BACKGROUND: Although the bronchodilating effect of inhaled anticholinergics has been established in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), their effects on exercise capacity are still controversial. Previous studies have suggested that the standard dosage hardly affects exercise tolerance, whereas higher doses might elicit an improvement. The aim of the present study was to determine the dose of ipratropium bromide aerosol that improves exercise performance using progressive cycle ergometry in patients with stable COPD. METHODS: Twenty men with stable COPD of mean (SD) age 69.2 (4.6) years and forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) 1.00 (0.37) 1 were studied in a randomised double blind manner. Each patient received ipratropium bromide in doses of 240 micrograms, 160 micrograms, 80 micrograms, 40 micrograms, and placebo from a metered dose inhaler (MDI) with an InspirEase spacer on five separate days. Spirometric parameters were assessed before and at 30, 60, 90, and 120 minutes after each inhalation, and pulse rate and blood pressure were also measured immediately before each spirometric measurement. Symptom limited progressive (20 watts/min) cycle ergometer exercise tests were performed 90 minutes after each inhalation. RESULTS: Ipratropium bromide in doses of 160 micrograms and 240 micrograms produced a greater increase in FEV1 than 40 micrograms or 80 micrograms ipratropium bromide at all time points. Doses of 160 micrograms and 240 micrograms ipratropium bromide also produced greater increases in maximal work load and maximal oxygen consumption than placebo, whereas 40 micrograms and 80 micrograms ipratropium bromide did not. There was a weak correlation between the change in FEV1 and the change in maximal work load (r = 0.45). No differences were found in pulse rate or blood pressure between the treatment and placebo groups, and no side effects were noted throughout the study. CONCLUSIONS: A dose of at least four times the standard dose of ipratropium bromide from an MDI with a spacer device was necessary to improve maximal cycle exercise capacity in patients with stable COPD. Although the data from cycle ergometry cannot be directly applied to exercise performed during day to day activities, it is conceivable that the recommended doses of ipratropium bromide do not elicit the optimal clinical benefits.