The purpose of this study was to estimate the efficiency of ATP utilization for concentric, eccentric, and isometric muscle action in the human tibialis anterior and extensor digitorum longus in vivo. A dynamometer was used to quantitate muscle work, or tension, while simultaneous 31P-nuclear magnetic resonance data were collected to monitor ATP, phosphocreatine, inorganic phosphate, and pH. The relative efficiency of the actions was estimated in two ways: steady-state effects on high-energy phosphates and a direct comparison of ATP synthesis rates with work. In the steady state, the cytosolic free energy dropped to the lowest value with concentric activity, followed by eccentric and isometric action for comparative muscle tensions. Estimates of ATP synthesis rates revealed a mechanochemical efficiency [i.e., ATP production rate/work (both in J/s)] of 15.0 +/- 1.3% in concentric and 34.7 +/- 6.1% in eccentric activity. The estimated maximum ATP production rate was highest in concentric action, suggesting an activation of energy metabolism under these conditions. By using direct measures of metabolic strain and ATP turnover, these data demonstrate a decreasing metabolic efficiency in human muscle action from isometric, to eccentric, to concentric action.