1. In muscle, intracellular calcium concentration, hence skeletal muscle force and cardiac output, is regulated by uptake and release of calcium from the sarcoplasmic reticulum. The ryanodine receptor (RyR) forms the calcium release channel in the sarcoplasmic reticulum. 2. The free [Ca2+] in the sarcoplasmic reticulum regulates the excitability of this store by stimulating the Ca2+ release channels in its membrane. This process involves Ca2+-sensing mechanisms on both the luminal and cytoplasmic sides of the RyR. In the cardiac RyR, these have been shown to be a luminal Ca2+ activation site (L-site; 60 micromol/L affinity), a cytoplasmic activation site (A-site; 0.9 micromol/L affinity) and a cytoplasmic Ca2+ inactivation site (I2-site; 1.2 micromol/L affinity). 3. Cardiac RyR activation by luminal Ca2+ occurs by a multistep process dubbed 'luminal-triggered Ca2+ feed-through'. Binding of Ca2+ to the L-site initiates brief (1 msec) openings at a rate of up to 10/s. Once the pore is open, luminal Ca2+ has access to the A-site (producing up to 30-fold prolongation of openings) and to the I2-site (causing inactivation at high levels of Ca2+ feed-through). 4. The present paper reviews the evidence for the principal aspects of the 'luminal-triggered Ca2+ feed-through' model, the properties of the various Ca2+-dependent gating mechanisms and their likely role in controlling sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR) Ca2+ release in cardiac muscle. 5. The model makes the following important predictions: (i) there will be a close link between luminal and cytoplasmic regulation of RyRs and any cofactor that prolongs channel openings triggered by cytoplasmic Ca2+ will also promote RyR activation by luminal Ca2+; (ii) luminal Mg2+ (1 mmol/L) is essential for the control of SR excitability in cardiac muscle by luminal Ca2+; and (iii) the different RyR isoforms in skeletal and cardiac muscle will be controlled quite differently by the luminal milieu. For example, Mg2+ in the SR lumen (approximately 1 mmol/L) can strongly inhibit RyR2 by competing with Ca2+ for the L-site, whereas RyR1 is not affected by luminal Mg2+.