Exercise limitation in cirrhosis is typically attributed to a cirrhotic myopathy (without impaired oxygen utilization) and/or a cardiac chronotropic dysfunction. We performed symptom-limited cardiopulmonary exercise testing in 19 cirrhotics without confounding variables (cardiopulmonary disease, beta blockade, anemia, smoking). Twelve concurrently exercised patients without cirrhosis and with normal resting pulmonary function were controls. Oxygen consumption (VO2) at peak exercise, at anaerobic threshold (VO2-AT), work rate (WR), and heart rate (HR) were measured. Cirrhotics had significantly lower peak WR (73+/-4 vs 107+/-7% predicted, p < 0.001), VO2 (72+/-4 vs 98+/-5% predicted, P < 0.001), VO2-AT (53+/-4 vs 71+/-5% predicted peak VO2, P < 0.01), HR (83+/-2 vs 91+/-2% predicted, P < 0.01) and were more likely to have chronotropic dysfunction (peak HR < 85% predicted). Six cirrhotics had normal aerobic capacity (peak VO2 > 80% predicted), while 13 were abnormal. The abnormals had an earlier AT (46+/-2 vs 67+/-3% predicted peak VO2, P < 0.05) but no difference in peak HR percent predicted was found. In conclusion, two thirds of cirrhotics, without confounding factors, have significantly reduced aerobic capacity. Cirrhotic myopathy (without impaired O2 utilization) and cardiac chronotropic dysfunction do not adequately account for the observed decrease in aerobic capacity.