Here we describe a clinical approach and differential diagnosis for chronic muscle diseases which include early respiratory failure as a prominent feature in their presentation (i.e. respiratory failure whilst still ambulant). These patients typically present to neurology or respiratory medicine out-patient clinics and a distinct differential diagnosis of neuromuscular aetiologies should be considered. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and myasthenia gravis are the important non-muscle diseases to consider, but once these have been excluded there remains a challenging differential diagnosis of muscle conditions, which will be the focus of this review. The key points in the diagnosis of these disorders are being aware of relevant symptoms, which are initially caused by nocturnal hypoventilation or diaphragmatic weakness; and identifying other features which direct further investigation. Important muscle diseases to identify, because their diagnosis has disease-specific management implications, include adult-onset Pompe disease, inflammatory myopathy, and sporadic adult-onset nemaline myopathy. Cases which are due to metabolic myopathy or muscular dystrophy are important to diagnose because of their implications for genetic counselling. Myopathy from sarcoidosis and colchicine each has a single reported case with this presentation, but should be considered because they are treatable. Disorders which have recently had their genetic aetiologies identified include hereditary myopathy with early respiratory failure (due to TTN mutations), the FHL1-related syndromes, and myofibrillar myopathy due to BAG3 mutation. Recently described syndromes include oculopharyngodistal muscular dystrophy that awaits genetic characterisation.