The current pork slaughter process is primarily optimized to reduce cooler shrink and the incidence of PSE pork. Elimination of the halothane gene and improved preslaughter handling have decreased the incidence of PSE pork and improved the water-holding capacity of the muscle; however, the chilling process has not been optimized to accommodate these changes. The hypothesis that stepwise chilling could improve tenderness without compromising water-holding capacity was tested in this study. The stepwise chilling treatments were composed of a rapid chilling to 10 or 15 degrees C (in a chilling tunnel) and a 6-h holding period at 10 or 15 degrees C, followed by rapid chilling to 4 degrees C. Both treatments were compared directly with a chilling treatment that simulated conventional tunnel chilling; one carcass half from each pig was allocated to a stepwise chilling treatment, whereas the other carcass half was allocated to the control treatment. A total of 42 pigs were slaughtered on 6 slaughter days. Biopsies were collected for analysis of glycogen degradation and glycogen debranching enzyme activity from slaughter until 72 h postmortem, and samples for color, sarcomere length, drip loss, Warner-Bratzler shear force, and sensory analysis were removed from the carcass 24 h postmortem. Substantial temperature differences were obtained during the holding period between the stepwise and conventionally chilled carcass halves. These had almost, but not completely, disappeared by 22 h postmortem, and although the differences were small, pH was significantly (P < 0.01) less in the stepwise-chilled carcasses compared with the control carcasses. The stepwise chilling treatments led to significantly improved (P < 0.01) tenderness in LM without compromising quality indicators or attributes such as pH, drip loss, or ham processing yield, although color of the stepwise-chilled pork was affected. Neither the tenderness of processed semimembranosus muscle nor the shear force of biceps femoris muscle was affected (P > 0.05) because of the smaller temperature differences in these muscles. The improvements in tenderness could be solely attributed to the increased proteolysis postmortem in the stepwise-chilled carcasses, with the greater temperatures favoring proteolytic enzymes involved in muscle protein degradation. Furthermore, the results for glycogen metabolism successfully revealed that both pro- and macroglycogen contributed to the energy generation in postmortem muscles, with degradation of both forms early postmortem.