Glycogen synthase kinase (GSK)-3 has been implicated in the regulation of multiple cellular physiological processes in skeletal muscle. Selective cell-permeable reversible inhibitors (INHs) of GSK-3 (CT98014 and CHIR98023 [Chiron, Emeryville, CA] and LiCl) were used to evaluate the role of GSK-3 in controlling glucose metabolism. Acute treatment (30 min) of cultured human skeletal muscle cells with either INH resulted in a dose-dependent activation of glycogen synthase (GS) with a maximally effective concentration of approximately 2 micromol/l. The maximal acute effect of either INH on GS (103 +/- 25% stimulation over basal) was greater than the maximal insulin response (48 +/- 9%, P < 0.05 vs. INH); LiCl was as effective as insulin. The GSK-3 inhibitor effect, like that of insulin, was on the activation state (fractional velocity [FV]) of GS. Cotreatment of muscle cells with submaximal doses of INH and insulin resulted in an additive effect on GS FV (103 +/- 10% stimulation, P < 0.05 vs. either agent alone). Glucose incorporation into glycogen was also acutely stimulated by INH. While prolonged (6-24 h) insulin exposure led to desensitization of GS, INH continued to activate GS FV for at least 24 h. Insulin and LiCl acutely activated glucose uptake, whereas INH stimulation of glucose uptake required more prolonged exposure, starting at 6 h and continuing to 24 h. Chronic (4-day) treatment with INH increased both basal (154 +/- 32% of control) and insulin-stimulated (219 +/- 74%) glucose uptake. Upregulation of uptake activity occurred without any change in total cellular GLUT1 or GLUT4 protein content. Yet the same chronic treatment resulted in a 65 +/- 6% decrease in GSK-3 protein and a parallel decrease (61 +/- 11%) in GSK-3 total activity. Together with the INH-induced increase in insulin-stimulated glucose uptake, there was an approximately 3.5-fold increase (P < 0.05) in insulin receptor substrate (IRS)-1 protein abundance. Despite upregulation of IRS-1, maximal insulin stimulation of Akt phosphorylation was unaltered by INH treatment. The results suggest that selective inhibition of GSK-3 has an impact on both GS and glucose uptake, including effects on insulin action, using mechanisms that differ from and are additive to those of insulin.