Abstract A realistic two-dimensional (2D) model of the human trunk was developed for quantitative analysis of the relative contribution to breathing mechanics of seven groups of respiratory muscles. Along with noninvasive measurements of electromyography (EMG) signals from respiratory muscles near the skin surface, it provides predictions for the forces generated by inner respiratory muscles as well as the instantaneous work of each muscle. The results revealed that inspiratory muscles reach their maximal force towards the end of inspiration, while expiratory muscles reach their maximal force at mid-expiration. Inspiratory muscles contributed to the work of breathing even at low efforts, while that of the expiratory muscles was observed only at relatively high efforts. The study clearly showed that the diaphragm muscle generates forces, which are of the same order as those generated by other inspiratory muscles, but performed 60–80% of the inspiratory work. The contribution of the external intercostal muscle to inspiration was not negligible, especially at high breathing efforts.