The influence of autonomic tone on left ventricular (LV) contractility, along with the range of normal values and the effects of exercise on contractile state, were studied in 12 normal volunteers. Serial reproducibility was examined in a subgroup of 6. LV contractility was estimated by the LV peak-systolic pressure to end-systolic volume relation (pressure-volume relation), and the ratio of peak-systolic pressure to end-systolic volume (pressure/volume ratio). The cuff blood pressure and radionuclide ventriculogram were recorded at rest, during exercise and during pharmacologic pressure-afterloading with phenylephrine, before and after vagal and beta-adrenergic "blockade." Both the pressure/volume ratio and ejection fraction increased during the stimulus of exercise (both p less than or equal to 0.008). After blockade, the pressure-volume relations were highly linear (r = 0.95 +/- 0.05 [standard deviation], n = 12), and there was no systematic difference in their slopes induced by blockade. The serial studies of pressure-volume relations showed no significant differences. The results demonstrated that vagal and sympathetic tone were not important in the support of LV contractility in normal subjects at rest, and that the pressure-volume relation and pressure/volume ratio are reproducible between studies. Also, the findings confirmed that both the pressure/volume ratio and the ejection fraction were sensitive to exercise-induced changes in contractility. This demonstration of intrinsic LV contractility in normal subjects, plus the reproducibility of the measurements, supports the feasibility of serial study of LV contractility.