Evidence has accumulated that activation of AMP kinase (AMPK) mediates the acute increase in glucose transport induced by exercise. As the exercise-induced, insulin-independent increase in glucose transport wears off, it is followed by an increase in muscle insulin sensitivity. The major purpose of this study was to determine whether hypoxia and 5-aminoimidazole-4-carboxamide-1-beta-D-ribofuranoside (AICAR), which also activate AMPK and stimulate glucose transport, also induce an increase in insulin sensitivity. We found that the increase in glucose transport in response to 30 microU/ml insulin was about twofold greater in rat epitrochlearis muscles that had been made hypoxic or treated with AICAR 3.5 h previously than in untreated control muscles. This increase in insulin sensitivity was similar to that induced by a 2-h bout of swimming or 10 min of in vitro electrically stimulated contractions. Neither phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase activity nor protein kinase B (PKB) phosphorylation in response to 30 microU/ml insulin was enhanced by prior exercise or AICAR treatment that increased insulin sensitivity of glucose transport. Inhibition of protein synthesis by inclusion of cycloheximide in the incubation medium for 3.5 h after exercise did not prevent the increase in insulin sensitivity. Contractions, hypoxia, and treatment with AICAR all caused a two- to three-fold increase in AMPK activity over the resting level. These results provide evidence that the increase in insulin sensitivity of muscle glucose transport that follows exercise is mediated by activation of AMPK and involves a step beyond PKB in the pathway by which insulin stimulates glucose transport.