We recently demonstrated that in vivo insulin resistance is not retained in cultured skeletal muscle cells. In the present study, we tested the hypothesis that treating cultured skeletal muscle cells with fatty acids has an effect on insulin action which differs between insulin-sensitive and insulin-resistant subjects. Insulin effects were examined in myotubes from 8 normoglycemic non-obese insulin-resistant and 8 carefully matched insulin-sensitive subjects after preincubation with or without palmitate, linoleate, and 2-bromo-palmitate. Insulin-stimulated glycogen synthesis decreased by 27 +/- 5 % after palmitate treatment in myotubes from insulin-resistant, but not from insulin-sensitive subjects (1.50 +/- 0.08-fold over basal vs. 1.81 +/- 0.09-fold, p = 0.042). Despite this observation, we did not find any impairment in the PI 3-kinase/PKB/GSK-3 pathway. Furthermore, insulin action was not affected by linoleate and 2-bromo-palmitate. In conclusion, our data provide preliminary evidence that insulin resistance of skeletal muscle does not necessarily involve primary defects in insulin action, but could represent susceptibility to the desensitizing effect of fatty acids and possibly other environmental or adipose tissue-derived factors.