Exercise-induced muscle damage is an important topic in exercise physiology. However several aspects of our understanding of how muscles respond to highly stressful exercise remain unclear In the first section of this review we address the evidence that exercise can cause muscle damage and inflammation in otherwise healthy human skeletal muscles. We approach this concept by comparing changes in muscle function (i.e., the force-generating capacity) with the degree of leucocyte accumulation in muscle following exercise. In the second section, we explore the cytokine response to 'muscle-damaging exercise', primarily eccentric exercise. We review the evidence for the notion that the degree of muscle damage is related to the magnitude of the cytokine response. In the third and final section, we look at the satellite cell response to a single bout of eccentric exercise, as well as the role of the cyclooxygenase enzymes (COX1 and 2). In summary, we propose that muscle damage as evaluated by changes in muscle function is related to leucocyte accumulation in the exercised muscles. 'Extreme' exercise protocols, encompassing unaccustomed maximal eccentric exercise across a large range of motion, generally inflict severe muscle damage, inflammation and prolonged recovery (> 1 week). By contrast, exercise resembling regular athletic training (resistance exercise and downhill running) typically causes mild muscle damage (myofibrillar disruptions) and full recovery normally occurs within a few days. Large variation in individual responses to a given exercise should, however be expected. The link between cytokine and satellite cell responses and exercise-induced muscle damage is not so clear The systemic cytokine response may be linked more closely to the metabolic demands of exercise rather than muscle damage. With the exception of IL-6, the sources of systemic cytokines following exercise remain unclear The satellite cell response to severe muscle damage is related to regeneration, whereas the biological significance of satellite cell proliferation after mild damage or non-damaging exercise remains uncertain. The COX enzymes regulate satellite cell activity, as demonstrated in animal models; however the roles of the COX enzymes in human skeletal muscle need further investigation. We suggest using the term 'muscle damage' with care. Comparisons between studies and individuals must consider changes in and recovery of muscle force-generating capacity.