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Heart Rate Training: Get the Most Out of Your Efforts! Part II

Here’s where monitoring your heart rate during exercise begins to become useful. As we become more fit, activities that initially brought our heart rate into a beneficial range become too easy. But many of us continue our routines and hence our efforts become less productive as they no longer stress our bodies to the point of gaining improved fitness; this ‘staleness’ is avoided by heart rate guided training. We can engage the same activities but are forced to work harder to bring our heart rate into this beneficial zone. But this is only one application. MHR can be tailored for much more specific training goals.

By breaking this wide training range into more narrow ‘zones’ we can use heart rate data to customize our workout intensities for optimal and specific results. Generally, I use 4 reference zones. All are expressed as a percentage of MHR with an upper and lower limit. Although there are overlapping benefits, generally speaking each zone has a particular result associated with it. The percentages of MHR for each zone are:

Zone I – Light Intensity 60 -70 percent of MHR
Zone II – Moderate Intensity 70 -80 percent of MHR
Zone III – Heavy Intensity 80 -90 percent of MHR
Zone IV – Maximum Intensity > 90 percent of MHR

So, again using our 45 year old as an example our target heart rates would be:

ZI = 105-122 BPM
ZII = 123-139 BPM
ZIII = 140-157 BPM
ZIV = 158-175 BPM

Here’s an overview for each zone:

Zone I – This is the easiest level of intensity you can work at and still gain benefit. It’s best used for overall health, flexibility and agility and maintaining a weight reduction. This is an excellent zone to stay within during the first 1 -3 months of beginning an exercise plan to avoid injury, especially for those who have not engaged in a fitness program for a long time. It’s also the warm-up and cool down zone to enter into or come out of more intense exercise.

Exercise at this level should feel easy and pass the ‘talk test’. You should never be out of breath, feel any pain or burning and be able to maintain this effort indefinitely.

Zone II –Working out in this zone effectively builds endurance, stamina and muscle tone without significant increase in girth. It’s also excellent for cardiac strengthening and building co-lateral circulation (adding more small blood vessels in the extremities). This is an excellent zone to stay in during the first 2-4 months of training.

When in this zone breathing should be slightly labored but not difficult. You can still converse comfortably. You should not be in a ‘no-pain, no-gain’ condition but may need to vary your effort from time to time. When fit you should be able to maintain this level of effort for a few hours.

Zone III - This is the best zone to use stored fat for energy, i.e., the most efficient weight loss or ‘fat burn zone’. Zone III balances maximum caloric demand while still remaining under the anaerobic threshold, the key criteria for burning fat. In less fit people training in this zone too soon uses more glucose than fat for energy. As we become more fit and can maintain this level of intensity for longer periods of time it becomes fueled by an increasing percentage of energy from stored fat. This is why you often hear people say that they started working out and are “exercising like crazy but not losing any weight”. This is exactly why I recommend to patients that want to lose weight and are just starting out that they exercise in Zone II for a while. Pushing too far too soon can be counter-productive. It takes time for the chemical plant in our muscles to adapt to the new demands of exercise. The cells that use oxygen in producing energy increase over time (this is known as Davis’s Law) so that we can sustain a Zone III level effort for longer and longer. It’s the physiological equivalent to learning to walk before you can run, or perhaps this analogy can be applied literally!

Exercising in this zone should be quite challenging but still not painful. It’s the highest zone you can be in and still be able to carry on a conversation, albeit difficult and in-between breaths. You should be able to maintain this intensity for up to about 1 hour but that may be much shorter initially and increase proportional to you level of fitness.

Zone IV – This is the anaerobic zone whereby we use primarily glycogen (glucose stored in muscle tissue) for energy. This zone contributes greatly to the efficiency by which our muscles can burn fat in the lower zones. By pushing ourselves into this zone we raise our ‘lactate threshold’, the line between using fat verses sugar as a caloric energy source. The more time we can stay in zone IV the higher our lactate threshold and the longer and stronger we can perform athletically. This zone ‘ramps-up’ our muscles to burn fat while we’re at rest by making our ‘oven’ more efficient. Most importantly, this is the zone where the most dramatic muscle building gains live. We could call it the Buff-Zone!

Exercise in this zone can be maintained for only very short periods of time, usually seconds to a few minutes maximum. If you can maintain this zone for longer than 3 minutes you are either not in this anaerobic zone or your name is Lance Armstrong. You can not talk during this level of exertion and are in significant pain. There is no significant fat weight loss in this zone but rather a break down of muscle tissue that leads to growth. This is the ‘no-pain, no gain’ zone and if you’re in it you should be hating life.

Remember, as you become more and more fit the beneficial changes that take place are reflected in your heart rate. Make a chart and plot your resting pulse by taking it first thing in the morning before you get out of bed. Do this for a few months and you’ll see over time the line slopes lower and lower! As your resting pulse plummets the range of your resting heart rate and your MHR increases allowing your heart to work less hard at the same level of effort. By using your heart rate as a barometer of how hard you are exercising you will avoid boredom, progress plateaus and stagnation.

You are now armed with valuable and useful information about heart rate training. You can now see how knowing and using your heart rate can help you maximize weight loss goals, achieve those 6-pack abs and keep you moving onward and upward to the fittest you possible. I applaud you for taking the time to read this article, see you in the gym!

Sat. Jun 7, 9:45am

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