Those Pretty Heart Rate Charts

Heart Rate Chart Exercise Zones

Time to talk about all those heart rate charts.  They are so neat and tidy, they make everything so simple and clear.  We have seen them for so long that we dont even think about them or question them.  If you want to lose weight, you put your heart rate in the “weight loss zone”, right?  Well, maybe, maybe not!

The biggest problem of all with these pretty heart rate charts is that there is a HUGE variation in heartrates between similar healthy individuals which lowers the values of the charts right off the bat.  First lets look at how these charts are made, they start with this formula:

HRmax = 220 – age

Then they typically make pretty zones based upon percentages of this calculated max.

  • 90%-100% – Max
  • 80%-90% – Anaerobic
  • 70%-80% – Aerobic
  • 60%-70% – Weight control
  • 50%-60% – Warm up

So those pretty charts are all based upon a formula that only takes age into account and nothing else and then arbitrarily divide it up into pretty zones. Did you ever wonder what a complete coincidence it is that all the percentages are multiples of ten? I have never seen any research that shows that people who do cardio at precisely 60%-70% of their max lose weight but those who do cardio at 59% or 71% of their max do not :)  I can guarantee you that the resting heart rate of a sedentary obese smoker is far, far higher than that of a marathon runner.  Marathon runners often have resting heart rates as low as 40bpm whereas people in horrible shape can have resting heart rates as high as 100bpm.  If there is that kind of variation when you are doing *nothing*, how much variation will there be when you actually start exercising?

Many people have this irrational fear of 100% heartrate.  For tens of thousands of years cavemen were sprinting to catch their food.  They had no idea what their heartrate was but it was at 100%, and they didnt die.  Unless you have some underlying heart condition, you dont drop dead when your heart-o-meter gets pegged at 100%.  Many folks these days seem to have an unwarranted fear of high effort cardio. If you have any fears about this, go to your doctor and get a physical, its a really good idea before starting any exercise program anyway!  If you want peak athletic performance, you gotta peg your heart rate occasionally as part of your training – even for endurance athletes.

So if these charts are virtually useless, what CAN you do?  What heartrate YOU should use when doing cardio?  There are *many* different cardio training methods but again, it depends on what your GOAL is.  You cant just say “X is the BEST cardio”, you have to say “X is the best technique for improving VO2 max” or something specific like that. Please read about cardio.

For serious sports and athletic training, the first step is always in measuring what 100% is for YOU.   Then based on your 100% heartrate, you come up with five heart rate zones (just numbered, not named) and come up with a plan.  Typically these serious cardio workouts specify the total duration of the cardio and how long you are in each heart rate zone.

Zone 5 is typically defined as 90%-100% of your max heart rate.  Very few sports are optimally trained for by always pegging your heart rate in zone 5, OK, maybe very short sprint distances.  When you train for endurance events like the Ironmans, you spend a lot of time in zone 2 (60%-70%), or zone 3 (70%-80%), but punctuate it with bursts of 100% zone 5 effort simulating hills.  Basically, train for the race.

When training its often not possible to stop and measure your heart rate with a watch and with your finger on your pulse, swimming is a great example of where you cant do this.  Heart rate monitors are expensive and many dont have them but you can do sophisticated cardio training with these simple three zones. Here are the two markers that divide the cardio zones:

  • VT1 (Ventilation Threshold 1).  Below VT1 you can talk completely normally.  Above VT1, you can talk but you have to insert breathing pauses at un-natural points in your speech.
  • VT2  (Ventilation Threshold 2) Above VT2 you can only speak one or two words(

For example, one way to do interval training is to sprint for 2 minutes of 100%, then to walk until you get down to VT1 and then sprint 2 minutes again. Of course, you can always do HIIT (interval training) based upon time rather than heart rates as well, this is what my Scoobervals workout does.

Whats the take home message?

There is no “best cardio”, it depends on your personal goals and limitations. The real world doesnt fit into pretty little graphics like the heart rate chart. The exercise chart is fine for newcomers to fitness but if you have any sports performance goals at all you need to be more scientific about measuring your max heart rate and zone training.

40 thoughts on “Those Pretty Heart Rate Charts”

  1. 100% heart rate (and VO2Max) can be achieve with 2min or 5min (for exemple running 600 or 1500m). Scooby, you should be precise about what you call MAX (max heart rate, max power, max speed). The graph you used, aslo used in Wiki is corect regarding effort, but the VO2Max should be taken off in the first line. what do you think?

  2. my treadmill at home has the ability to read heartrate and cals burned but i dont even bother checking. i can tell when i’m exerting myself i dont need a machine to tell me

  3. In 2007, researchers at the Oakland University analysed maximum heart rates of 132 individuals recorded yearly over 25 years, and produced a linear equation very similar to the Tanaka formula—HRmax = 206.9 – (0.67 × age)—and a nonlinear equation—HRmax = 191.5 – (0.007 × age2). The linear equation had a confidence interval of ±5–8 bpm and the nonlinear equation had a tighter range of ±2–5 bpm. Also a third nonlinear equation was produced — HRmax = 163 + (1.16 × age) – (0.018 × age2).

  4. awesome article scooby! i must say i like using your idea of the various thresholds since no matter your cardio level, a certain intensity level will always cause you to be able to speak, speak a little, or none at all, that range of intensity just changes as you improve. Hell, who am i kidding, i love the website all around.

    1. why does it matter? if you can run a marathon you can run a marathon. what’s the difference if you know the exact capacity of liters in your lungs during exercise? there’s so many easier quicker ways to measure improvement (speed, time, distance) that don’t involve going to the doctor for an expensive test (that they probably won’t give you if you present with normal functioning lungs)

  5. everyone was a newbie at some point so its not funny to make fun of someone’s form or way of training i can film you lui while doing your sway rows and make fun of ur form nobody is perfect but at least this guy is just starting not a 40 year old man who is lifting for over 20 years and looks like he doesn’t even lift*if u know who i mean*

      1. /Agree.

        BMI was devised roughly 200 years ago. Its intent may have stayed the same, a tool for measuring sedentary individuals weight in mutual relationship to their population, but its application has changed. And people using BMI seem to rely solely on it.

        Pardon the quote, but I felt it resonates well with this discussion:
        (Wikipedia): “One basic problem, especially in athletes, is that muscle weight contributes to BMI. Some professional athletes would be overweight or obese according to their BMI, despite carrying little fat, unless the number at which they are considered overweight or obese is adjusted upward in some modified version of the calculation.”

        Toss this tool into your workout kit but use it sparingly.

      2. I went in for a physical recently and my BMI calculated 26. Doc looked at me and said “Something is wrong here…the scale says you’re ten lbs over weight and you don’t look it. Let’s re-weigh you.” I said “Let’s not. My BF% is about 10%.” He said “Oh ok…” Then he said “OMG! do you realize how hard it is for a guy your age to get that low BF%?!?!?!” I said “Of course I realize….whadday think I’ve been doing for the past 2 years?” LoL!

      3. BMI is a bad joke, they tried to do a ratio taking weight divided by a misscalculating area-volumen, and considering than muscle or fat are the same for weight.. no one needs to know a BMI data to see overweight, that’s as easy as it looks

    1. absolutely, i cant tell you how inaccurate those and even fat calipers can be especially as you get larger. Through bmi charts and fat caliper tests throughout the past few years i had been classified as “morbidly obese” and yet i went and had a buoyancy test done a month back, only to find i was around 25% body fat (still a big number). Thats still alot but the general numbers of the other tests practically said “how can you walk being that big” but at around 350, if i lost every ounce of that oughly 25% body fat, i still wouldnt drop below 250, so id love to know how doctors think bmi charts are accurate.

  6. I always see someone hop on a stationary bike or elliptical, and pick a fat burn workout. When they are could easily up the intensity for the entire 20 minutes of the program. These people tend to get demotivated by the lack of results. If the manufacturers just used intensity levels, rather than “fat” in the pre-programmed cardio equipment then people may make a better choice if they have to think what is best for them personally.

    1. Good point. My suspicion is cardio manufacturers expect its user to become demotivated on their average priced machine long before the user experiences lasting gains. That fat burn workout won’t beat up its user to such an extent that they’ll tire easily, so they keep using the machine, yet over time become so disillusioned that they do give up. By then, the manufacturer has made their money off the user, and unless you’re at a gym borrowing the equipment, that user now owns a piece of equipment they’ll have to sell second hand. Most diets we hear about in media seem created much the same way.

    2. disqus_OYJ7gPZj7l

      Anybody who is half serious about losing weight and doing cardio for the long-term will go out and run instead of using a stupid cardio machine.

  7. Worth pointing out that keeping your heart rate in the “fat burning” / “weight control” zone burns FEWER calories-from-fat per hour than more intense exercise. They obfuscate this by talking about the ratio of calories taken from fat versus other sources, but that is totally misleading.

      1. intense exercise would still typically be better. A very intense weightlifting session for 30 minutes would leave your body burning through calories for hours afterward, while a mild jog on a treadmill for 45 minutes will have relatively no calorie burn within 5 to 10 minutes of finishing. And using a “couch potato” as an example isn’t very good, since a “couch potato” gets a caloric burn from the couch to the kitchen to make pizza bites. Anyone with a reasonable level of fitness will usually see better results from shorter, more intense workouts A. because that higher heart rate takes much longer for your body to regulate back into a resting heart rate. And B. because if you for example low up your muscles on chest day, and i mean completely shred them so a cup of milk is a heavy burden, then your body burns more calories for days afterward, just repairing that muscle, while an hour on the treadmill or bike (of steady pace) does next to nothing toward forcing your body to use up calorie stores afterwards, its simply using energy while you work then has no need to after you are through.

        1. disqus_OYJ7gPZj7l

          Or, you could do the smart thing, and do fasted cardio in the morning to deplete glycogen stores, then load up on carbs right afterwards so as to expand your glycogen storage capacity and be able to do longer bouts of higher-intensity exercises in the afternoon.

          There’s no reason why you should have to choose between aerobic and anaerobic exercise. You can do both.

        2. So you think you dont burn any calorie during the first 40min of jog? running energy less is a dream :D
          What only matter is how much calories are burn, at high or low intensity. 5min really fast would still burn lower calorie than 1h moderate. mixing intensity is more fun

    1. The VT1, VT2 method is *not* intuition – these are very important physiological markers. Its just a different way of gauging effort when you dont have a heart rate monitor.

    1. I wont google the Karvonen formula so I can pretend I knew what you were talking about :) Seriously, I dont know. I’m not afraid to utter those words.

  8. Do the Conconi test or beep test to measure your anaerobic & aerobic threshold, or max HR. Then do the math and calculate your cardio HR. In 6 weeks repeat beep test couse you have probably adapted so your Cardio is on higher HR

  9. There is the first mistake right to begin with: HRmax = 220 – age.
    That’s ridiculous, just a rule of thumb, determined per average. Do you feel average? Most certainly not. When I did a physical HRmax test at the age of 28, I came up with a maximum HR of 211. That’s 19 bpm above that stupid formula. Quite a terrible advice when you’re an ultra-runner, trying to improve yourself on pace. By that definition I would’ve constantly tried to go way lower (thus run way slower) in order to get my heart rate down.
    Have your heart capabilities measured properly, rather than building a card house out of rule of thumb based on other rules of thumb…

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