The mechanical properties of the lung periphery are major determinants of overall lung function, and can change dramatically in disease. In this review we examine the various experimental techniques that have provided data pertaining to the mechanical properties of the lung periphery, together with the mathematical models that have been used to interpret these data. These models seek to make a clear distinction between the central and peripheral compartments of the lung by encapsulating functional differences between the conducing airways, the terminal airways and the parenchyma. Such a distinction becomes problematic in disease, however, because of the inevitable onset of regional variations in mechanical behavior throughout the lung. Accordingly, lung models are used both in the inverse sense as vehicles for extracting physiological insight from experimental data, and in the forward sense as virtual laboratories for the testing of specific hypothesis about mechanisms such as the effects of regional heterogeneities. Pathologies such as asthma, acute lung injury and emphysema can alter the mechanical properties of the lung periphery through the direct alteration of intrinsic tissue mechanics, the development of regional heterogeneities in mechanical function, and the complete derecruitment of airspaces due to airway closure and alveolar collapse. We are now beginning to decipher the relative contributions of these various factors to pathological alterations in peripheral lung mechanics, which may eventually lead to the development and assessment of novel therapies.