Here's What to Know About Heart Rate Training Zones

You might be wearing a fitness tracker that tells you your heart rate — but do you know your heart rate zones and how to train effectively in them?

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When you're looking for effective ways to gauge how hard you pushed during a workout, it's easy to get overwhelmed by all the data available. Competing on leaderboards can feel too cutthroat, tracking weight or pace doesn't offer any grace if your body is having an off day, and looking at how many calories you burned (according to a machine or fitness tracker) is often inaccurate, not to mention potentially triggering. Enter: heart rate training zones.

Using heart rate training zones in your workouts is becoming more and more common. Workouts based on heart rate, such as Orangetheory Fitness, are popping up nationwide. There's increased popularity in low-intensity steady state (LISS) cardio thanks to mega-celeb trainers such as Kayla Itsines. Plus, accessibly priced fitness trackers with built-in heart-rate monitors are probably on the arms (or wrapped across their chests) of more friends than ever.

But simply knowing your heart rate is only half the equation. To get the best results from these types of workouts, you need to learn your specific workout heart rate zones — and checking out the chart on the cardio machines at your gym probably isn't going to cut it, especially if you're new to the gym or have been working out hard for years already.

Here's everything you need to know about the benefits of heart rate zone training and how to find your heart rate training zones.

The Benefits of Heart Rate Training Zones

The benefits of heart rate zone training, when done right, are pretty incredible. "For the general population, heart-rate training can help lose or maintain body weight, improve overall fitness, reduce triglyceride, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels, improve insulin sensitivity, and help lower blood pressure," says Cary Raffle, a certified personal trainer and exercise science pro in NYC. That's because when you're hitting the optimal workout heart rate zones for improved endurance regularly, you'll see results — pretty straightforward. "For athletes, [heart rate training zones] can help improve cardiac output, increase VO2 max (the amount of oxygen you can utilize during intense exercise), and lead to improved athletic performance," adds Raffle. Plus, there's the fact that many people find comfort in knowing exactly how hard they're working. "Some people (including me) find it easier to stay in the zone and train harder when they're looking at a number," he says.

What's more, having information about your optimal workout heart rate zones and sticking to them is simply safer, especially for those newer to exercise. "Guessing your intensity level during a cardio workout could be dangerous in terms of overestimating or underestimating one's numbers," says Ava Fitzgerald, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., U.S.A.W., a sports performance coach at the Professional Athletic Performance Center. "This could cause someone to push past a desired intensity, or to an intensity that might be too extreme." Of course, there's also the chance that you could miss out on a great workout and see fewer results over time because you're not pushing yourself as hard as you think.

Finally, understanding your workout heart-rate training zones can help you better measure your exercise intensity. "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, M.S., 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.

How to Find Your Heart Rate Training Zones

First, understand that everyone has different heart rate training zones — and your own heart rate training zones might vary day-to-day. "[People] who have been exercising would be able to do more at a lower heart rate as opposed to those who haven't been physically active and can only do limited work before their heart rate spikes," says Jon De La Torre, an ACSM-certified personal trainer at DIAKADI in San Francisco. In addition, all kinds of things can affect your heart rate (some of which have nothing to do with fitness), which is why most trainers advocate for looking beyond the standard heart rate charts and formulas. "Heart rate ranges can differ by age, height, weight, body composition, and stress level," adds De La Torre.

What's more, your own max heart rate can vary depending on what activity you're doing. "Different movements produce different stressors on the body, both positively and negatively," explains Sam Smith, another head coach at OPEX Fitness. So if your main sport is running, you'll want to be aware of the fact that your max heart rate and training zones could be different if you're doing a CrossFit workout with a kettlebell. Whatever your sport of choice, learning your personal heart-rate zones arms you with the knowledge to get the best possible workout — and results — through minimal time investment.

There are a couple of ways to calculate your heart rate zones, whether or not you have a heart rate monitor or fitness tracker. Begin by calculating your max heart rate — aka the highest number of beats your heart can pump per minute when it's under high stress. The most common formulas to calculate max heart rate, per Raffle, are:

  • 220 − your age [or]
  • 207 − (your age × .7)

The latter formula is newer and thought to be more accurate. For example, using these formulas, the max heart rate of a 30-year-old would be 190 or 186, respectively.

From there, you'll use your max heart rate to calculate your heart rate training zones. Here are the key workout heart rate zones — expressed as percentages of your max heart rate — that you should know.

Heart Rate Zone 1: Active Recovery (50 percent to 60 percent)

This low-intensity heart rate zone range is a very light effort, in which you can easily control your heart rate (such as walking or leisurely cycling at a steady pace). You'll stay in this zone for active recovery days so you're ready to train at a higher level during your next workout. Other potential activities in this zone might include Pilates, stretching, or another light movement.

Heart Rate Zone 2: Endurance (60 percent to 70 percent)

"You're creating the ability to use more oxygen here," says Wing. If you want to train yourself to run longer, get comfy at this moderate to moderately hard intensity. In the endurance heart rate zone, you'll improve your muscular fitness, decrease your insulin resistance, and increase your body's ability to transport oxygen to your muscles. In this zone, you should be able to train for longer periods of time (think: 30 to 60 minutes) doing low intensity steady state activities such as rowing, using the elliptical, swimming, biking, or jogging without feeling totally gassed.

Heart Rate Zone 3: Performance (70 percent to 80 percent)

Exercising in this vigorous-intensity range trains you to go harder for longer, and can help increase your speed and power. By increasing your time spent in zone 3, you're able to complete workouts in zone 2 with less effort. One prime example of training in zone 3: tempo running, in which you run at an uncomfortable pace (but not an all-out sprint) for several minutes at a time.

Heart Rate Zone 4: High Intensity (80 percent to 90 percent)

Training in zone 4 is no joke — but luckily, you won't have to maintain your effort for very long. You'll hit zone 4 in high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts, in which you'll alternate between bursts of heart-pumping, tough exercise and active recovery or total rest. Heart rate training in zone 4 with HIIT workouts comes with a ton of benefits, too — such as improved cardiovascular health, VO2 max, and excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (aka your body keeps burning calories long after your workout).

Heart Rate Zone 5: Maximum Effort (90 percent to 100 percent)

Zone 5 is an all-out, max effort that will likely have you gasping for breath. You'll be unable to maintain a heart rate training zone 5 effort level for more than a minute, tops — but by sprinkling zone 5 efforts into your workouts, you'll improve your stamina (the amount of time you can work at your maximum output) and build strength. Some zone 5 workout moves might be pushing a sled as fast as possible, a Tabata set of battle rope slams, or hitting your one-rep max in squats.

How to Track Heart Rate Training Zones

It goes without saying: You're likely not going to sit with your fingers on your pulse and a calculator in hand to calculate your heart rate training zones at any given point during a workout. That's where heart rate trackers come in handy. Some of them are even so advanced they can tell you — based on your heart rate variability, resting heart rate, and other factors — exactly how hard your body is working over a training period, help guide you into your personal workout heart rate zones, and judge your fitness performance over time.

Consider investing in the WHOOP (a tracker design for elite athletes and performance tracking), an endurance activity/running watch such as a Garmin, a FitBit for more general activity and step tracking, or an Apple Watch for a tech device that fits seamlessly into your everyday life.

Tips for Heart Rate Zone Training

Despite a lot of good information out there about heart rate training zones, there are also some misconceptions about the idea. "The growing popularity of heart rate monitoring among fitness enthusiasts has caused a bit too much focus on the heart rate, with many people assuming that they should get their heart rate as high as possible," says Raffle. This isn't the case, and hitting your highest workout heart rate ever isn't the goal.

Instead of progressively hitting higher heart rates, you actually want to see your heart rate during similar activities go down on the whole over the course of several months of heart-rate training. Why? "Your heart pumps oxygen-rich blood throughout your body to fuel aerobic activity," explains Raffle. "The stronger the heart muscle, the more blood it pumps every time it beats, therefore the fewer times it beats per minute." This, in turn, lowers your heart rate. (Essentially, it means your body is getting better at handling exercise, so it doesn't need to work as hard to get through it.)

How do you accomplish this? Moderate-intensity training in your zone 2 is key, according to Raffle. "You want to be able to run faster without your heart having to beat faster," he says, which sort of saves that extra energy (heartbeats and oxygenated blood) for when you really need it during a sprint or faster tempo. In order to truly understand the difference between low-, moderate-, and high-intensity training, it's helpful to actually take notice of how your body feels when you're in different zones.

It's also important to take stock of where you stand, heart rate-wise, every few months. "As your fitness level improves, retake your resting heart rate and recalculate your training zone," says Raffle. That way, you can adjust your zones to line up with your hard-earned progress.

Overall, making the most out of heart rate training zones comes down to two things: your goals, and your body's capabilities on any given day. If your goal is to improve your endurance, your training plan should prioritize zone 2 training, while a focus on improving power and strength might call for more intervals in zone 4.

In addition, you can use your heart rate zones to adjust your effort levels based on how you're feeling at the moment. If a workout that usually puts your heart rate in Zone 2 has you gasping for breath in a zone 4, that's a sign that your body needs more recovery.

Similarly, if you're finding that your previous zone 3 efforts are now easier and result in a lower resting heart rate, it's clear that your fitness has improved. With heart rate training zones, you have the power to adjust your training with accurate data — helping you to reach your goals that much sooner.

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