Abstract Cooperative MIMO (Multiple Input–Multiple Output) allows multiple nodes share their antennas to emulate antenna arrays and transmit or receive cooperatively. It has the ability to increase the capacity for future wireless communication systems and it is particularly suited for ad hoc networks. In this study, based on the transmission procedure of a typical cooperative MIMO system, we first analyze the capacity of single-hop cooperative MIMO systems, and then we derive the optimal resource allocation strategy to maximize the end-to-end capacity in multi-hop cooperative MIMO systems. The study shows three implications. First, only when the intra-cluster channel is better than the inter-cluster channel, cooperative MIMO results in a capacity increment. Second, for a given scenario there is an optimal number of cooperative nodes. For instance, in our study an optimal deployment of three cooperative nodes achieve a capacity increment of 2 bps/Hz when compared with direct transmission. Third, an optimal resource allocation strategy plays a significant role in maximizing end-to-end capacity in multi-hop cooperative MIMO systems. Numerical results show that when optimal resource allocation is applied we achieve more than 20% end-to-end capacity increment in average when compared with an equal resource allocation strategy.