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How to Train Using Heart Rate Zones

There is more to getting fit than just getting sweaty. Knowing your heart rate (HR) during exercise will help you get the most out of your training! In this short article we will explore some easy ways you can measure your resting and active HR. I will teach you how to measure your HR during exercise. I will then elaborate on the HR zones and what they mean for your training. 

Resting HR vs Active HR

To measure your Resting Heart Rate (RHR) I would recommend checking your pulse in the morning before getting up. This is the time of day you are your most relaxed or rested, therefore, your HR is likely at its lowest. A lower RHR generally means better heart fitness. However, if your HR is below 50 bpm and you are not a particularly active person, it may pay to get a second opinion.

The easiest way to measure your Active Heart Rate is to use a heart rate monitor or smart watch. Make sure that your watch and/or monitor fits snug and not too tight. Some cardio machines may have a feature that tells you your HR. The sensors are in the handles, such as on a treadmill or stationary bike and the HR will be displayed on the screen. Alternatively, you can count your pulse during exercise.

How to Count Your Pulse

Step 1: Find Your Pulse:

  • Place the tips of your index and middle fingers on the inside of your wrist, just below the base of your thumb.

  • You can also check your pulse on your neck, just beside your windpipe.

Step 2: Count the Beats:

  • Use a watch or timer and count the number of beats you feel in 10 seconds.

  • Multiply this number by six to get your heart rate per minute. For example, I count 15 beats in 10 seconds, I then multiply 25 by 6 to get 150 beats per minute (bpm).

How to measure your Maximum Heart Rate

An easy way to identify your maximum HR is to use an age-adjusted formula which is 220 minus your age. So, for me, at the time of writing this article, my maximum HR is 220 - 32 = 188 bpm. This is just a guide, and there are exceptions to this rule, so do not panic if you are 32 and your HR is measuring at 190 bpm after 20 consecutive burpees.  You are not going to explode, this equation is just a best fit guide.

What does this mean for HR zones? 

There are five zones in total, each zone is identified by your active HR in relation to your maximum HR. Let me try and explain.

Zone 1 

Your HR should be around 50 - 60% of your maximum HR. You're performing low intensity exercise and are likely warming up or cooling down. Based on this percentage range, my HR would be sitting between 94 - 112 bpm in this zone ((188 x 0.5) - (188 x 0.6)). A quick way to identify if you are in zone one is if you can easily hold a conversation. 

Zone 2 

In this zone your HR will be sitting between 60 - 70% of your maximum HR. You’re still able to hold a light conversation however, taking a moment every now and again to catch your breath is to be expected. My HR would be sitting at 113 - 131 bpm. This is a great zone to build endurance and burn fat as you can maintain it for a long period of time. 

Zone 3 

This zone is often referred to as the “Aerobic zone”, which is simply exercises that can be performed and maintained over long periods of time. Such as running, hiking, biking. This zone requires you to work at 70-80% of your maximum HR. During this type of exercise holding a conversation is a real effort. As a reference, my HR would be sitting between 132 - 150 bpm. 

Zone 4 

Anaerobic exercise is a short burst of intense exercise. Without periods of rest and recovery it is difficult to sustain this type of exercise over long periods of time. In this zone your HR is working at 80 - 90% effort. You can talk if you need to but stringing a whole sentence together is difficult. To get into this zone you’re likely doing High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). It helps build endurance and is great for stamina. My HR would be sitting at 151 - 169 bpm.  

Zone 5 

You can probably guess that in this zone you’re not talking, your HR is working freaking hard and you don’t want to / can’t stay in this zone for long. It’s expected you're performing very short bursts of exercise at maximum effort. Generally building speed and power. Sprint training is an example of zone 5. You do not need to be able to train in zone 5 to be healthy and have good heart health. This zone is generally reserved for athletes and sports specific training routines. When I train in this zone, my HR is 170+ and I am out of breath. 


Being aware of your heart rate and familiar with the zones will help guide your training to reach your goals. I have found a smartwatch to be super helpful when checking my HR but like I have said, counting your pulse for 10 seconds and multiplying by six is a great alternative. Listen to your body, note your breathing and how you are feeling when in the zone. Can you hold a conversation? If yes, you are in a lower zone. Check to see how quickly your HR recovers after exercise. The quicker the recovery time, the better your heart fitness. Whether you’re just starting out or well practiced, measuring your heart rate is a fun and easy tool to measure progress and guide your training.

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