Proteolytic enzymes are synthesized as inactive precursors, or "zymogens," to prevent unwanted protein degradation, and to enable spatial and temporal regulation of proteolytic activity. Upon sorting or appropriate compartmentalization, zymogen conversion to the active enzyme typically involves limited proteolysis and removal of an "activation segment." The sizes of activation segments range from dipeptide units to independently folding domains comprising more than 100 residues. A common form of the activation segment is an N-terminal extension of the mature enzyme, or "prosegment," that sterically blocks the active site, and thereby prevents binding of substrates. In addition to their inhibitory role, prosegments are frequently important for the folding, stability, and/or intracellular sorting of the zymogen. The mechanisms of conversion to active enzymes are diverse in nature, ranging from enzymatic or nonenzymatic cofactors that trigger activation, to a simple change in pH that results in conversion by an autocatalytic mechanism. Recent X-ray crystallographic studies of zymogens and comparisons with their active counterparts have identified the structural changes that accompany conversion. This review will focus upon the structural basis for inhibition by activation segments, as well as the molecular events that lead to the conversion of zymogens to active enzymes.