Heart rate training...Helping my training or Hurting my training?

I remember, as a kid, watching the space shuttle lift off. Most kids were glued to the screen to watch the countdown and blast off. I was more tuned into the pre-countdown diagnostics. Did anyone else notice that you could train markers on each astronaut, such as minute ventilation, blood pressure, and heart rate? I remember watching closely as we got nearer to final count down, their heart rates increased. At blast off, the astronauts were buckled down, unable to move, and yet their heart rates were in the red, close to, if not at, max heart rate. It wasn’t until later that I realized heart rate cannot tell us what intensity really is. It can’t tell us how hard we are working, and it for sure can’t tell us how hard we should be working. If the astronaut was unable to move but was at max heart rate, then I know that heart rate can only be a correlate of intensity. It can only show a small picture of fitness and work effort.


I have done a number of experiments in the gym with heart rate and have found, without a doubt, that most of us who rely on heart rate to determine our level of intensity or effort are most likely leaving much of our effort on the table. Dr. Fritz Hagerman, an exercise scientist who was well known for studying heart rate in world class rowers, said that trying to predict max heart rate is ludicrous and that using heart rate as a training tool is even sillier. Everyone pumps blood differently through the chambers of the heart. Some use quick, shorter beats, while others have longer, more powerful beats. Genetics and muscle tissue type play a role. Dr. Michael Lauer, a cardiologist from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, notes that 40% of patients can get their heart rate to more than 100% of predicted max. This, too, is what I’ve found in my experience with using heart rate as a training tool. We just don’t ever get to where we really should be when we count on a number to tell us where we’re at. In most cases, those of you who depend on heart rate as a guide are often not working at a high enough intensity or, at the very least, are not working at the level of intensity that you actually think you are.


When training people to run two minute max efforts with two minutes of rest between each, and asking for people to increase speed only based on how they feel, and to increase speed in each interval until failure, only using how they feel as a guide, not using any external validator like heart rate, those people will 9 times out of 10 reach true max effort and intensity. Doing the same drill with people who have a heart rate monitor on and using heart rate as a guide, as opposed to feeling, I usually see a blunted effort or something that falls shy of max effort. The first group that doesn’t use heart rate is usually surprised at how fast they run beyond what they typically see line up with what they think is their max heart rate. It’s actually very eye opening for people who have depended on heart rate as a training tool. I see this frequently in the gym. I was happy to see a study come out in March 2017 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning that confirms what I’m seeing with heart rate monitor training. The study found that when 2 groups followed the same training program over a 6 week period, one group using heart rate as a guide for intensity and the other using perceived exertion (subjective loading) based on how they felt during each effort, the group that used subjective loading displayed greater outcomes across the board. They produced more intensity and more results.


Do you use heart rate monitor for training?  If so, has it been effective for you?

See you in the gym,



FitnessFit Studio