The circadian rhythm in muscle strength was analysed in 12 males (28 +/- 4 years, 79.6 +/- 12.3 kg, 1.80 +/- 0.05 m) and eight females (28 +/- 4 years, 60.3 +/- 5.5 kg, 1.61 +/- 0.08 m). After two familiarization sessions, participants were tested at six different times of the day (02:00, 06:00, 10:00, 14:00, 18:00 and 22:00 hours), the order of which was randomly assigned over 3-4 days. Rectal temperature (T(rec)) was measured over 30 min before each test. Peak isokinetic torques (PT) of knee extensors and flexors were then measured at 1.05 rad s(-1) and 3.14 rad s(-1) through a 90 degrees range of motion. Maximal isometric voluntary contraction (MVC) of knee extensors and flexors was measured at 60 degrees of knee flexion and the MVC of knee extensors was also assessed with superimposed electrical twitches (50 Hz, 250 V, 200 mus pulse width) in order to control for motivational effects. Three trials were performed in each condition, separated by 3 min recovery, and the highest values were retained for subsequent analyses. A significant circadian rhythm was observed for T(rec) in both males and females (acrophase, Phi, 17:29 and 16:40 hours; mesor, Me, 37.0 and 36.8 degrees C; amplitude, A, 0.28 and 0.33 degrees C for males and females, respectively). The mesor of T(rec) was higher in males than in females (p < 0.05). Significant circadian rhythms were observed for knee extensor PT at 3.14 rad s(-1) in males (Phi, 17:06 hours; Me, 178.2 N m; A, 4.7 N m) and for knee extensor PT at 1.05 rad s(-1) in females (Phi, 15:35 hours; Me, 128.7 N m; A, 3.7 N m). In males, the MVC of knee extensors demonstrated a significant circadian rhythm, but only when electrical twitches were superimposed (Phi, 16:17 h; Me, 302.1 N m; A, 13.6 N m). Acrophases of all indices of muscle strength were not statistically different between the two groups and were located in the afternoon (12:47 < Phi < 17:16 hours). The amplitude (percentage of mesor) of extensors MVC (electrically stimulated) was higher in males (6.4%) than in females (4.2%; p < 0.05). Significant circadian rhythms were not consistently observed for all indices of muscle strength whatever the gender. Our group of female subjects tended to show lower circadian amplitudes than the males. In males, maximal voluntary contraction of electrically stimulated muscles followed a circadian curve, which was not significant without the superimposed twitches. These results suggest that motivation could have a masking effect on the circadian rhythm in muscle performance and strengthen the view that peripheral factors are implicated in this rhythm.