The relationship between maximal exercise tolerance and resting radionuclide indexes of left ventricular systolic and diastolic function were evaluated in 20 ischemic and 44 idiopathic cardiomyopathy patients with New York Heart Association class 2-4 chronic congestive heart failure. Left ventricular ejection fraction, peak systolic ejection rate, peak diastolic filling rate, time to peak filling from end-systolic volume, and fractional filling in early diastole were measured from the radionuclide ventriculogram. All patients underwent symptom-limited exercise testing with on-line measurement of oxygen consumption. In the ischemic group, all of the radionuclide indexes correlated poorly with maximal exercise oxygen consumption (VO2max) except the peak systolic ejection rate which correlated modestly (r = 0.58, p < 0.05). Peak systolic ejection rate was significantly lower (p < 0.01) as were the peak diastolic filling rate and fractional filling in the first third of diastole (p < 0.05) in ischemic patients with marked exercise intolerance (VO2max < or = 14 mL/kg/min) compared with those with preserved exercise tolerance (VO2max > 14 mL/kg/min). In the idiopathic group, none of the radionuclide indexes correlated well with VO2max; and all indexes were similar in patients with and without marked exercise intolerance. These data suggest that (1) resting left ventricular ejection fraction poorly predicts maximal exercise capacity in both ischemic and idiopathic cardiomyopathy and (2) resting peak systolic ejection rate, peak diastolic filling rate, and fractional filling in early diastole may predict exercise tolerance in ischemic but not idiopathic cardiomyopathy.