There is a widely held perception that power training increases left ventricular (LV) wall thickness. Consequently, in individual power-trained athletes, confusion may legitimately occur with regard to the differential diagnosis of athlete's heart and nonobstructive hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. To investigate the effects of systematic strength training on cardiac dimensions (particularly absolute LV wall thickness), 100 relatively young and highly conditioned athletes participating in weight and power lifting, wrestling, bobsledding and weight-throwing events for 3 to 24 years (mean 7) were studied by echocardiography. No athlete showed a maximal absolute LV wall thickness that exceeded the generally accepted upper limits of normal (i.e., 12 mm; range 8 to 12). When compared with 26 normal, sedentary control subjects of similar age and body surface area, maximal septal thickness was mildly but significantly greater in athletes (9.6 +/- 0.8 vs 9.0 +/- 0.5 mm; p < 0.001), as was the calculated LV mass index (96 +/- 12 vs 81 +/- 8 g/m2; p < 0.001); LV end-diastolic cavity dimension was similar in athletes and controls (55 +/- 4 and 54 +/- 3, respectively; p > 0.05). Consequently, echocardiographic data in this selected group of purely strength-trained athletes show that whereas this form of conditioning is associated with increased LV mass and a disproportionate increase in wall thickness in relation to cavity dimension, only modest alterations in absolute wall thickness occur (which do not exceed upper normal limits). Therefore, in highly conditioned, strength-trained, competitive athletes, the presence of substantial LV wall thickening (> 13 mm) should suggest alternative explanations, such as the diagnosis of pathologic hypertrophy (i.e., hypertrophic cardiomyopathy).