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Listen To Your Heart: Heart Rate and “Zone” Training
Written by Rob Williams   

Maximize your workout efficiency using heart rate training zones.

People exercise for many reasons. Some strive for improved health, increased energy or stress relief, while others are focused on losing body fat and looking great. Whatever your motivation, it makes sense that you’d like to see maximum benefit from your efforts.

When planning your training program, it can be helpful to categorize fitness activities into different modes. Three primary categories are resistance training, cardiovascular training and functional conditioning (think boot camp). In all of these exercise modes, there are performance indicators that will help you measure intensity and monitor progress. By keeping an eye on these indicators, you can adapt your training approach and maximize your results.

In the case of resistance training, the performance indicators most often emphasized are extrinsic, or outside of the body. These might include the amount of weight lifted, the number of repetitions performed or the rest intervals between sets. With cardiovascular training and functional conditioning activities, there are numerous extrinsic indicators as well. However, one of the most important measures of performance relates to how your body is responding to the work being done. This intrinsic indicator is your heart rate.

Everyone has their own resting heart rate level and heart rate response to exercise. These vary with different factors, such as genetic predisposition, age, gender, fitness level, stress, altitude, body temperature and hydration levels. Because of the direct relationship between the demands of exercise and the body’s heart rate response, the idea of heart rate training zones has long been accepted as a method of gauging exercise intensity and measuring changes in your fitness level. These zones are also widely used as guidelines for exercise prescription. The theory is that by training in the right zone, you can target the desired physiological response, such as fat-burning or aerobic improvement.

Get In the Zone

There are multiple schools of thought when it comes to heart rate training zones. The National Academy of Sports Medicine suggests using three zones, representing 60 to 75 percent, 80 to 85 percent, and 86 to 90 percent of maximum heart rate, respectively. Others in the industry describe five different zones:

  • Very Light (50 to 60 percent HR max) – Healthy Heart Zone: improved well-being, general health, weight management.
  • Light (60 to 70 percent HR max) – Fat Burning Zone: improved endurance, high percentage of fat burned during exercise, longer bouts of exercise.
  • Moderate (70 to 80 percent HR max) – Aerobic Zone: significant improvements in cardio-respiratory capacity for health and fitness, longer exercise durations.
  • Hard (80 to 90 percent HR max) – Anaerobic Threshold Zone: improved anaerobic performance during intervals or short duration training
  • Very Hard (90 to 100 percent HR max) – Redline Zone: maximum performance and speed during very short bursts of exercise.

Whichever model you choose to adopt, the underlying principle is that by monitoring your heart rate during exercise and adapting the intensity of the exercise to keep your heart rate within certain zones, you can target specific physical and functional improvements.

Establish Your Training Zones

You should begin by calculating your maximum heart rate in beats per minute (bpm), which will allow you to establish your training zones. This can be done by performing a maximal functional capacity test, using a bicycle or treadmill ergometer, or more commonly with a recognized mathematical formula for age-predicted maximal heart rate. One formula is: 220 – (your age) = max heart rate (in bpm). For a 40-year-old, this formula would give a suggested maximal heart rate of 180 bpm. You can then apply the percentages to determine your zones. For this 40 year-old, staying within the Aerobic Zone would mean keeping the heart rate between 70 and 80 percent of 180, or between 126 and 144 beats per minute.

To be sure you are staying within the desired training zone, you’ll need to monitor your heart rate during exercise. This can be performed manually by feeling your pulse and counting the number of beats during a timed period, or more conveniently by using a digital heart rate monitor. A monitor will consistently display your heart rate while you exercise and can be set to alert you if you’ve left your specified training zone.

Think of heart rate monitoring during exercise like using the speedometer in your car. It’s a good idea to check regularly to make sure you’re in the right zone.

Rob Williams -

Rob Williams is a practicing kinesiologist, medical exercise specialist and posture expert, who has performed over 20,000 hours of private client instruction in the last 20 years. Rob is owner of Mixx Fitness Studio and Performance Posture Clinic in downtown Vancouver. His personal website is


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