Individuals with insulin resistance are characterized by impaired insulin action on whole-body glucose uptake, in part due to impaired insulin-stimulated glucose uptake into skeletal muscle. A single bout of exercise increases skeletal muscle glucose uptake via an insulin-independent mechanism that bypasses the typical insulin signalling defects associated with these conditions. However, this 'insulin sensitizing' effect is short-lived and disappears after approximately 48 h. In contrast, repeated physical activity (i.e. exercise training) results in a persistent increase in insulin action in skeletal muscle from obese and insulin-resistant individuals. The molecular mechanism(s) for the enhanced glucose uptake with exercise training have been attributed to the increased expression and/or activity of key signalling proteins involved in the regulation of glucose uptake and metabolism in skeletal muscle. Evidence now suggests that the improvements in insulin sensitivity associated with exercise training are also related to changes in the expression and/or activity of proteins involved in insulin signal transduction in skeletal muscle such as the AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) and the protein kinase B (Akt) substrate AS160. In addition, increased lipid oxidation and/or turnover is likely to be another mechanism by which exercise improves insulin sensitivity: exercise training results in an increase in the oxidative capacity of skeletal muscle by up-regulating lipid oxidation and the expression of proteins involved in mitochondrial biogenesis. Determination of the underlying biological mechanisms that result from exercise training is essential in order to define the precise variations in physical activity that result in the most desired effects on targeted risk factors, and to aid in the development of such interventions.