The respiratory sensations evoked by added inspiratory loads are currently thought to be largely mediated by the activity of the inspiratory muscles. Because of the differences in proprioceptors and in afferent and efferent innervations among the inspiratory muscles, we hypothesized that the sensation evoked by a given load would be different when the motor command is directed mainly to rib cage muscles or mainly to the diaphragm. To test this hypothesis, we studied six normal subjects breathing against several inspiratory resistances while emphasizing the use of rib cage muscles, or the diaphragm, or a combination of both. At the end of 10 loaded breaths the subjects rated the perceived magnitude of inspiratory effort on a Borg scale. A linear and unique relationship (r = 0.96 +/- 0.02; P less than 0.001) was found between the sensation and esophageal pressure (Pes) in the three thoracoabdominal breathing patterns. We conclude that the level of Pes, whether generated mainly by the rib cage muscles or the diaphragm, is the main variable related to the sensation of inspiratory effort under external inspiratory loads.