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How to Use Heart Rate Zones to Train for Max Exercise Benefits


Photo: Ted Cavanaugh

If you've sat out the whole idea of heart rate training since the days of the sweaty chest strap, reconsider plugging in—it’s easier than ever and incredibly inspiring. Besides helping you know you’ve nailed a workout, taking that data to the gym can increase your motivation and calorie burn. That’s why clubs like Orangetheory Fitness and Life Time have made heart rate training a staple in their classes. A ton of activity trackers are already monitoring your heartbeats per minute (bpm)—valuable info, both at rest and play. (Related: The Best Fitness Tracker for Your Personality)

To heed your heart, glance at the bpm number—or check your pulse—first thing in the a.m. “Resting heart rate is a great predictor of fitness level. As you get fitter, it drops, since a stronger heart pumps more efficiently,” says Scott McLean, the director of Human Innovation Research for Fitbit. (A resting heart rate of 60 to 100 bpm is normal; an athlete’s may be at 40.) In fact, data from more than a million Fitbit users show an extra 15 to 20 minutes of activity is associated with a lower resting heart rate.

Tracking your bpm during workouts is especially game-changing. “The talk test and RPE [rate of perceived exertion] are low-tech guides, but heart rate will give you more concrete, objective data about where you are in terms of intensity,” says David Wing, an exercise physiologist at the University of California San Diego. Plus, noting how quickly your heart rate declines after intervals is another way to track fitness gains.

Ready to see how a few digits can really drive your workout? We’ve mapped out how to use the key heart rate zones to focus your routine. Pick a lane, and get your heart pumping.

Your Guide to Heart Rate Training Zones

These training zones are percentages of your max heart rate (MHR). (Not sure what your MHR is? Check our guide on How to Find Your Max Heart Rate.) Most bpm trackers tally each for you.

Active recovery: 40 percent to 65 percent
This range encompasses what is known as the fat-burning zone. But if you really want to burn fat and lose weight, working out harder will torch more total calories—and ultimately more fat—in less time.

Conditioning or endurance zone: 65 percent to 75 percent
“You’re creating the ability to use more oxygen here,” Wing says. If you want to train yourself to run longer, get comfy at this moderate to moderately hard intensity.

Performance zone: 75 percent to 85 percent
Exercising in this vigorous intensity range trains you to go harder for longer.

High-intensity zone: 85 to 95 percent
Do brief spurts of 10 to 60 seconds here, alternating with an easy pace, in the Conditioning or Active Recovery zone, Wing suggests. Build up to do HIIT one or more days a week. (Try this 30-day heart rate-boosting HIIT challenge.)

Choose a Heart Rate Monitor

Digging one of the heart rate monitors in the photo above? Peep their specks here (labeled from left to right), and decide which is best for you.

  • Fitbit Ionic is the company’s first smartwatch. It shows heart rate, enables various apps, and offers on-screen coaching. ($300;
  • Polar A370 Fitness Tracker displays your time in the different heart rate zones. ($150;
  • Garmin Cicosport Smart Activity Tracker calculates your VO2 max, fitness age, and stress level as well as heart rate. ($169;
  • Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR is ideal for the multisport athlete who craves feedback, such as postworkout recovery time, in a blingy style. (From $314;
  • Tomtom Touch Ftness Tracker tells you your steps, calories burned, and heart rate without too many bells and whistles. ($130;


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