If you’re only using your heart rate monitor for cardio, you’re missing out. Everyone knows how a heart rate monitor can help track your cardio training. These little fellas are great at telling you when you need to train harder, or slow the heck down. You can use them to assist any cardio program, whether it be steady state (low intensity and long duration), interval training (high intensity and short duration), or anything in between.
Using heart rate monitors for strength training
I only do two cardio training sessions a week. I know these might be counter productive to my strength training goals. But I just enjoy them too much to take them out of my program. They’re pretty full on, and at the end of each session, my heart rate monitor usually tells me I’ve averaged just over 140 beats per minute for 45 minutes, with a peak usually over 170.
Over the years I’ve used my heart rate monitor it’s helped strengthen my heart muscle and improve its pumping efficiency (aerobic conditioning). It’s helped me maintain my blood pressure in the ‘excellent’ range, increase my number of red blood cells to help with the transport of oxygen, and reduce mental stress from the daily grind of 9 to 5.
But at two uses per week, am I getting value for money and best use for my original investment?
Several years ago I researched heart rate monitors to work out how they can be used for strength training, because you don’t normally see people using them for this purpose.
At that time (and still today) most sources said using a heart rate monitor for strength training is a waste of time. In particular most said that while heart rate monitors are accurate for letting you know the calories you burn during cardio work, they’re no good at measuring calories burned during a strength training session. The reason for this is that heart rate monitors only measure heart rate. They then estimate your calorie expenditure during any steady state cardiovascular exercise using the relationship between heart rate and oxygen uptake (or VO2). Because strength training is intermittent rather than steady state, when the relevant algorithms are applied, you get inaccurate calorie measurements.
But who does strength training to burn calories? Anyone lifting heavy is doing this to be strong!
So is there a way your heart rate monitor can be used when strength training beyond simply measuring calories?
I’m very pleased to let you know there is a use for your heart rate monitor while you’re actually resistance training. But also more importantly it can be used to monitor your recovery away from training.
1. Training in your anaerobic zone
Your heart rate monitor can tell you appropriate training zones to aim for during your training.
The best place to start any analysis is with your maximum heart rate. There’s a number of ways you can do this, but the simplest is 220 minus your age.
For example, my maximum heart rate is 220-50 = 170 beats per minute.
Once you know this, you can work out the zones you can train in and the expected benefits:
recovery zone: 60 to 70% of your maximum heart rate. For me this would be 102 to 119 beats per minute. In this zone you’ll develop basic endurance and aerobic capacity.
aerobic zone: 70 to 80% of your maximum heart rate. For our example, this would be 119 to 136 beats per minute. At this rate you’ll develop your cardiovascular system.
anaerobic zone: 80 to 90% of your maximum heart rate, or for me 136 to 153 beats per minute. Training in this zone works best when it’s going hard for short periods of time, then resting for equal or longer periods of time.
It’s your anaerobic training that will:
build muscle, burn fat and zip a lagging metabolism into action.
increase human growth hormone to rejuvenate your entire body and make you look younger.
strengthen bones and improve joint function.
improve your immune system better than aerobic training will.
increase your lactic acid threshold and endurance.
remove toxins through perspiration and exercise induced lymphatic drainage.
increase your fast twitch muscle fibres, as well as increase your strength, speed and power.
And the news I love the most is that strength or resistance training is the best form of anaerobic training around.
When you’re training in this zone your body cannot supply enough oxygen to muscles, and compensates by increasing the maximum amount of oxygen you consume (VO2 Max). This results in a build up of lactic acid in your muscles.
You can use your heart rate monitor to manage this physiological process and optimise your workout. By timing your breaks between sets with precision, you’ll ensure lactic acid is cleared from your blood before you start your next set. This will prevent you from overworking your muscles to fatigue, and will ensure you’re able to complete your entire session.
How does this work in practice? My heart rate monitor keeps me as close as possible to the anaerobic training zone during a weights session by monitoring my heart rate at the end of each set. It analyses the first few sets I complete and after that tells me when I should commence the next set. Say I am over 140 beats per minute at the end of each set. My heart rate monitor usually tells me I’m ready for the next set when my heart rate has returned to the 120s. This keeps me in the training zone to get the best results.
Your numbers would be different to mine depending on demographics like your age, gender and weight, but if you use a heart rate monitor for this purpose you’ll have a program specific for you. You won’t need to commit to the standard 60 or 90 second break between sets, and be wondering if that’s what’s best for you.
2. Monitoring recovery and preventing overtraining
The second great use for your heart rate monitor relates to when you’re not even actually training.
It involves using your monitor to let you know when you’ve recovered enough for your next session.
It will also tell you very plainly if you’re overtraining.
This is about heart rate variability.
We all know that people who exercise regularly are likely to have a training bradycardia, that is, they’ll have a low resting heart rate compared to sedentary people. But they are also likely to have a higher heart rate variability than sedentary individuals.
Heart rate variability is a simple measure that athletes use to test how well they’re recovering. It’s about the time between heart beats not being consistent. It sounds entirely illogical, but in general, a variable heart rate is a sign of health. High heart rate variability is a sign of heart flexibility and the capacity of your autonomic nervous system to adapt to changes in the demands you face throughout your day. In short, you’re primed for action. In comparison, low heart rate variability means your body is still recovering from whatever you’ve put it through.
Today’s mobile technology lets you monitor your heart rate variability relatively inexpensively and in your own home. As recovery is a vital component of your continued progress, it makes sense to measure it.
The better you eat, sleep and reduce stress, the better your heart rate variability will be, and the quicker your recovery.
If you already have a heart rate monitor with a blue tooth strap and a mobile phone, it can cost you nothing to get your heart rate variability. There are free apps that you can try to see if knowing this interesting set of information will enable you to finetune your workouts.
This is an independent review of the heart rate monitor I used, and the app I played with. No recommendations here, folks – there are many options out in the big bad world beyond these.
Get into heart rate variability if you’re a numbers nerd who loves anything that can be converted to a quantifiable construct.
If you’re not using your heart rate monitor for more than your cardio training, give these two options a try.
You may end up stronger than you already are.