1. The response of the diaphragm to the postural perturbation produced by rapid flexion of the shoulder to a visual stimulus was evaluated in standing subjects. Gastric, oesophageal and transdiaphragmatic pressures were measured together with intramuscular and oesophageal recordings of electromyographic activity (EMG) in the diaphragm. To assess the mechanics of contraction of the diaphragm, dynamic changes in the length of the diaphragm were measured with ultrasonography. 2. With rapid flexion of the shoulder in response to a visual stimulus, EMG activity in the costal and crural diaphragm occurred about 20 ms prior to the onset of deltoid EMG. This anticipatory contraction occurred irrespective of the phase of respiration in which arm movement began. The onset of diaphragm EMG coincided with that of transversus abdominis. 3. Gastric and transdiaphragmatic pressures increased in association with the rapid arm flexion by 13.8 +/- 1.9 (mean +/- S.E.M.) and 13.5 +/- 1.8 cmH2O, respectively. The increases occurred 49 +/- 4 ms after the onset of diaphragm EMG, but preceded the onset of movement of the limb by 63 +/- 7 ms. 4. Ultrasonographic measurements revealed that the costal diaphragm shortened and then lengthened progressively during the increase in transdiaphragmatic pressure. 5. This study provides definitive evidence that the human diaphragm is involved in the control of postural stability during sudden voluntary movement of the limbs.