Beginners Guide to Heart Rate Training - How to Train Like a Pro

Ever wonder why people are tracking their heart rates? Maybe you have seen them glancing at their watches a bunch while exercising and figured they are looking at their timing – at least that’s what I used to think!

 A little more than 5 years ago I learned about the magic and beautiful addiction of Heart Rate Training. As a somewhat seasoned exerciser with experience in running, spinning, some weight training, yoga, etc… I would have said I was pretty aware of basic training of the body. Until I learned about training your heart, I realized I knew nothing.

Literally, knowing how many beats your heart is beating per minute! Having the knowledge and training to bring it up or down to exact numbers if wanted….whaaaat….so coooool…

 Why do we want to be able to do this?

For a super supreme mind/body connection and efficiency in your workouts.

 How do you even start training your heart rate?

 On a most basic level, all you need to know are your “zones” and have a monitor.

 Heart Rate Monitors

The monitors on cardio equipment at the gym – the ones that the machine keeps telling you to hold fiercely to – are not ideal. They aren’t totally accurate and who wants to hold on for dear life the whole time you’re trying to get your sweat on?

You want a heart rate monitor that is much more accurate – or else you won’t be accurate in your training!

Monitors that take your BPM (beats per minute) from your wrist vary in accuracy. These are the most popular “trackers” out there right now. I have a Polar A370 that I really do love. It takes a decently accurate rate from the wrist however there are definitely lags when doing interval training of any kind and that can be very frustrating. My A370 can be paired with a chest strap, which I like and prefer!

I will always suggest a tracker that has a chest strap option for 2 reasons.

1.     Chest Straps are on point accurate. Through sweat, water & tears it will read properly.

2.     Chest Straps link up with a lot of different cardio equipment and if your gym has heart rate training classes, you can get one that is compatible.

How to calculate your zones

The most important zone to know, for safety reasons, is your

HRM or Heart Rate Max.

This is calculated simply and safely by subtracting your age from 220.

 For the most accurate HRM take this test: Find Out Your Real Age Here! This test will ask you a series of questions in which your “real age” will be determined. For an example, because I exercise, eat healthy, have a dog and wear my seatbelt, etc…these components are adding years to my life thus my real age is always younger than my actual age! When I first started training with my heart rate, I was actually 10 years younger in my watch than my actual age in real life. Now that I am 31 with a child (maybe that’s what did it!) I am 7 years younger than my actual age.

Why am I telling you this?

Because when we calculate our zones, we use our age. If we are more physically fit and spry than a typical 30 year old, we wouldn’t want to underestimate ourselves and not get our maximum benefit out of our workouts because our zones are lower than they can be.

To be safe for now, stick with your actual real life age as if this is new to you, that is where you should start!

BACK TO CALCULATING YOUR ZONES….sometimes I just can’t help but go on and on…

HRM = 220-Age

I am 30 years old so the highest I want to bring my heart rate is 190 bpm.

Heart Rate Max is the highest number you want to ever reach during any kind of training. Beyond HRM you will be losing benefit and even, store fat. Eeek!

It’s important to know that training as hard as you can for as long as you can is actually not the most beneficial and efficient way to work out.

So when do you want to reach HRM?

HRM is your goal primarily during interval training. HIIT or High Intensity Interval Training, also known as Tabata in some gyms is a type of workout that you are trying to ‘max out’ your heart rate when you are in ‘go mode’ and then bring it back down again during ‘rest’. Going more advanced we have MetCon or metabolic conditioning which is a very popular type of training in boutique and box gyms right now. How anyone does these without a monitor in the beginning or ever is honestly beyond me…

 Your other zones you need to know are your 65%-85% of HRMax. These are your Aerobic Zones. Aerobic zones are when your body is going to improve its cardiovascular endurance. In other words, less huffle puffing.  

65% is going to be your lower end. This is your goal to get to when you are warming up.

Your body is switching from anaerobic to aerobic. Ever get on the spin bike or start a run and think there is no way in hell you’re going to do an hour of it then all of a sudden you’re in a groove? You just switched to your aerobic zone.

75% is a comfortable mid-range zone that is working efficiently for you.

85-92% is your high zone that is going to burn up more junk in the trunk in less time but this doesn’t necessarily mean to always be working at this level during every workout.

 How to calculate these zones:

#1 is to find out what your RHR or resting heart rate is. This is found best by taking your heart rate – by pulse on neck or wrist when you first wake up in the morning before you get out of bed. Or when you’ve sat and watched a movie for a while. How many times did it beat in one minute? Set a timer and count. That’s your RHR. Everyone’s resting heart rate will vary a bit. Average is between ~60-80. This depends on your age and fitness level.


Subtract your Resting Heart Rate from Heart Rate Max. Multiply it by the percentage looking for; i.e 65% = .65 or 85% = .85. Then Add back in Resting Heart Rate

 (HRM) 220-age) – RHR = (     ) X  = (.65 or .75 or .85) = (   ) + RHR

Do this for each percentage you are looking for and you are good to go!

For an example – in case you get some crazy #’s, which can happen if one thing is off, here are my zones for my current age:

HRM: 190

RHR: 55

92%: 179

85%: 170

75%: 156

65%: 143

*Always remember to breathe through your workouts. Holding your breath or gasping for air will make the heart rate go up so in turn, relaxing your shoulders down and breathing makes it go down.

If you want a straight up heart rate monitor without all of the bells and whistles that most watches have these days, my favorite of all time is the Polar FT7. You can’t find it on Polar’s website because I believe they don’t make it anymore but this is where I got my first FT4 and my FT7:

Also, check out gyms in your area that have Blue Tooth Heart Rate Monitoring Systems – this way you can workout in a group of people who all have the same goal for that session!

At my gym, Ladies Workout Asheville, there are monitor screens in each training room that allow you to see which zone you are in by color! It is actually really neat and very addicting!! Say for an example, you are in a Spinning class and the trainer says the goal is to be at 80%. Everyone has his or her own little color block with their HR % on the screen and it should be orange when at 80%. When the trainer says “GO RED!” you will learn what to do to get your heart rate to red, and vice versa (go green or grey!)

You don’t need your own watch for these classes, so no worries there. We all have our own strap to hook the Bluetooth piece onto just because it’s nice to have your own!

The camaraderie, focus and success of small group training makes it undeniably the best and smartest way to release your inner athlete!!

Now that you have this plethora of awesome information, set forth on your journey into the world of heart rate monitoring and enjoy!! It really is so much fun and really shows results!

*Anyone looking to start a new exercise regimen should consult a doctor before doing so.

 Helping You Be Your Best – Lily Phillips, AFAA Certified Personal Trainer