The velocity of circumferential fiber shortening (Vcf) is an index of myocardial performance which, although sensitive to contractile state, has limited usefulness because of its dependence on left ventricular loading conditions. This study investigated the degree and velocity of left ventricular fiber shortening as it relates to wall stress in an attempt to develop an index of contractility that is independent of preload and heart rate while incorporating afterload. Studies were performed in 78 normal subjects using M-mode echocardiography, phonocardiography and indirect carotid pulse tracings under baseline conditions. In addition, studies were performed on 25 subjects during afterload augmentation with methoxamine, 8 subjects before and during afterload challenge after increased preload with dextran and 7 subjects with enhanced left ventricular contractility with dobutamine. The relation of end-systolic stress to the velocity of fiber shortening and to the rate-corrected velocity of shortening (corrected by normalization to an RR interval of 1) was inversely linear with correlation coefficients of -0.72 and -0.84, respectively. Alterations in afterload, preload or a combination of the two did not significantly affect the end-systolic wall stress/rate-corrected velocity of shortening relation, whereas during inotropic stimulation, the values were higher, with 94% of the data points above the normal range. Age did not appear to affect the range of normal values for this index. In contrast, the end-systolic wall stress/fractional shortening relation was not independent of preload status, responding in a manner similar to that seen with a positive inotropic intervention. Thus, the velocity of circumferential fiber shortening normalized for heart rate is inversely related to end-systolic wall stress in a linear fashion. Accurate quantitation can be performed by noninvasive means and a range of normal values determined. This index is a sensitive measure of contractile state that is independent of preload, normalized for heart rate and incorporates afterload. In contrast, the end-systolic wall stress/fractional shortening relation is dependent on end-diastolic fiber length in the range of physiologically relevant changes in preload.