Abdominal muscle length changes and activity were directly examined in vivo with the use of the techniques of sonomicrometry and electromyography, respectively, in nine supine anesthetized dogs. Expiratory threshold loading was utilized to stimulate recruitment of the abdominal muscles, and lung inflations produced the passive relationships. The internal layer, consisting of the internal oblique and transversus abdominis, shortened more in expiration than the external layer, consisting of the external oblique and rectus abdominis. The internal oblique shortened to approximately 83% of its length at functional residual capacity vs. 98% for the external oblique (P less than 0.05). The results obtained during passive lung inflation indicate these internal muscles are also more influenced by changes in lung volume. The internal oblique lengthened to 115% of its length at functional residual capacity vs. 103% for external oblique at total lung capacity (P less than 0.05). The results suggest that anatomic division of the abdominal muscles into external and internal layers corresponds to functional differences in terms of both passive lengthening and active shortening during ventilation and that these differences imply variable functions of the two layers.