It is now becoming clear that several papain-like cysteine cathepsins are involved in the pathophysiology of diseases such as osteoporosis, autoimmune disorders, and cancer. Therefore, the development of potent and selective cathepsin inhibitors is an attractive subject for medicinal chemists. New advances have been made for nitrile-based inhibitors, leading to the identification of the cathepsin K inhibitor odanacatib and other candidates with potential for therapeutic use. This review summarizes the development of peptidic and peptidomimetic compounds with an electrophilic nitrile ‘warhead’ as inhibitors of the cysteine cathepsins B, S, L, C, and K. Peptide nitriles have been shown to reversibly react with the active site cysteine under formation of a covalent thioimidate adduct. The structural optimization with respect to the positions P3, P2, P1, P1, and P2 resulted in the identification of potent and selective inhibitors of the corresponding cathepsins. The underlying structure-activity relationships are discussed herein.