The present study was aimed to investigate the mechanism underlying the influence of maternal low-protein (LP) diet on offspring growth in the chicken. One hundred and twenty Chinese inbred Langshan breeder hens were allocated randomly into two groups fed diets containing low (10 %, LP) or normal (15 %) crude protein levels. Low dietary protein did not affect the body weight of hens, but significantly decreased the laying rate and egg weight. The yolk leptin content was significantly lower in eggs laid by LP hens, while no differences were detected for yolk contents of corticosterone, tri-iodothyronine (T3) or thyroxine. Despite significantly lower hatch weight, the LP offspring demonstrated obviously higher serum T3 concentration, which is in accordance with the faster post-hatch growth rate achieving significantly heavier body weight and pectoralis major muscle weight 4 weeks post-hatching. Expression of 20-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (20-HSD) mRNA in the yolk-sac membrane was significantly down-regulated at embryonic day 14, whereas that of transthyretin and leptin receptor (LepR) was not altered. Moreover, hypothalamic expression of 20-HSD, glucocorticoid receptors, thyrotropin-releasing hormone and LepR mRNA was significantly up-regulated in the LP group compared with their control counterparts. In the pectoralis major muscle, significantly higher expression of insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-I and IGF-I receptor mRNA was observed in LP embryos. The present study provides evidence that maternal LP diet programmes post-hatch growth of the offspring. The associated alterations in yolk leptin deposition as well as in yolk-sac membrane, fetal hypothalamus and muscle gene expression may be involved in mediating such programming effect in the chicken.