To examine the mechanism of hyperinflation in bronchial asthma we studied lung and chest wall mechanics in 7 asymptomatic patients in whom progressive bronchoconstriction was induced by doubling the amount of inhaled aerosolized histamine. An increase in pulmonary resistance (RL) from 2.5 +/- 0.3 cmH2O . 1-1 . s (mean, +/- 1 SE) to 12.3 +/- 0.9 cmH2 was associated with a linear increase in functional residual capacity (FRC) up to 74.7 +/- 1.7% of control total lung capacity (TLCc). The mean regression coefficient was 2.3% TLCc . cmH2O-1 . 1 . s-1. At each level of hyperinflation the most positive expiratory pleural pressures measured during spontaneous breathing were generally less than the predicted chest wall relaxation pressures, indicating persistent inspiratory muscle contraction throughout expiration. This was predominantly due to inspiratory intercostal and accessory muscle activity, because measurements of transdiaphragmatic pressure indicated complete diaphragmatic relaxation early in expiration. Recruitment of abdominal muscles during expiration, inferred from measurements of gastric pressure (Pg) and abdominal antero-posterior (A-P) diameter, was progressively more apparent with increasing bronchoconstriction. We concluded that the increase in FRC in induced asthma is substantially influenced by persistent inspiratory intercostal and accessory muscle activity during expiration. Concomitant abdominal muscle recruitment results in a chest wall configuration that tends to optimize diaphragmatic function.