Rhythmic motor activity requires coordination of different muscles or muscle groups so that they are all active with the same cycle duration and appropriate phase relationships. The neural mechanisms for such phase coupling in vertebrate locomotion are not known. Swimming in the lamprey is accomplished by the generation of a travelling wave of body curvature in which the phase coupling between segments is so controlled as to give approximately one full wavelength on the body at any swimming speed. This article reviews work that has combined mathematical analysis, biological experimentation and computer simulation to provide a conceptual framework within which intersegmental coordination can be investigated. Evidence is provided to suggest that in the lamprey, ascending coupling is dominant over descending coupling and controls the intersegmental phase lag during locomotion. The significance of long-range intersegmental coupling is also discussed.