The concept of the adult tissue stem cell is fundamental to models of persistent renewal in functionally post-mitotic tissues. Although relatively ignored by stem cell biology, skeletal muscle is a prime example of an adult tissue that can generate terminally differentiated cells uniquely specialized to carry out tissue-specific functions. This capacity is attributed to satellite cells, a population of undifferentiated, quiescent precursors that become activated to divide and differentiate in response to the demands of growth or damage. The aim of this review is to discuss the role of the satellite cell as an adult tissue-specific stem cell. We examine evidence for the presence of behaviourally and phenotypically distinct subpopulations of precursor within the satellite cell pool. Further, we speculate on the possible identity, origins and relevance of multipotent muscle stem cells, a population with both myogenic and hematopoietic potentials that has been isolated from whole muscle. Taken together, current evidence suggests the possibility that the regenerative compartment of adult skeletal muscle may conform to an archetypal stem cell-based hierarchy, maintained within a stem cell niche. It therefore remains to be seen whether all satellite cells are skeletal muscle-specific stem cells, or whether some or all are the progeny of an as yet unidentified muscle stem cell.