Insulin resistance is instrumental in the pathogenesis of type 2 diabetes mellitus and the Insulin Resistance Syndrome. While insulin resistance involves decreased glucose transport activity in skeletal muscle, its molecular basis is unknown. Since muscle GLUT4 glucose transporter levels are normal in type 2 diabetes, we have tested the hypothesis that insulin resistance is due to impaired translocation of intracellular GLUT4 to sarcolemma. Both insulin-sensitive and insulin-resistant nondiabetic subgroups were studied, in addition to type 2 diabetic patients. Biopsies were obtained from basal and insulin-stimulated muscle, and membranes were subfractionated on discontinuous sucrose density gradients to equilibrium or under nonequilibrium conditions after a shortened centrifugation time. In equilibrium fractions from basal muscle, GLUT4 was decreased by 25-29% in both 25 and 28% sucrose density fractions and increased twofold in both the 32% sucrose fraction and bottom pellet in diabetics compared with insulin- sensitive controls, without any differences in membrane markers (phospholemman, phosphalamban, dihydropyridine-binding complex α-1 subunit). Thus, insulin resistance was associated with redistribution of GLUT4 to denser membrane vesicles. No effects of insulin stimulation on GLUT4 localization were observed. In non-equilibrium fractions, insulin led to small GLUT4 decrements in the 25 and 28% sucrose fractions and increased GLUT4 in the 32% sucrose fraction by 2.8-fold over basal in insulin-sensitive but only by 1.5-fold in both insulin-resistant and diabetic subgroups. The GLUT4 increments in the 32% sucrose fraction were correlated with maximal in vivo glucose disposal rates (r = +0.51, P = 0.026), and, therefore, represented GLUT4 recruitment to sarcolemma or a quantitative marker for this process. Similar to GLUT4, the insulin-regulated aminopeptidase (vp165) was redistributed to a dense membrane compartment and did not translocate in response to insulin in insulin-resistant subgroups. In conclusion, insulin alters the subcellular localization of GLUT4 vesicles in human muscle, and this effect is impaired equally in insulin-resistant subjects with and without diabetes. This translocation defect is associated with abnormal accumulation of GLUT4 in a dense membrane compartment demonstrable in basal muscle. We have previously observed a similar pattern of defects causing insulin resistance in human adipocytes. Based on these data, we propose that human insulin resistance involves a defect in GLUT4 traffic and targeting leading to accumulation in a dense membrane compartment from which insulin is unable to recruit GLUT4 to the cell surface.