Skeletal muscle function was measured as force production and fatigue in both the quadriceps (a large locomotive muscle) and adductor pollicis (a small intrinsic hand muscle) in five healthy volunteers, five patients with mild chronic heart failure, and five patients with severe chronic heart failure. The quadriceps of patients with chronic heart failure had a reduced muscle cross sectional area, a reduced maximum isometric force production, and an increased tendency to fatigue. Isometric force production and fatigue of the adductor pollicis, however, were not significantly different between the three groups under control conditions. But during circulatory occlusion fatigue in the adductor pollicis increased more in the patients with severe chronic heart failure. These differing findings in quadriceps and adductor pollicis suggest that skeletal muscle atrophy and reduced isometric force production are not a necessary consequence of chronic heart failure per se, because they were only present in the large locomotive muscle. The normal values for muscle fatigue observed in adductor pollicis in patients with chronic heart failure imply that skeletal muscle blood flow must increase normally during muscle activation when only a small muscle mass is used. These results are not compatible with the concept of a generalised impairment of normal vasodilatation within active skeletal muscle. In contrast, activation of a large muscle, such as quadriceps, results in the rapid onset of fatigue in patients with severe chronic heart failure. This fatigue may be related to the inability of the cardiovascular system to provide the required blood flow for the activation of a large muscle mass. The finding of a relatively greater increase in fatigue of adductor pollicis during circulatory occlusion in patients with severe chronic heart failure supports the hypnosis of an intrinsic abnormality of skeletal muscle in these patients.