Skeletal muscle sensitivity and responsiveness to insulin and their relationship to overall glucose disposal and insulin binding were determined in 89 premenopausal women of varying body fat topography (waist/hips girth ratio [WHR] 0.64-1.02) and obesity level (percentage of ideal body weight 92-230). As a marker of insulin action, the percentage of total glycogen synthase present in the I form (glucose-6-phosphate independent) was measured in quadriceps muscle biopsies. The increase in percentage of synthase I 1 h after oral glucose loading was not significantly different between nonobese and obese weight-matched subgroups of increasing WHR, but this response was maintained at the expense of increasing plasma insulin levels as the WHR rose. The increase in percentage of synthase I in response to submaximal steady state plasma insulin (SSPI) of approximately 100 microU/ml achieved by the infusion of somatostatin, insulin, and glucose, however, was significantly lower in obese than in nonobese subjects, and was inversely correlated with WHR. The increase in percentage of synthase I correlated inversely with the steady state plasma glucose (SSPG) concentration, which is an index of the efficiency of overall glucose disposal, and directly with insulin binding to circulating monocytes. Insulin binding also correlated inversely with WHR and with fasting plasma insulin levels. When obese subjects were separated into three weight-matched subgroups on the basis of increasing WHR, significant trends to decreased percentage of synthase I response, increased SSPG, and decreased insulin binding were found. In women with predominantly upper body obesity (WHR greater than 0.85), the increase in percentage of synthase in response to submaximal SSPI was diminished, but there was no impairment of percentage of synthase I responsiveness to supramaximal SSPI of approximately 1,000 microU/ml. At supramaximal SSPI levels, SSPG in four obese women was normal, whereas in five women, SSPG concentrations were markedly increased. Our results suggest that in premenopausal women, impaired skeletal muscle insulin sensitivity that results in decreased glucose storage capacity may contribute to the diminished efficiency of glucose disposal and insulin resistance that are associated with upper body obesity. The impairment in skeletal muscle sensitivity may be overcome in vivo at the expense of increasing plasma insulin levels, with maximal responsiveness remaining unimpaired. This defect may result from a reduction in insulin receptor number which could, in turn, be secondary to persistently elevated fasting plasma insulin levels. In some upper body segment obese women, however, an additional defect affecting other insulin-sensitive pathways may also be present.