Survival requires adequate pulmonary ventilation which, in turn, depends on adequate contraction of muscles acting on the chest wall in the presence of a patent upper airway. Bulbospinal outputs projecting directly and indirectly to ‘obligatory’ respiratory motoneurone pools generate the required muscle contractions. Recent studies of the phasic inspiratory output of populations of single motor units to five muscles acting on the chest wall (including the diaphragm) reveal that the time of onset, the progressive recruitment, and the amount of motoneuronal drive (expressed as firing frequency) differ among the muscles. Tonic firing with an inspiratory modulation of firing rate is common in low intercostal spaces of the parasternal and external intercostal muscles but rare in the diaphragm. A new time and frequency plot has been developed to depict the behaviour of the motoneurone populations. The magnitude of inspiratory firing of motor unit populations is linearly correlated to the mechanical advantage of the intercostal muscle region at which the motor unit activity is recorded. This represents a ‘neuromechanical’ principle by which the CNS controls motoneuronal output according to mechanical advantage, presumably in addition to the Henneman's size principle of motoneurone recruitment. Studies of the genioglossus, an obligatory upper airway muscle that helps maintain airway patency, reveal that it receives simultaneous inspiratory, expiratory and tonic drives even during quiet breathing. There is much to be learned about the neural drive to pools of human inspiratory and expiratory muscles, not only during respiratory tasks but also in automatic and volitional tasks, and in diseases that alter the required drive.