was conducted to determine the pattern of activation of the anterolateral abdominal muscles during the cough reflex. Electromyograms (EMGs) of the rectus abdominis, external oblique, internal oblique, transversus abdominis, and parasternal muscles were recorded along with gastric pressure in anesthetized cats. Cough was produced by mechanical stimulation of the lumen of the intrathoracic trachea or larynx. The pattern of EMG activation of these muscles during cough was compared with that during graded expiratory threshold loading (ETL; 1-30 cmH(2)O). ETL elicited differential recruitment of abdominal muscle EMG activity (transversus abdominis > internal oblique > rectus abdominis congruent with external oblique). In contrast, both laryngeal and tracheobronchial cough resulted in simultaneous activation of all four anterolateral abdominal muscles with peak EMG amplitudes 3- to 10-fold greater than those observed during the largest ETL. Gastric pressures during laryngeal and tracheobronchial cough were at least eightfold greater than those produced by the largest ETL. These results suggest that, unlike their behavior during expiratory loading, the anterolateral abdominal muscles act as a unit during cough.