'Using a heart rate monitor to track your workouts is a useful way to help you determine how hard you are working,' explains Haydn Elliot, Owner and Head Trainer at F45 Oxford Circus.
Mentally you might think you’re working hard, but with a heart rate monitor you can see exactly what heart rate zone you're in - there's no hiding from the digits.
Our brain is very good at protecting our body, like when it triggers the fight or flight mechanism. And during a tough workout our brain will often try to tell our body to stop and get outta there, or take it easier, which can prevent you from reaching your goals. With a heart rate device your brain can’t fool you because you can see exactly how hard you’re working - whether that’s lightly, moderately or at its max.
But it isn’t enough to simply keep a close eye on your heart rate, to get the most out of tracking your ticker you need to be able to understand the data the device you choose throws out at you so you can really optimise on your goals. Here’s how to get on the right beat…
Recording your max heart rate
To start heart rate training you need to get yourself a device.
Once you know your max heart rate you can then explore the different heart rate zones. To calculate your max heart rate simply subtract your age from 220. So, if you’re 30 your max heart rate is 190 beats per minute (bpm).
Heart rate training zones
There are 'five different heart rate zones, each determined by the heart rate level during sustained exercise,' advises Elliot.
50–60% of your max heart rate.
Training in this zone is useful for optimising recovery.
60–70% of your max heart rate.
Improves general endurance and helps boost oxidisation.
70–80% of your max heart rate.
Helps improve efficiency of blood circulation.
80–90% of your max heart rate.
Improves speed endurance and uses carbohydrates for energy – (carbs or glucose?).
90–100% of your max heart rate.
All systems will be working at their maximal capacity.
Everyone’s heart responds to exercise stimuli differently, so, once you have a heart rate device try different modes of exercise at different efforts to see what pushes your heart rate up the zones.
If you’re pretty new to fitness you’ll find that as you exercise more it will become harder and harder to reach the hard and maximum zones.
Fat burning zone
Now let’s address the 'fat burning zone' idea. Your body draws on its fat burning system most effectively during the light zone, which is great! But, if your goal is to get rid of belly fat you need to look at the bigger picture: calories in versus calories out.
If you train in the moderate or hard zones then you will burn more calories faster during your workout and you’ll likely experience the after burn, where you continue to burn more calories after a session like HIIT.
While your body draws on fat for light exercise, like walking, it switches to a different energy system and one that draws on carbohydrates for fuel, once your effort reaches moderate or hard intensity.
A short, intense workout is much more time efficient at burning calories than a long walk.
(Ed' Note: but here's how to lose weight walking 30 minutes a day)
So, if you’re in a calorie deficit with your nutrition you will lose weight (including body fat) quicker if you factor some moderate and hard workouts into your training plan, plus these types of sessions are great for your overall heart health too.
And it’s not just cardio…
While cardio sessions are going to work your heart most, weight training sessions can also play a part. 'During a weights session your heart rate will increase as you will be performing short bursts of intense exertion.
'This will not only increase your muscle mass but can also strengthen your heart too,' says Elliot. 'As weight training is such a broad spectrum, it can be difficult to determine what the ideal heart rate level is for lifting, it also vastly depends on the nature of the lift you are performing and the number of reps.
'As a general rule you should be aiming for a heart rate of no more than 80-85%.'
Should you go hard or go home with your heart rate training?
The key to heart rate zone training is to spend a certain amount of time in each zone (more on that later). But you don’t want to spend too long in the maximum zone.
'Training at 90% of your maximum heart rate or above should feel really hard and is only sustainable for short periods of time.'
Maximum training for a fit person is things like sprinting (either running or cycling) or a one rep maximum deadlift, but it varies for everyone a boxing or Zumba class could enable some people to reach their max.
'The goal is not to remain in the 90% HR state,' says Elliot, 'but rather to allow your heart rate to fluctuate, which will help strengthen you heart and make it more adaptable.
'If you train consistently at 90%, your body will quickly become tired and you could be at risk of over training.
'One study found that those who continuously exceeded their target and maximum heart rates while exercising had poor rates of recovery after exercise and could potentially suffer from issues such as chest pain and discomfort,' he adds.
Your target heart rate zones
How can you work your heart optimally during a cardio session? Elliot recommends using this as a guide to training your heart rate efficiently in your next workout:
Zone 1: 30%-40% of your time
Zone 2: 40%-50% of your time
Zone 3: 10%-15% of your time
Zone 4: 5%-10% of your time
Zone 5: 5% of your time
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