Three different views can be found in the literature concerning the classical question in exercise physiology: what limits maximal oxygen uptake in man? Some authors believe that the limitation is the maximal rate of oxygen delivery by the cardiovascular system. Others argue that oxygen uptake is limited by the capillary bed or metabolic capacity of skeletal muscle, and the third line of thought is that no single factor can be found to be directly limiting as all links in the oxygen transport are so closely matched. The stand taken in this paper is that the skeletal muscle of man can be excluded as a limiting factor for maximal oxygen uptake in whole body exercise. It can be shown, by direct measurements, that in sedentary and in trained man maximal perfusion and oxygen utilization of skeletal muscle is so high that if all muscles in the body were engaged in intense exercise, the cardiac pump function would have to be 2–3 fold larger than it is. What happens in whole body exercise is that each muscle group receives only a fraction of the blood it can accommodate. The primary role for a larger capillary network observed in trained muscles is to keep or extend mean transit time. Elevated mitochondrial enzyme activities affect the metabolic response (i.e. lipid oxidation is elevated in trained muscles). However, these adaptations are not necessary for increasing the maximal oxygen uptake of man, as the capacity of the heart is limiting. Improved training techniques (which induce even larger improvements in cardiac pump function) may reveal that pulmonary diffusion capacity is the limiting factor.

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