The hypothesis that patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have chronic inspiratory muscle fatigue was tested in an effectiveness trial in which negative pressure ventilation (NPV) was used to produce inspiratory muscle rest. In a double-blind study 184 patients with severe COPD were randomly allocated active or sham NPV treatment for a 12-week period of home use. The distance walked in a 6 min walk test was the primary outcome variable. Secondary outcome measures were cycle exercise endurance time, severity of dyspnoea, quality of life, arterial blood gas tensions, and respiratory muscle strength. The percentage reduction in amplitude of the diaphragmatic electromyographic signal multiplied by hours of NPV was used to reflect the dose of NPV so we could examine dose-response relations. Analysis was based on intention to treat. We found no evidence of a clinically or statistically significant difference in any outcome measure between active and sham groups. No dose-response relation was observed. Moreover, the intervention was poorly accepted despite substantial clinical support. We conclude that NPV as used in this study is difficult to apply and ineffective when used with the aim of resting the respiratory muscles in patients with stable COPD.