We used a high-resolution ultrasound to make electrical recordings from the transversus abdominis muscle in humans. The behavior of this muscle was then compared with that of the external oblique and rectus abdominis in six normal subjects in the seated posture. During voluntary efforts such as expiration from functional residual capacity, speaking, expulsive maneuvers, and isovolume "belly-in" maneuvers, the transversus in general contracted together with the external oblique and the rectus abdominis. In contrast, during hyperoxic hypercapnia, all subjects had phasic expiratory activity in the transversus at ventilations between 10 and 18 l/min, well before activity could be recorded from either the external oblique or the rectus abdominis. Similarly, inspiratory elastic loading evoked transversus expiratory activity in all subjects but external oblique activity in only one subject and rectus abdominis activity in only two subjects. We thus conclude that in humans 1) the transversus abdominis is recruited preferentially to the superficial muscle layer of the abdominal wall during breathing and 2) the threshold for abdominal muscle recruitment during expiration is substantially lower than conventionally thought.