Volume infusions are one of the commonest clinical interventions in critically ill patients yet the relationship of volume to cardiac output is not well understood. Blood volume has a stressed and unstressed component but only the stressed component determines flow. It is usually about 30 % of total volume. Stressed volume is relatively constant under steady state conditions. It creates an elastic recoil pressure that is an important factor in the generation of blood flow. The heart creates circulatory flow by lowering the right atrial pressure and allowing the recoil pressure in veins and venules to drain blood back to the heart. The heart then puts the volume back into the systemic circulation so that stroke return equals stroke volume. The heart cannot pump out more volume than comes back. Changes in cardiac output without changes in stressed volume occur because of changes in arterial and venous resistances which redistribute blood volume and change pressure gradients throughout the vasculature. Stressed volume also can be increased by decreasing vascular capacitance, which means recruiting unstressed volume into stressed volume. This is the equivalent of an auto-transfusion. It is worth noting that during exercise in normal young males, cardiac output can increase five-fold with only small changes in stressed blood volume. The mechanical characteristics of the cardiac chambers and the circulation thus ultimately determine the relationship between volume and cardiac output and are the subject of this review.