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Heart Rate, Zones And All That: Explained

“OK, check your heart rate..”

Monitoring your heart rate during a workout is a great way to focus on and measure your fitness goals while “rewarding” yourself with a visual look at how many calories you’re blow-torching. Thing is, like anything else, there’s a chance to over-think it… So here’s the deal: if you’re looking to focus on your heart rate, keep it simple:

Heart rate training zones are simply a definition/training outline for what “type” of calorie burning/goals you’re attempting as measured in a set amount of Beats Per Minute (BPM). There’s three factors we’ll worry about: Your max heart rate, your aerobic heart rate and your anaerobic heart rate.

Max Heart Rate

Generally, max heart rate is the fastest “safe” beats per minute your heart can work at. For most people, this is pretty uncomfortable and can’t be done for long, but it’s the starting point you need to calculate your aerobic and anaerobic heart rates you want to hit. Max Heart Rate is usually estimated for most folks to be 220 – (minus) age. There’s variations in the formula, but this keeps us in the ballpark and we want to keep it simple, right? After all, anything more detailed requires more math and hooks you up to a treadmill and hose like in the old Gatorade commercials… and who wants that?

Example: Let’s say your age is 30. 30 – 220 = 190. 190 is your Max Heart Rate.

Aerobic Heart Rate

Once you’ve calculated your Max, you now have a pretty good idea on where you should be to hit your aerobic threshold. 60-80% of your max heart rate is considered the “fat burning zone”– meaning this is the heart rate for most folks where the body taps mostly fat reserves for energy. This might feel a little uncomfortable at first, but within weeks, this could start feeling easy.

Example: Using 190 as a starting point, 60-80% of your max heart rate would be 114 BPM (.60 x 190) to 152 BPM (.80 x 190).  As you creep closer to the high 140’s and 150’s, you’ll be entering the…

Anaerobic Heart Rate

A lot of folks hear “Fat Burning Zone” and begin to panic when their heart rate goes beyond it into the anaerobic area. No need to worry. Going beyond your aerobic heart rate (into the 80+ish% range) still burns fat, but also taps into more carb stores and is better for endurance and increased fitness (the Insanity program is a real achiever here). As far as I’m concerned, you’re getting two for the price of one. And who doesn’t love that?

TRUE STORY: I recently ran an all-night relay race with no training beyond Insanity and P90X. I shaved almost 2 minutes off my mile run time from a previous pace only 6 months earlier. I blame it all on  Anaerobic training.

Example: Using 190 as a starting point, 80-90% of your max heart rate would be 152-171 BPM (.80 x 190/.90 x 190). You’ll be panting and out of breath at that point, but man– you’ll feel GOOD.

A few notes:

  • If you’re beginning an intense workout program and your fitness level is lower, you should begin at the “shallow” end of your heart rate level (40-50%) and work up as your body adjusts over the next few weeks.
  • Don’t worry too much about wondering if your heart rate being “too high”. If your heart rate is too high, you’ll know. If it’s over 100 while resting, that’s generally considered bad. Beyond 200 BPMs while exercising is generally considered too much. With the heart pumping that quickly for long periods of time (or shorter, depending on the person), blood flow is constricted and can cause organ damage. Heart rate that high isn’t too comfortable anyway. Medical conditions can preclude certain heart rate zones but in general, without going all-out but still pushing yourself, you’ll most likely be in the 60-85% range with Insanity, P90X and most Beachbody workouts.
  • I make it a point to reach the high end and over my aerobic heart rate– mostly anaerobic preferably. Digging Deeper and Bringing It will do the trick. Not only will you burn more calories, you’ll still burn fat, stored carbs AND up your endurance. For me, as a 36-year old, 6’1″ guy that, that’s roughly 160-174 bpm.

Still, don’t overthink it. If you’re pushing yourself and breaking a righteous sweat, you’ll be up there in your target heart rate zone without having to think much about it. 

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2 Comments : Leave a Reply

  1. John says:

    Test one.

  2. Jen K. says:

    I’ve been using a heart rate monitor for a couple months and I love it. I use Polar. :)

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