The mechanism by which large lung volume lessens the discomfort of breath holding and prolongs breath-hold time was studied by analyzing the pressure waves made by diaphragm contractions during breath holds at various lung volumes. Subjects rebreathed a mixture of 8% CO2-92% O2 and commenced breath holding after reaching an alveolar plateau. At all volumes, regular rhythmic contractions of inspiratory muscles, followed by means of gastric and pleural pressures, increased in amplitude and frequency until the breakpoint. Expiratory muscle activity was more prominent in some subjects than others, and increased through each breath hold. Increasing lung volume caused a delay in onset and a decrease in frequency of contractions with no consistent change in duty cycle and a decline in magnitude of esophageal pressure swings that could be accounted for by force-length and geometric properties. The effect of lung volume on the timing of contractions most resembled that of a chest wall reflex and is consistent with the hypothesis that the contractions are a major source of dyspnea in breath holding.