We have examined muscle strength, mitochondrial enzyme activity, histochemistry and fibre size in the quadriceps muscle of 9 patients with severe chronic heart failure. A needle biopsy of the quadriceps muscle was taken with patients at rest. Maximum oxygen uptake was measured during treadmill exercise. Mean maximal oxygen consumption was 11.7 ml.kg-1.min-1. Isometric maximum voluntary contraction was reduced to 55% of the predicted value for weight. Eight biopsies were abnormal. Findings included increased acid phosphatase, increased interstitial cellularity, excess intracellular lipid accumulation, atrophy of both type I and II fibres and variation in size with hypertrophy and atrophy of fibers. Muscle fibre capillary density and the activity of mitochondrial enzymes were normal. Changes in skeletal muscle strength may play a role in the limitation of exercise capacity seen in patients with congestive heart failure.