This article provides a snapshot of muscle near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) at the end of 2010 summarizing the recent literature, offering the present status and perspectives of the NIRS instrumentation and methods, describing the main NIRS studies on skeletal muscle physiology, posing open questions and outlining future directions. So far, different NIRS techniques (e.g. continuous-wave (CW) and spatially, time- and frequency-resolved spectroscopy) have been used for measuring muscle oxygenation during exercise. In the last four years, approximately 160 muscle NIRS articles have been published on different physiological aspects (primarily muscle oxygenation and haemodynamics) of several upper- and lower-limb muscle groups investigated by using mainly two-channel CW and spatially resolved spectroscopy commercial instruments. Unfortunately, in only 15 of these studies were the advantages of using multi-channel instruments exploited. There are still several open questions in the application of NIRS in muscle studies: (i) whether NIRS can be used in subjects with a large fat layer; (ii) the contribution of myoglobin desaturation to the NIRS signal during exercise; (iii) the effect of scattering changes during exercise; and (iv) the effect of changes in skin perfusion, particularly during prolonged exercise. Recommendations for instrumentation advancements and future muscle NIRS studies are provided. This journal is © 2011 The Royal Society.