The stress-activated p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) was recently shown to be activated by insulin in muscle and adipose cells in culture. Here, we explore whether such stimulation is observed in rat skeletal muscle and whether muscle contraction can also affect the enzyme. Insulin injection (2 U over 3.5 min) resulted in increases in p38 MAPK phosphorylation measured in soleus (3.2-fold) and quadriceps (2.2-fold) muscles. Increased phosphorylation (3.5-fold) of an endogenous substrate of p38 MAPK, cAMP response element binder (CREB), was also observed. After in vivo insulin treatment, p38 MAPKalpha and p38 MAPKbeta isoforms were found to be activated (2.1- and 2.4-fold, respectively), using an in vitro kinase assay, in immunoprecipitates from quadriceps muscle extracts. In vitro insulin treatment (1 nmol/l over 4 min) and electrically-induced contraction of isolated extensor digitorum longus (EDL) muscle also doubled the kinase activity of p38 MAPKalpha and p38 MAPKbeta. The activity of both isoforms was inhibited in vitro by 10 micromol/l SB203580 in all muscles. To explore the possible participation of p38 MAPK in the stimulation of glucose uptake, EDL and soleus muscles were exposed to increasing doses of SB203580 before and during stimulation by insulin or contraction. SB203580 caused a significant reduction in the insulin- or contraction-stimulated 2-deoxyglucose uptake. Maximal inhibition (50-60%) occurred with 10 micromol/l SB203580. These results show that p38 MAPKalpha and -beta isoforms are activated by insulin and contraction in skeletal muscle. The data further suggest that activation of p38 MAPK may participate in the stimulation of glucose uptake by both stimuli in rat skeletal muscle.