Background Although antiretroviral therapy (ART) has proven its success against HIV-1, the long lifespan of infected cells and viral latency prevent eradication. In this study we analyzed the sensitivity to ART of HIV-1 strains in naïve, central memory and effector memory CD4+ lymphocyte subsets. Methods From five patients cellular HIV-1 infection levels were quantified before and after initiation of therapy (2-5 weeks). Through sequencing the C2V3 region of the HIV-1 gp120 envelope, we studied the effect of short-term therapy on virus variants derived from naïve, central memory and effector memory CD4+ lymphocyte subsets. Results During short-term ART, HIV-1 infection levels declined in all lymphocyte subsets but not as much as RNA levels in serum. Virus diversity in the naïve and central memory lymphocyte populations remained unchanged, whilst diversity decreased in serum and the effector memory lymphocytes. ART differentially affected the virus populations co-circulating in one individual harboring a dual HIV-1 infection. Changes in V3 charge were found in all individuals after ART initiation with increases within the effector memory subset and decreases found in the naïve cell population. Conclusions During early ART virus diversity is affected mainly in the serum and effector memory cell compartments. Differential alterations in V3 charge were observed between effector memory and naïve populations. While certain cell populations can be targeted preferentially during early ART, some virus strains demonstrate varied sensitivity to therapy, as shown from studying two strains within a dual HIV-1 infected individual.