Skeletal muscle contraction increases intracellular ATP turnover, calcium flux, and mechanical stress, initiating signal transduction pathways that modulate peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma coactivator-1alpha (PGC-1alpha)-dependent transcriptional programmes. The purpose of this study was to determine if the intensity of exercise regulates PGC-1alpha expression in human skeletal muscle, coincident with activation of signalling cascades known to regulate PGC-1alpha transcription. Eight sedentary males expended 400 kcal (1674 kj) during a single bout of cycle ergometer exercise on two separate occasions at either 40% (LO) or 80% (HI) of . Skeletal muscle biopsies from the m. vastus lateralis were taken at rest and at +0, +3 and +19 h after exercise. Energy expenditure during exercise was similar between trials, but the high intensity bout was shorter in duration (LO, 69.9 +/- 4.0 min; HI, 36.0 +/- 2.2 min, P < 0.05) and had a higher rate of glycogen utilization (P < 0.05). PGC-1alpha mRNA abundance increased in an intensity-dependent manner +3 h after exercise (LO, 3.8-fold; HI, 10.2-fold, P < 0.05). AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) (2.8-fold, P < 0.05) and calcium/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II (CaMKII) phosphorylation (84%, P < 0.05) increased immediately after HI but not LO. p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) phosphorylation increased after both trials (2.0-fold, P < 0.05), but phosphorylation of the downstream transcription factor, activating transcription factor-2 (ATF-2), increased only after HI (2.4-fold, P < 0.05). Cyclic-AMP response element binding protein (CREB) phosphorylation was elevated at +3 h after both trials (80%, P < 0.05) and class IIa histone deacetylase (HDAC) phosphorylation increased only after HI (2.0-fold, P < 0.05). In conclusion, exercise intensity regulates PGC-1alpha mRNA abundance in human skeletal muscle in response to a single bout of exercise. This effect is mediated by differential activation of multiple signalling pathways, with ATF-2 and HDAC phosphorylation proposed as key intensity-dependent mediators.