The distribution of muscle involvement, assessed clinically and electromyographically, was analyzed prospectively in 55 consecutive amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patients and in 54 patients with other predominantly motor syndromes, some of whom were referred with suspected ALS. In ALS patients, distal limb muscles and thoracic paraspinal muscles were affected most frequently, more so than proximal limb and cranial muscles. The incidence of bulbar symptoms in ALS was greater in women than in men. These patterns suggest selective vulnerability of specific neuronal populations. The vulnerability of truncal muscles, illustrated by thoracic paraspinal wasting or head and shoulder drooping, was a helpful differential sign in diagnosing ALS. Thoracic paraspinal electromyography was especially valuable in distinguishing ALS from other disorders, such as combined cervical and lumbar spondylotic amyotrophy or polymyositis, which may masquerade as ALS. The finding of denervation atrophy on biopsy of thoracic paraspinal muscles was diagnostic in difficult cases. Because the thoracic paraspinal muscles are frequently affected in ALS and spared in spondylotic amyotrophy, their assessment provides a practical strategy in differentiating ALS from other motor syndromes.