In vivo "resistance" to the action of insulin on glucose uptake is commonly found in obesity and is characteristic of noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus in obese subjects. To investigate the relationship among glucose uptake, glucose oxidation, and nonoxidative glucose disposal (storage) in subjects with normal glucose tolerance, we studied 25 caucasians and 79 southwestern American Indians, including lean and obese subjects in both groups. The euglycemic clamp technique with simultaneous indirect calorimetry was used to determine rates of glucose uptake and glucose oxidation. These studies were performed at two rates of insulin infusion (40 and 400 mU/m2 X min), with resulting mean plasma insulin concentrations of 113 and 1839 microU/ml, respectively. At the lower insulin infusion rate, there was no glucose storage in subjects with a glucose uptake rate of about 2.2 mg/kg fat free mass X min. In contrast, glucose storage accounted for over 45% of the glucose disposal in subjects with glucose uptake rates over 7.0 mg/kg fat free mass X min studied at similar insulin concentrations. At the high insulin infusion rate, over 70% of the difference in glucose uptake between subjects with a low or high capacity for glucose disposal was due to glucose storage. These studies demonstrated that in normal subjects at both physiological and maximally stimulating plasma insulin concentrations, glucose storage is a major factor in distinguishing between those with low or high rates of insulin-mediated glucose disposal. Since glucose storage may be a specifically activated process, we hypothesize that failure to activate glucose storage is a major defect causing in vivo insulin resistance in subjects with normal glucose tolerance.