K contractures and two-microelectrode voltage-clamp techniques were used to measure inactivation of excitation-contraction coupling in small bundles of fibers from rat extensor digitorum longus (e.d.l.) and soleus muscles at 21 degrees C. The rate of spontaneous relaxation was faster in e.d.l. fibers: the time for 120 mM K contractures to decay to 50% of maximum tension was 9.8 +/- 0.5 s (mean +/- SEM) in e.d.l. and 16.8 +/- 1.7 s in soleus. The rate of decay depended on membrane potential: in e.d.l., the 50% decay time was 14.3 +/- 0.7 s for contractures in 80 mM K (Vm = 25 mV) and 4.9 +/- 0.4 s in 160 mM K (Vm = -3 mV). In contrast to activation, which occurred with less depolarization in soleus fibers, steady state inactivation required more depolarization: after 3 min at -40 mV in 40 mM K, the 200 mM K contracture amplitude in e.d.l. fell to 28 +/- 10% (n = 5) of control, but remained at 85 +/- 2% (n = 6) of control in soleus. These different inactivation properties in e.d.l. and soleus fibers were not influenced by the fact that the 200 mM K solution used to test for steady state inactivation produced contractures that were maximal in soleus fibers but submaximal in e.d.l.: a relatively similar depression was recorded in maximal (200 mM K) and submaximal (60 and 80 mM K) contracture tension. A steady state "pedestal" of tension was observed with maintained depolarization after K contracture relaxation and was larger in soleus than in e.d.l. fibers. The pedestal tension was attributed to the overlap between the activation and inactivation curves for tension vs. membrane potential, which was greater in soleus than in e.d.l. fibers. The K contracture results were confirmed with the two-microelectrode voltage clamp: the contraction threshold increased to more positive potentials at holding potentials of -50 mV in e.d.l. or -40 mV in soleus. At holding potentials of -30 mV in e.d.l. or 0 mV in soleus, contraction could not be evoked by 15-ms pulses to +20 mV. Both K contracture and voltage-clamp experiments revealed that activation in soleus fibers occurred with a smaller transient depolarization and was maintained with greater steady state depolarization than in e.d.l. fibers. The K contracture and voltage-clamp results are described by a model in which contraction depends on the formation of a threshold concentration of activator from a voltage-sensitive molecule that can exist in the precursor, activator, or inactive states.