Heart Rate Training: Everything You Need To Know

Learn how to use your heart rate to train smarter and maximize gains from your workouts.

Heart Rate Monitor

With new advances in technology, heart rate monitors are becoming increasingly popular as fitness tools. When used properly, they allow you to get an accurate assessment of the intensity of your workout so you can make both instant adjustments and long-term progress. The ability to check how hard you are actually working can ensure that you get the most out of your workouts and make quantifiable gains. (Learn more about the value of heart rate monitors.)

Types of Heart Rate Monitors

There are three main types:

  • The most common version is built into cardio equipment. All you need to do is place your palms on the metal grips and wait for the reading. This is convenient, but you do have to place your hands in an awkward position, which can take your mind off your actual exercise. Also, you can't get a reading unless you are actually using the machine.
  • The second type is the watch, which has sensors built in that measure your heart rate through your skin. These are portable and user friendly, but they do not provide constant feedback and they require a free hand to get a reading.
  • The third type is a watch/strap combo. You wear a chest strap at sternum level that constantly monitors your pulse, and sends data to a watch—or to a smartphone—for convenient display. This is the most accurate version and the one most often recommended for training.

How to Use Your Heart Rate Monitor

Wearing a heart rate monitor doesn't do you much good if you don't know how to use it.

The first step is to find your max heart rate. Once you reach this level, you will no longer be able to increase the intensity of your workout and will fatigue in a matter of seconds.

The most accurate way to find this number is by undergoing a VO2 max test at a local exercise physiology lab. Most major universities have one of these, and some gyms also offer max testing. (Learn more about VO2 max testing.) If you don't have access to a max test, you can estimate your max heart rate by subtracting your age from 220.[1] This is not always completely accurate, but it can serve as a good estimate.

Once you have your max, the next step is to find your target heart-rate range, where you must stay to achieve a specific goal.

  • Moderate Activity (50-60%) - Mostly used for recovery, or as a warm-up and cool down
  • Fat Loss (60-70%) - Fat is the primary fuel source in this zone; however, intensity is not high enough to burn significant calories.
  • Aerobic Endurance (70-80%) - This is best steady-state range (i.e., one intensity for a given amount of time) for improving aerobic endurance.
  • Ventilatory Threshold (80-90%) - Training in this zone can increase your ventilatory threshold, which is the point where your body produces significant waste products, including lactic acid. This range is commonly used for interval training. (Try this interval workout.)
  • Maximal Effort (90-100%) - Max effort work improves the body's anaerobic system, which is used for short and high-intensity bursts of strength, speed and power. It can only be sustained for short bursts, so it is also used for interval training.

Heart Rate Use Example

Let's look at an example of how to use these percentages.

  • Assuming no VO2 max test is available, a 22-year-old man can estimate that his max heart rate is 198 (220 – 22).
  • He must then select a training goal. For this example, let's say he chooses the ventilatory threshold.
  • Based on this goal, he can derive his target heart-rate range. In this case, it's between 158  and 178 (198 X .8 = 158 and 198 X .9 = 178)
  • When performing his workout, he must ensure that his heart rate falls within this range. Since he will be performing intervals, this would be during each work phase.

Heart-rate training can be a simple and effective way to improve your fitness. It's the equivalent of keeping track of how much weight you lift in the gym. Try it today and let me know what you think in the comments section below.


[1] McArdle, William D., Frank I. Katch, and Victor L. Katch. "Exercise Physiology," Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2001. Print.

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