Working Out Smarter: Monitoring Your Heart Rate


The majority of people who exercise come into their health club with only one thing on their agendas: cardio.  Usually this involves walk/jogging on the treadmill, riding a stationary bike, using the elliptical, or a combination of multiple machines.  I bet that if you’re someone who works out like this, these are your fitness goals; lose anywhere between 10-30 pounds, “tone up” (particularly in the arms, stomach, and butt), and get healthy.  I say this because these are the goals of about 95% of the people I talk to in health clubs. They key point here is that most people who are exercising are spending hours in the gym with very little takeaway.  If you fall into this category, it’s time to start monitoring your heart rate as a means to make the physiological response to your exercise match your goals. 

Heart rate training is so important because different rates (or heart rate zones as we’ll refer to them) elicit different responses from your body.  If your goal is weight loss and you walk at a speed where you can carry on a lengthy conversation, you’re probably not moving fast enough.  If you have that same goal, and are sprinting as fast as you can for ten seconds, followed by a rest and a repeat, you’re probably moving a bit too quickly for your goals. 

Heart rate zones work a little differently than the chart on your elliptical would have you believe.  The first step is making your training personal to you. The most common method is finding your Heart Rate Max which is found by taking the number 220 and subtracting your age (HRmax = 220 – age). After which you would take the appropriate heart rate zone percentage to find where you should be exercising.  However this is not the most accurate method.  We’re going to use a method called the Karvonen Formula which makes heart rate training much more reliant on your current heart rate information.  

Tomorrow, as soon as you wake up, check your pulse.  Count how many heart beats occur in one minute. This is your Resting Heart Rate (RHR) and is the most important thing in making heart rate training effective for your individual needs.  After finding your RHR a little math is necessary.  This formula still uses our 220-age method but now includes your RHR information as well. 

The formula is (((220-age)-RHR)*%of HRmax)+RHR .  Let’s do an example.  Say our subject is 30 years old, has a RHR of 65, and wants to exercise at 70% of their Heart Rate Max.  We would first subtract 30 from 220 to give us 190. Then subtract 65 from 190 to give us 125. Next multiple 125 by .7 (70%) and get 87.5.  Add back in the RHR of 65 to get 152.5 which we could round up to our target heart rate of 153.  Simple right?  That’s not the end of the math though.  You’ll have to do that same equation for a different percentage to give you the zone you should be exercising in.

So what zone should you be exercising in?  Typically we use increments of 10% starting at 50% of your HR max.  Although this isn’t the ‘be all, end all’ of cardio training, it’s the easiest, most effective way without have an exercise physiology lab at your disposal. 

If you’re a beginner you should start in the 50%-60% range.  While you probably won’t see many physiological gains in the range, you will get more accustomed to exercising.  Remember, no exercise is bad exercise, but if you’re goals include weight loss or increasing the amount of time you can exercise for, you should move on from this zone in a couple weeks.

60%-70% is where you should be training if weight loss is your primary goal. At this zone the body uses fatty acids as its primary energy supply.  You’ll also start to notice muscle adaptations.  In this zone you can exercise your longer periods of time without putting too much stress on the body.

In the 70%-80% range you’ll start getting more energy from carbohydrate stores. You’ll start to notice much greater muscular adaptations. Your body will also start to use oxygen more efficiently. 

80%-90% is the zone where the body (for the most part) stops using fat stores as a means for energy and switches primarily to carbohydrate stores in the muscles. Training in this zone will greatly improve performance but will be difficult to maintain for long periods of time.  The best method to train here is interval training, where you would increase your heart rate above 80% for a short period of time, followed by a period of active rest where the heart would have time to recover.  This method improves the body’s ability to produce energy at higher heart rates. 

90%-100% will mostly train your energy systems that do not require oxygen and will only be able to be maintained for very short bursts.  Here your body will greatly improve its ability to perform at maximum capacity.  Unless you are a highly trained athlete training here isn’t recommended without first building up to this point or under the supervision of a professional. 

Always remember that training for your goals is the best way to achieve them.  In this case training in a variety of zones is the best way to achieve overall fitness and health gains.  Use this information to train smarter and start using those metal handles on the cardio equipment at your gym. Like I stated earlier, heart rate training is not the most effective way to monitor cardio training, but it’s a fantastic tool to use if other methods aren’t available. A mixture of cardio and resistance training is always superior to one over the other.  If you have more questions about improving the quality of your  cardio workouts talk to a local trainer about VO2 testing and  training, anaerobic threshold, and metabolic rates. 


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