To define the mechanisms of impaired muscle glycogen synthase and reduced glycogen formation in non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM), glycogen synthase activity was kinetically analyzed during the basal state and three glucose clamp studies (insulin approximately equal to 300, 700, and 33,400 pmol/liter) in eight matched nonobese NIDDM and eight control subjects. Muscle glycogen content was measured in the basal state and following clamps at insulin levels of 33,400 pmol/liter. NIDDM subjects had glucose uptake matched to controls in each clamp by raising serum glucose to 15-20 mmol/liter. The insulin concentration required to half-maximally activate glycogen synthase (ED50) was approximately fourfold greater for NIDDM than control subjects (1,004 +/- 264 vs. 257 +/- 110 pmol/liter, P less than 0.02) but the maximal insulin effect was similar. Total glycogen synthase activity was reduced approximately 38% and glycogen content was approximately 30% lower in NIDDM. A positive correlation was present between glycogen content and glycogen synthase activity (r = 0.51, P less than 0.01). In summary, defects in muscle glycogen synthase activity and reduced glycogen content are present in NIDDM. NIDDM subjects also have less total glycogen synthase activity consistent with reduced functional mass of the enzyme. These findings and the correlation between glycogen synthase activity and glycogen content support the theory that multiple defects in glycogen synthase activity combine to cause reduced glycogen formation in NIDDM.