The influence of obesity on the lipolytic capacity of isolated sc fat cells was studied prospectively in 13 women and 10 men, all obese, but otherwise healthy, before and 2 and 3 yr after weight reduction by bariatric surgery. Nonobese subjects (25 women and 17 men) without a family history of obesity served as the control group. Lipolytic capacity was determined after stimulation at different steps of the lipolytic cascade with noradrenaline, isoprenaline, forskolin, and (Bu)(2)AMP. Bariatric surgery was followed by a marked and similar reduction of body mass index and fat cell volume (approximately 40%) in both genders. Before weight loss, lipolytic capacity per cell was elevated in obese women and decreased to normal levels after weight reduction at 2 and 3 yr. However, lipolytic capacity per fat cell surface area was not changed in obese women. In obese men, lipolytic capacity per cell was almost the same as in lean men and was not influenced by weight reduction. Lipolytic capacity was related to fat cell size in women (P = 0.0008; r = 0.58), but not in men (P = 0.67; r = 0.086). The protein content of hormone-sensitive lipase, which determines lipolytic capacity, was significantly lower in obese men and women and increased slightly after weight reduction in men only. Thus, in women, but not in men, the adipocyte lipolytic capacity is influenced by obesity and weight reduction, probably due to changes in fat cell size. These gender differences are not related to the amount of hormone-sensitive lipase protein in adipocytes.