Normal or near-normal exercise capacity has been thought to reflect normal left ventricular function. Many compensatory mechanisms could preserve exercise capacity in patients with severe left ventricular dysfunction. We evaluated exercise capacity using a treadmill exercise test in 26 patients with severe left ventricular dysfunction defined by a left ventricular ejection fraction of 30% or less by isotope ventriculography. One half of the patients had normal exercise capacity and a normal cardiothoracic ratio on chest x-ray. This study indicates that traditional predictors of left ventricular function that have been widely used in clinical evaluation of the patients with cardiac disease (cardiothoracic ratio and exercise capacity) can be normal in a significant number of patients with severe left ventricular dysfunction. Thus, left ventricular function cannot be accurately estimated using these traditional predictors and should be assessed quantitatively. The isotope ventriculogram appears to be ideal for this purpose.