Finding & Understanding Your Heart Rate Zones

If you are really really into fitness and tracking your progress, you may be walking around with a some sort of tracker on your wrist. But, do you know what the numbers mean?

Heart-rate monitoring is one of the fitness trends you want to keep up with and workouts based on heart rate are becoming more and more popular. Simply knowing your heart rate is only half of the equation. To get the best results from your workouts, you really need to learn and understand your specific heart-rate zones for low, moderate, and high-intensity trainings - especially if you are new to the gym or have been working out hard for years already.

Finding your zones

To figure out your personal heart-rate zones, the first thing you need to do is determine what your maximum heart rate is, aka the hardest you can work during exercise. Then, you can calculate your zones. For low-intensity training (which is great for fat burning), you will want to keep your heart rate between 35 and 50 percent of your maximum heart rate. Moderate intensity is 50 to 70 percent of your max heart rate and training in this zone will help increase your endurance. High-intensity training sits at 70 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate and training here will improve your speed and power.

So, here is how you can find your resting heart rate.

The Step Test

Begin with taking your resting heart rate, before you start the step test. You can do this by, To check your pulse at your wrist, place two fingers between the bone and the tendon over your radial artery — which is located on the thumb side of your wrist. When you feel your pulse, count the number of beats in 15 seconds. Multiply this number by 4 to calculate your beats per minute.

Then find yourself a step of some sort - a box step or just a step at the bottom of a staircase. Wearing your heart-rate monitor begin to step up and off to the elevated platform, ensuring that both feet are on the ground first before stepping up again. Do this for 1 minute.

Once you've got your max heart rate, simply calculate the percentages of that number for low-, medium-, and high-intensity zones, and you'll be set.

The Formulas

The basic way to calculate your maximum heart rate is to subtract your age from 220. For example, if you're 45 years old, subtract 45 from 220 to get a maximum heart rate of 175. This is the maximum number of times your heart should beat per minute during exercise.

Another option is the Karvonen formula, which takes into account your resting heart rate to target specific training zones. To measure your resting heart rate, measure your pulse at your wrist first thing in the morning without an alarm clock or screaming kids. Count the number of beats in 30 seconds and multiply by two. Consider retaking it on two or three mornings and averaging. Then, plug it into this formula using the percentage of intensity you plan to exercise at:

[(220 − Age − Resting HR) × %Intensity] + Resting HR = Target Heart Rate

It is helpful to create a training range for yourself since your heart rate is unlikely to stay exactly the same during an entire session. So, if your resting heart rate is 60 beats per minute and you’re 30 years old and you want to to train at moderate intensity approx 60 - 70%. Your formula would look like:

[(220 − 30 − 60) × 0.6)] + 60 = 138 bpm (beats per minute at 60% intensity)

[(220 − 30 − 60) × 0.7] + 60 = 151 bpm (at 70% intensity)

Now you have a range to stick within (138 to 151 bpm) during your workout.

It is also important to monitor where you stand every few months as your fitness levels improve, retake your resting heart rate and recalculate your training zones. That way you can adjust your zones with your progress.

The main heart rate zones measured in terms of maximum heart rate (MHR – roughly calculated as 220 – age) include:

  • 50-60% of MHR: Suitable for performing light cardio to improve blood flow and circulation. It is therefore ideal for warming up and cooling down and is the base zone used to target fat stores as a primary source of energy.

  • 60-70% of MHR: Ideal for developing general fitness and is the ideal range for utilising fat stores as an energy source, as fat stores can be efficiently mobilised for energy at this intensity.

  • 70-80% of MHR: This is the aerobic zone and is ideal for developing endurance and improving lactate thresholds. Due to the energy demands in this zone your body will rely more on stored glycogen and digested carbs for energy, but around half of your energy will still be supplied from fat stores.

  • 80-90% of MHR: This is the anaerobic threshold limit, where your body is producing massive amounts of lactic acid, so it is only able to maintain this level for a short period of time. This is the best zone to increase your VO2 max to improve your body’s ability to utilise oxygen. This heart rate zone relies predominantly on your ATP-PC system for energy, with some reliance on glycogen.

  • 90-100% of MHR: This zone is the upper limit of your physical capacity and should only ever be reached during HIIT for a short period of time, if at all.

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