To investigate the impact of expiratory flow limitation (FL) on breathing pattern and end-expiratory lung volume (EELV), we imposed a small expiratory threshold load for a few breaths during exercise in nine volunteers (29-62 yr): six were healthy and three had mild-to-moderate airflow obstruction (67-71% predicted forced expiratory volume in 1 s). Six subjects showed evidence of FL, i.e., tidal expiratory flow impinging on maximal forced expiratory flow, at one or more exercise levels. Whenever an expiratory threshold load was imposed, mean expiratory flow decreased (P < 0.02) in association with an increased expiratory time (TE; P < 0.05). When the load was imposed during non-FL conditions, TE increased less than expiratory flow decreased and EELV tended to increase. In contrast, during FL, with the load, TE increased more than expiratory flow decreased, subjects did not achieve maximal expiratory flow until a lower volume, and EELV decreased (P < 0.001). Under both FL and no-FL conditions, unloading reversed the changes associated with loading. These data indicate that the increase in EELV during exercise is linked to the occurrence of FL. We suggest that compression of airways downstream from the flow-limiting segment may elicit a reflex mechanism that influences breathing pattern by terminating expiration prematurely, thus increasing EELV.