RIG-I and MDA5 are the major intracellular immune receptors that recognize viral RNA species and undergo a series of conformational transitions leading to the activation of the interferon-mediated antiviral response. However, to date, full-length RLRs have resisted crystallographic efforts and a molecular description of their activation pathways remains hypothetical. Here we employ hydrogen/deuterium exchange coupled with mass spectrometry (HDX-MS) to probe the apo states of RIG-I and MDA5 and to dissect the molecular details with respect to distinct RNA species recognition, ATP binding and hydrolysis and CARDs activation. We show that human RIG-I maintains an auto-inhibited resting state owing to the intra-molecular HEL2i-CARD2 interactions while apo MDA5 lacks the analogous intra-molecular interactions and therefore adopts an extended conformation. Our work demonstrates that RIG-I binds and responds differently to short triphosphorylated RNA and long duplex RNA and that sequential addition of RNA and ATP triggers specific allosteric effects leading to RIG-I CARDs activation. We also present a high-resolution protein surface mapping technique that refines the cooperative oligomerization model of neighboring MDA5 molecules on long duplex RNA. Taken together, our data provide a high-resolution view of RLR activation in solution and offer new evidence for the molecular mechanism of RLR activation.