Insulin resistance of muscle glucose metabolism is a hallmark of NIDDM. The obese Zucker (fa/fa) rat--an animal model of muscle insulin resistance--was used to test whether acute (100 mg/kg body wt for 1 h) and chronic (5-100 mg/kg for 10 days) parenteral treatments with a racemic mixture of the antioxidant alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) could improve glucose metabolism in insulin-resistant skeletal muscle. Glucose transport activity (assessed by net 2-deoxyglucose [2-DG] uptake), net glycogen synthesis, and glucose oxidation were determined in the isolated epitrochlearis muscles in the absence or presence of insulin (13.3 nmol/l). Severe insulin resistance of 2-DG uptake, glycogen synthesis, and glucose oxidation was observed in muscle from the vehicle-treated obese rats compared with muscle from vehicle-treated lean (Fa/-) rats. Acute and chronic treatments (30 mg.kg-1.day-1, a maximally effective dose) with ALA significantly (P < 0.05) improved insulin-mediated 2-DG uptake in epitrochlearis muscles from the obese rats by 62 and 64%, respectively. Chronic ALA treatment increased both insulin-stimulated glucose oxidation (33%) and glycogen synthesis (38%) and was associated with a significantly greater (21%) in vivo muscle glycogen concentration. These adaptive responses after chronic ALA administration were also associated with significantly lower (15-17%) plasma levels of insulin and free fatty acids. No significant effects on glucose transporter (GLUT4) protein level or on the activities of hexokinase and citrate synthase were observed. Collectively, these findings indicate that parenteral administration of the antioxidant ALA significantly enhances the capacity of the insulin-stimulatable glucose transport system and of both oxidative and nonoxidative pathways of glucose metabolism in insulin-resistant rat skeletal muscle.