• Paul D'Arco

The Big Flaw of Heart Rate Zone Training

Heart rate zone training seems to be the new "thing" to do because a lot of well-known group fitness studios are using this kind of technology to entice their customers. Everyone loves to do the newest thing with the latest and greatest technology, but is heart rate zone training really all it's cracked up to be?


Prepare to be educated.


Recently, I attended a fitness studio’s class that relied heavily on heart rate zone training. A lot of larger group training fitness studios are starting to take advantage of the technology aspect of fitness. In this blog post, I’ll explain why this style of training has its flaws, and to only take your zone training with a grain of salt (not too seriously).


To understand this post, you must understand what zone training is.


Your MAX heart rate is defined as the maximum number of beats per minute that your heart can work at at any given time. Zone training works off of percentages of your MAX heart rate. The calculation that was used to calculate my zones at the studio I attended was the following:


220 - 27 (my age) = 193.


193 is what they consider my MAX Heart Rate (for the sake of this blog post, I am abbreviating this as MHR). For those who are not familiar, this is VERY VERY generic. Why? Because it doesn’t account for your current physical capabilities.


Let’s talk about MY 5 zones:


Zone 1: 50 - 60% of MHR (96 - 115 HR)

Zone 2: 61 - 70% of MHR (116 - 135 HR)

Zone 3: 71 - 83% of MHR (136 - 160 HR)

Zone 4: 84 - 91% of MHR (161 - 175 HR)

Zone 5: 92 - 100% of MHR (176 - 193HR)


The fitness studio recommends that you spend 12 minutes in zone 4 and around 1 minute in zone 5. According to the fitness studio’s tracking, I spent 31 minutes in zone 4 and 10 minutes in zone 5. So how did I manage to stay almost 3x the amount of time in zone 4 and 10x the amount of time in zone 5?


Because the formula to calculate your MHR is overly simplified.


As a fitness coach, I would like to think that I’m in somewhat good shape. The result of being in good shape means that my heart can actually produce better results than what the calculation gives me credit for.


Let’s use one of my current clients to demonstrate a more extreme level of this issue…


One of my clients wears a heart rate monitor during my classes. He can input his own zones based on his VO2 Max test (we will talk more about that momentarily). If this client were to base his MHR off of the generic calculation it would look like this:


220 - 72 (his age) = 148


When my client attends my classes, he spends several minutes with his heart rate hovering between 150-165 beats per minute (he purposefully doesn’t push past 170). You can already see the flaw with this. According to the very generic MHR calculator, he would be dead. Because he’s been training for several years, he’s been able to adapt beyond generic calculations.


So what this fitness studio thought was my zone 4 was probably more like my zone 3, and my zone 5 was probably more like my zone 4. My friend who attended the class with me was working at 100% for several minutes. For those who don’t know, you can only spend about 10 seconds at 100% output before running out of steam.


I don’t think that this studio is intentionally misleading people with false information, but I also think that if you’re going to advertise yourself as a gym who uses technology to determine zone training, that it should at least be somewhat accurate.


This works the other way as well…


If you’ve been sedentary for most of your life, your zones might be shifted the other way to account for that. The only true way to determine your MHR would be to take a VO2 Max test. This test is used often by athletes (ever see those athletes running on a treadmill with a mask on that look like they’re about to die? Thats the VO2 Max test).


The main thing I want you to take away from this is that fitness is not about numbers on a board, or how much time you spend in a zone. Find something you enjoy doing so that you can do it for years to come. You are not defined by a number on the scale or what zone you’re training in. As long as you’re putting your best effort in, you should feel good about trying to improve your quality of life.


If you’re interested in more information about our studio, check out our 12 week jump start program where we focus on strength training and injury prevention.

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