We measured the mechanical work performed by 12 acutely ill patients during synchronized intermittent mandatory ventilation to determine the influence of volume-cycled machine assistance on inspiratory timing, respiratory muscle force development, and external work output. The frequency and tidal volume of spontaneous breaths increased at lower levels of mechanical ventilation, but inspiratory time fraction did not vary across the spectrum of machine support. As machine support was withdrawn, inspiratory work and pressure-time product increased progressively for both spontaneous and assisted breathing cycles. On a per cycle basis, work output was greater for assisted than for spontaneous breaths at all levels of comparison. Although the mean pressure developed by the patient during assisted cycles averaged approximately equal to 20% less than during adjacent unassisted cycles, contraction time averaged approximately equal to 20% longer, so that the pressure-time products were nearly equivalent for both types of cycle. Two indices of force reserve indicated that our patients taxed their maximal ventilatory capability at all but the highest levels of support. We conclude that under the conditions of this study the ventilatory pump continued to be active at all levels of machine assistance. Although work per liter related linearly to the proportion of minute ventilation borne by the patient, force generation differed little for spontaneous and machine-aided breaths at any specified level of support. Whether judged on the basis of mean developed pressure (work per liter of ventilation) or pressure-time product, little effort adaptation to volume-cycled machine assistance appears to occur on a breath-by-breath basis.