Cellular responses to mechanical forces are crucial in embryonic development and adult physiology, and are involved in numerous diseases, including atherosclerosis, hypertension, osteoporosis, muscular dystrophy, myopathies and cancer. These responses are mediated by load-bearing subcellular structures, such as the plasma membrane, cell-adhesion complexes and the cytoskeleton. Recent work has demonstrated that these structures are dynamic, undergoing assembly, disassembly and movement, even when ostensibly stable. An emerging insight is that transduction of forces into biochemical signals occurs within the context of these processes. This framework helps to explain how forces of varying strengths or dynamic characteristics regulate distinct signalling pathways.