This work reports on the muscle loss and recovery after 17 wk of continuous bed rest and 8 wk of reambulation in eight normal male volunteers. Muscle changes were assessed by urinary levels of 3-methylhistidine (3-MeH), nitrogen balance, dual-photon absorptiometry (DPA), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and isokinetic muscle performance. The total body lean tissue loss during bed rest calculated from nitrogen balance was 3.9 +/- 2.1 (SD) kg (P < 0.05). Although the total loss is minimal, DPA scans showed that nearly all of the lean tissue loss occurred in the lower limbs. Similarly, MRI muscle volume measurements showed greater percent loss in the limbs relative to the back muscles. MRI, DPA, and nitrogen balance suggest that muscle atrophy continued throughout bed rest with rapid recovery after reambulation. Isokinetic muscle strength decreased significantly (P < 0.05) in the thigh and calf with no loss in the arms and with rapid recovery during reambulation. We conclude that there is great variability in the degree and location of muscle loss in bed rest and that the lower limb muscles are primarily affected.