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Heart Rate Zones for Cardiovascular Training

When doing cardio training it is all based upon intensity just like weight training. The most common way of determining intensity in the average person is from heart rate based upon their estimated max heart rates. There are a couple of ways to find your max heart rate the first being peak maximal heart rate method which is the easiest to do (220- age), however this is not meant to be an absolute guide for building a cardiorespiratory fitness plan. The more accurate way to get your number is through the heart rate reserve method also known as the Karvonen formula which is THR = [(HRmax − HRrest) × desired intensity] + HRrest. So if I was to do the Karvonen formula it would look like this 170=[(200-50) x 80%] + 50. There are 5 zones of cardiovascular training based upon a % of intensity to your max heart rate.

Zone 1 is the first zone in stage 1 of cardiovascular training which is used to improve cardio for apparently healthy sedentary individuals. You perform at 50-60% of max heart rate and the benefit of this zone is to help warming up and cooling down and assists recovery. To achieve the the benefits of recovery you should be in it anywhere from 20-40 minutes If just to warm-up or cool down 5-10 minutes should be adequate. You should feel very little strain and it should be pretty easy to maintain this heart rate for that period of time.

Zone 2 is the second zone in stage 1. You perform at 60-70% of max heart rate and the benefit of it is to improve your base fitness, improve recovery, boosts metabolism and is the best zone for fat burning. To achieve the benefits of this zone you should be in it from 40-80 minutes. You should have a comfortable feeling and low muscle and cardiovascular load. This zone is recommended for everybody looking for long training sessions to build a base training period as well as a recovery period during competition season. Frequency that this intensity level should be at least 5 days week for a total of 150 minutes a week.

Zone 3 is the the first zone in stage 2 of cardiovascular training which is for individuals with low to moderate cardio fitness who are ready to train at a higher intensities for performance results. You perform at 70-80% of your max heart rate and the benefits are to enhance general training pace, make moderate intensity efforts easier and improves efficiency. To achieve these you need to be in the zone for 10-40 minutes and you should feel steady and controlled but breathing much faster. This type of training is recommended for athletes preparing for events or looking for gains in their performance.

Zone 4 is the second zone in stage 2. You perform at 80-90% of your max heart rate and the benefits of this kind of training is to increase the ability to sustain high speed endurance. This is intense training and causes muscular fatigue and heavy breathing because of this you should only stay in this zone 2-10 minutes. This type of training is recommended for experienced athletes for year-round training and is the most important during pre-competition season.

Zone 5 is the only zone in stage 3 of cardiovascular training which is for advanced exercisers with moderately high cardio fitness levels. This is to increase capacity of energy systems needed at the power level. You perform at 90-100% of max heart rate and the benefits of this zone is to increase your maximal oxygen uptake and expand ability to work at submaximal exercise intensities for longer periods of time. You should only be in this zone for no more than 5 minutes. Recommended for experienced and fit athletes in short intervals in final preparation for short burst events. Frequency for zone 3 through 5 should be at least 3 days a week for a total of 75 minutes total a week.

Being able to check your heart rate is critical to cardiorespiratory training. There are many ways of doing this. First and most accessible is to palpate your pulse usually done on radial pulse which is found on the thumb side of your wrist. However this not the easiest to do while you are trying to perform at a high level so this is why I don’t recommend this one the most. If your using a cardio machine at a gym or home most have a sensor you can hold on to that can read your pulse. This is a good method however it can only be used on some machines and if you have postural problem holding on to the machine for long periods of time is not the greatest.

This is why I recommend you invest in a piece of equipment that does it for you. There are a few companies that I have heard are the best which are Fitbit, Garmin and Polar. I personally use a polar piece of equipment and it works really well for me. You can either do a wrist monitor which is not as accurate but many people prefer because many watches have it built in such as Fitbit. It calculates your heart rate by sending three little lights through your skin and it monitors the blood flow through your veins. The other option and what I think is superior is the chest strap. It monitors your heart rate through the electrical rhyme produced by your heart so it is very accurate. I have heard some do not like the chest strap because of the restrictive feeling especially during intense workouts when you are breathing heavy. However I really enjoy it and I know from personal experience polar monitors have a few different apps to track how you are doing during your workout and it keeps a record of everything you’ve done with the monitor.

Now, I based all cardiovascular training in this article upon the peak maximal heart rate method but there are many other ways of doing it. First being peak VO2 method, this being the gold standard for measuring cardiorespiratory fitness. The only problem is that it is not very accessible to personal trainers because it requires technical laboratory equipment. More often used for elite athletes and first responder people.

Peak metabolic equivalent method is another one but not the most ideal. How it works is a MET is equivalent to the average resting metabolic rate for adults. You use a MET to describe  the energy cost of a physical activity as multiples of resting metabolic rate. So for example jogging at a moderate pace as a MET value of 4 which means you burn 4x more calories doing that than sitting at rest. This isn’t the best measurement however like I said because a MET is based on an average RMR so if your RMR is more or less than the average you won’t have an accurate rate of calories burned. On top of that it doesn’t accurately display intensity of exercise.

A subjective rating system is the perceived exertion method. Based on a scale of 6-20, 6 being “no exertion at all” and 20 being “maximal exertion”. It is based upon the physical sensations one experiences while participating in physical activity such as increased heart rate and muscle fatigue. Even though it is a subjective measurement if the client is reporting accurate ratings it is a good estimate of heart rate.

Another important consideration while performing cardiovascular training is posture. If you have rounded shoulders or a forward head posture it is critical that while on a stationary bike, treadmill or elliptical machine that you aren’t doing these motions. Also while on steppers or a treadmill not to grasp the handles which will cause elevated protracted shoulders and a forward head. Plus there are benefits to not using the handles such as increasing the stabilization and balance components as well as elevating caloric expenditure. As you can see in the picture the guy on the left has a forward leaning head and rounded shoulders which could be from many different things such as sitting and working at a computer for long periods of time, driving for long terms or just overall bad posture for man years. 



A very common posture problem that people have is a forward rotated pelvis and arched lower back. This is often due to sitting for a large part of the day which causes a tight back and hip flexors and a weak core. Because of this initial use of bicycles or steppers may be not the greatest option due to your hips being in a constant state of flexion adding to your tight hip flexors and postural problems. Another important factor is while using the treadmill you want to keep it at a controllable pace to avoid overstriding. When you overstride your hips may not be able to properly extend which causes your lower back to overextend. To fix you need to do corrective flexibility for the hip flexors.



The last possible posture one could have is feet that turn out and/or knees move inward. All cardio that involves your lower extremities requires proper flexibility of the ankle joint. If you know you have poor flexibility you should emphasize corrective flexibility and foam rolling of lower extremities before performing exercise.To check if you this problem perform a few squats in the mirrors to see if you have any tendencies to do these motions 



Donlin, Ayla. “Here Are the Benefits of Training at Various Heart Rate Zones.” The Association of Fitness Studios, 6 Feb. 2018, member.afsfitness.com/content/here-are-benefits-training-various-heart-rate-zones.

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