BACKGROUND PATIENTS: with chronic airflow obstruction are often limited by muscle fatigue and weakness. As exercise rehabilitation programmes have produced modest improvements at best a study was designed to determine whether specific muscle training techniques are helpful. METHODS: Thirty four patients with chronic airflow limitation (forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) 38% of predicted values) were stratified for FEV1 to vital capacity (VC) ratio less than 40% and arterial oxygen desaturation during exercise and randomised to a control or weightlifting training group. In the experimental group training was prescribed for upper and lower limb muscles as a percentage of the maximum weight that could be lifted once only. It was carried out three times a week for eight weeks. RESULTS: Three subjects dropped out of each group; results in the remaining 14 patients in each group were analysed. Adherence in the training group was 90%. In the trained subjects muscle strength and endurance time during cycling at 80% of maximum power output increased by 73% from 518 (SE69) to 898 (95) s, with control subjects showing no change (506 (86) s before training and 479 (89) s after training). No significant changes in maximum cycle ergometer exercise capacity or distance walked in six minutes were found in either group. Responses to a chronic respiratory questionnaire showed significant improvements in dyspnoea and mastery of daily living activities in the trained group. CONCLUSIONS: Weightlifting training may be successfully used in patients with chronic airflow limitation, with benefits in muscle strength, exercise endurance, and subjective responses to some of the demands of daily living.