Heart Rate Zones

heart rate zonesI just had a conversation with a co-worker the other day about heart rate zones and get asked about it fairly frequently so I wanted to write up an article on the topic.  If you’re familiar with Insanity or P90X, you’ll hear Shaun T and Tony tell you to “check your heart rate” and “make sure your heart rate is good“.  This often leads to questions.  ‘What do they mean by ‘make sure it’s good’?’  That’s a great question!  So I’ll cover some heart rate zone basics and hopefully clear up the topic for you.

Max Heart Rate and Heart Rate Zone

So what are the heart rate zones and what is your maximum heart rate?  Basically, your max heart rate is the highest heart rate you can safely get your heart pumping while working out.  The generic formula to figure out your max heart rate is:

Max Heart Rate = 220 – your age

Mine is 195, I’ll let you do the math to figure out how old I am 🙂  Knowing this is somewhat useful, but it is important to note that it is a ballpark number.  It’s not an exact number.  Some people will be higher and some will be lower.  But for most purposes it is ok to use this equation.  It’s useful to get this number because your heart rate zones are based on this number.

There are many different opinions and options for heart rate zones, but here is a handy breakdown.

Moderate Zone = 50-60% of your max HR
Example: walking at a comfortable pace

Fat Burning Zone (we’ll get back to this) = 60-70% of your max HR
Example: walking at a brisk pace

Aerobic Zone = 70-80% of your max HR
Example: jogging at a steady, comfortable pace.  In this zone the oxygen you’re able to take in is able to keep up with how much you’re burning.  When you typically think of ‘cardio’ this would be the zone you’re in.

Anaerobic Zone = 80-90% of your max HR
Example: running at a fast pace.  In this zone, you’re not able to take in enough oxygen to keep up with what you’re burning through your workout and lactic acid builds up (the soreness you feel during a workout).  If you’re doing Insanity, you’re here most of the time.

Max Effort Zone = 90-100% of your max HR
Example: sprinting.  If you’re in this zone you won’t be for long.  This is as hard as you can workout and you will be completely out of breath.  I reach this in some Insanity workouts and in some Asylum workouts when I am really pushing myself.

 The Fat Burning Zone

So since there’s a heart rate zone called the ‘fat burning zone’ then if you want to lose fat you should always stay in that zone, right?  That’s the logic I’ve heard several times.  Unfortunately that’s a big misconception.  Yes, if you’re working out in that zone, you will be burning fat, and fat will be your primary source of energy.  But that’s all that really means.  Instead of burning carbohydrates as your main fuel source, you burn fat.  While that does sound good, that doesn’t mean you should train in that zone.

As you get closer to your max heart rate your body will start to use more carbohydrates as fuel, but you will still burn more fat and calories in the aerobic zone than you do in the fat burning zone.  So if your goal is to lose fat, don’t get fooled into just working out in the fat burning zone.  If this was true, then walking at a brisk pace would be more effective for fat loss than doing Insanity.  You’d have to walk for a very long time to burn as much fat as you do in one Insanity workout.

I just wanted to clarify this so that you didn’t let that be an excuse for not very intense workouts!

Why Heart Rate Zones Are Useful

While I’m not always concerned with the exact heart rate zone I’m in, I do wear a heart rate monitor during most of my workouts and find it to be a pretty useful tool.  I mainly find it useful for two reasons:

  • It tells me how hard I’m pushing myself
  • It tells me how many calories I’ve burned

The first point is important.  In a workout like Insanity, Asylum, or the cardio in P90X, it can be very easy to slack off.  All you have to do is not push yourself or take extra breaks.  It’s easy to make an intense workout much easier by not going as hard as you can.  That’s where the heart rate monitor comes in.  If you know your heart rate you can tell if you’re taking it a little too easy on yourself.  In a cardio routine, I know I’m not pushing quite hard enough if my heart rate gets below 170 bpm during the active portion.  So wearing my hrm keeps me in check and makes me push harder.

The second reason knowing your heart rate is super useful is to know how many calories you’ve burned.  A good heart rate monitor, one that is programmable, will use your profile info and then your heart rate info during a workout to tell you how many calories you’ve burned.  That’s different for everyone, but when you know that number, you can adjust your nutrition plan accordingly.  Most of the equations for calculating how many calories you need just assumes 500 or 600 calories are burned during a workout.  That might be true for you, but it might not.  I often burn 1000+ calories, which means I should eat more.

Hopefully this has cleared up some of the confusion around heart rate zones for you.  I highly encourage everyone to use a heart rate monitor as it is a very useful tool!

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