The purpose of this study was to compare quadriceps fatigability in patients with varying severity of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease with age-matched control subjects. Ten healthy control subjects, 8 patients with severe disease (FEV1 less than 35% predicted), and 11 patients with mild to moderate disease were studied. The FEV1 was 1.75 +/- 0.13 L (SE), 50.4 +/- 2.9% of predicted in the mild to moderate group, and 0.87 +/- 0.06 L, 25.9 +/- 1.9% of predicted in the severe group. Quadriceps fatigue was quantified by the reduction in potentiated twitch force after a potentially fatiguing task. All subjects performed three sets of 10 maximum voluntary contractions of the right quadriceps muscle. Quadriceps maximum voluntary contraction force was 58.3 +/- 3.3 kg for the healthy older group, 49.0 +/- 4.2 kg in the mild to moderate group, and 44.3 +/- 4.7 kg in the severe group. The fall in potentiated twitch force after exercise was significantly greater in the patients with severe disease than in the healthy control subjects. In conclusion, the quadriceps in patients with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are more fatigable than those in age- and sex-matched healthy control subjects.