We aimed to characterize gender differences in exercise endurance, operating lung volumes and symptoms limitation during exercise in patients with COPD. Ninety-three women and 93 men with COPD matched for age and disease severity were evaluated during symptom-limited constant-work rate cycle exercise at 75% of peak capacity. Breathing pattern, inspiratory capacity, dyspnoea and leg discomfort Borg scores were recorded during exercise. Endurance time was shorter in women compared to men. Inspiratory capacity decreased at a similar rate during exercise in women and men (0.71 vs. 0.81 ml x s(- 1) for women and men respectively, p = 0.47) despite lower ventilation at end-exercise in women. At end-exercise, women showed lower inspiratory reserve volume (p < 0.005). Dyspnoea responses during exercise occurred with a steep rise near end-exercise, when inspiratory reserve volume approached a critical value, at 10% of total lung capacity, this onset of dyspnoea acceleration occurred earlier in women (p < 0.0001). At the same relative exercise intensity, women with COPD had lower endurance time than men. Compared to men, women with COPD were disadvantaged during exercise as they reached a critical inspiratory reserve volume earlier, leading to a steep increase in dyspnoea and to exercise termination.