Compensatory growth is a phenomenon observed in pigs given free access to feed following a period of restricted feeding that results in increased growth rates. Compensatory growth is believed to increase protein turnover and thereby the proteolytic potential at the time of slaughter, leading to faster tenderization rates of meat. Nine litters of three gilts and three barrows were allocated within litter and gender to three dietary treatment groups. Pigs had ad libitum access to feed from d 28 to slaughter at d 140 (ALA) or were restricted to 69% ad libitum from d 28 to d 80 or 90, and then given ad libitum access to the diet until slaughter at d 140 (RA80 and RA90, respectively). Pigs in the RA80 and RA90 treatment groups had a 9.7% higher (P < or = 0.001) fractional growth rate in the second feeding period than those in the ALA group. Growth rate was correlated to the activity of m-calpain (r = 0.37; P < or = 0.01), beta-glucuronidase (r = 0.48; P < or = 0.001), and cathepsins B (r = 0.47; P < or = 0.001) and B+L (r = 0.31; P < or = 0.04). The LM of RA80-gilts received higher tenderness scores than the LM of ALA gilts, but tenderness scores were similar among barrows regardless of treatment (gender x treatment; P = 0.02). Conversely, tenderness scores were higher for the biceps femoris of ALA barrows than either ALA gilts or RA90 barrows (gender x treatment; P = 0.02). Desmin and troponin-T degradation, as well as myofibrillar fragmentation index, of the LM were not (P > or = 0.24) affected by treatment. No dietary treatment effects were observed on the activities of mu-calpain (P = 0.15), m-calpain (P = 0.74), or calpastatin (P = 0.91) at slaughter. The cathepsin inhibitors, cystatins, tended to be increased (P = 0.06) in RA80 and RA90 pigs. Sarcomere length was longer (P = 0.003) in the LM of gilts than barrows. Barrows in the RA80 group had lower i.m. fat concentrations than ALA; however, no differences were found in the LM of gilts (gender x treatment; P = 0.03). The underlying hypothesis that compensatory growth leads to an increased proteolytic potential at the time of slaughter could not be verified in this study.