Updated: Jun 7, 2022
In this era of fitness trackers you have probably noticed your heart rate at one point or another during your workout. But, do you know what this number means? Is a heart rate of 150bpm good or bad? What heart rate range is the most optimal to achieve during your workout?
I just got off the phone with my grandmother and she was asking me how to know if her workout has been effective. She, along with many others I am sure, wants to know if she is working hard enough. Well, the answer is it depends. Different training goals have different optimal heart rate ranges to both reach and maintain throughout a workout. Understanding what the ideal heart rate range is for your specific goals is extremely helpful. This ensures that you are working hard enough to reach those goals, but also not so hard that you may be impacting recovery time or performance.
The first thing to note here is that you need to be able to track your heart rate in order to determine how hard you are working. The easiest way to continuously know your heart rate throughout your workout is by utilizing a fitness tracker whether that be a Fitbit, Apple Watch, MyZone belt, etc. Most of these trackers also have the ability to track your calories burnt, which can be another super helpful indication of the effectiveness of your workout. If you do not have access to one of these trackers you can also find your heart rate the “old fashioned” way by finding your pulse at your wrist, neck, or on the inside of your elbow. With this method you want to count how many heart beats you feel within a set 6, 10, or 15 seconds then multiply that number by the appropriate factor to figure out how many beats per minute.
After finding a way to obtain your heart rate, the second step is determining what your estimated maximum heart rate (MHR) is using the equation below:
Estimated Maximum Heart Rate = 220 - age
Ex: If you are 40 years old, your estimated heart rate = 220 - 40 = 180bpm
Your maximum heart rate is the absolute maximum heart rate your body can possibly reach. If you find yourself surpassing this estimated rate from the equation above, it just simply means your maximum heart rate is actually higher than the equation accounted for (meaning your heart is even healthier than an average person of your same age). A benefit of fitness trackers is their ability to be constantly tracking heart rate, so it will always be able to pick up the highest heart rate achieved during the workout. Alternatively, if you were tracking it yourself, it is likely that as soon as you end the hardest point of exertion to stop and track your heart rate, your heart rate will inherently come down a bit.
At the point of maximum heart rate, you are also burning the most amount of calories possible. Now, obviously, the human body can only sustain true maximum heart rate for a minute or less so your workout goal should NOT be to reach and sustain this rate. In fact, when at maximum heart rate you are at a higher risk for dehydration, dizziness, and possible injury…So, this brings us back to the real question - what should your heart rate be?!
The American Heart Association recommends that your target heart rate during exercise should be somewhere between 50-85% of your maximum heart rate. I know this is a rather large and vague range so I am going to go a step further and break this down for you. There are different heart rate zones that are optimal for different training goals. It is important to note that these recommended ranges are what you want to reach when you are actively working through your sets/exercises. It is completely normal and recommended to let that heart rate drop back down between working sets. Check out the picture below for a breakdown of what heart rate range is optimal for different goals.
Keep in mind that your heart can only sustain high intensity exercise for certain periods of time. The closer you are training to your estimated maximum heart rate, the less time your body will be able to sustain that exercise for. For example, if you are pushing the sled with a goal of speed training, your heart rate is most likely going to reach that 90+% range while pushing. However, the human body is only capable of maintaining 90% of maximum heart rate for just under 5 minutes, so your body will require rest periods that allow you to bring that heart rate back down. This fluctuation in heart rate is actually a very effective way to train the cardiovascular system and improve your exercise capacity.
Next time you are working out keep an eye on your heart rate! As you train harder your heart will actually become stronger and more effective, which will eventually mean your heart rate does not rise as high to complete the same amount of work. This is a sign that your cardiovascular health, endurance, and strength are improving. You may feel like this is a bad thing because you will have to work "harder" to raise your heart rate to the ideal range, but in reality this is a great sign that you have become more fit!
If you have more questions about optimal heart rate ranges, how the body responds to exercise, or what range you should be aiming for please reach out!