Like everywhere else in life, tech is beginning to impact how we pursue our fitness goals.
As recently as 10 years ago, if you wanted to track a meal journal your go-to high tech option was an Excel spreadsheet. A more common approach would be to go totally analog and use a notebook and math. Now we have not just websites that find the food and do the math for you, but apps that scan barcodes.
In the world of sports performance, we’ve seen the rise of instruments that can measure the speed of your barbell. We can track your recovery by measuring your heart rate variability. And getting feedback on exercise technique is easier than ever, as virtually everyone has a high quality camera in their pocket.
Of the many pieces of tech making their way into mainstream fitness, heart rate monitoring devices are one of the most ubiquitous. Many people have heart rate monitors on their smartwatch. And heart rate monitor chest-straps are better, more affordable, and more user-friendly than ever.
At Mark Fisher Fitness, we even use heart rate monitors as a core piece of our Snatched: Project X program. And yours truly uses heart rate monitors more often than not in my own training.
Why use heart rate monitors? Since heart rate monitors allow us to track your heart rate, we can “target” certain percentages of your maximum heart rate. Because different relative levels of effort lead to different adaptations in your cardiovascular conditioning, this can be a very powerful tool when working with athletes that require specific kinds of conditioning for their sport.
But is heart rate training useful for those of you seeking general health and hotness? Does it provide unique advantages that will make you healthier and hotter than ever? Or is it simply a cool tech gadget without utility?
Heart rate monitors kick ass AND present potential challenges.
Why Heart Rate Monitors Kick Ass
As you may predict since we’ve integrated heart rate monitors at MFF, I think they can definitely be a useful addition for certain people when pursuing certain goals.
First of all… they’re fun! Most people genuinely enjoy the additional monitoring and feedback about their workouts. It also makes tracking your training over time much easier. This adds a gamification element into your training. It can push you to work harder and or longer. You can also easily track how often you’re training, as you now have a digital record.
Additionally, you do get some objective data about where your heart rate is at compared to how you’re feeling. While I’d never want anyone to lose touch with their subjective sense of their body, it’s useful to see how it matches up against some objective markers. Over time, you’ll learn how your sense of your own effort matches up against your actual heart rate.
Lastly, we have my favorite use for heart rate monitors.
Heart rate monitors can teach you to pull back.
While they’re commonly advertised as a tool to hold you accountable to work hard enough, in my experience most people go harder than ideal. To be even more specific and paraphrase MFF adjunct professor Dan John, most people’s highs are too low, and their lows are too high.
In other words, many trainees never quite peak at their highest levels of exertion when going all-out. And more insidious, most people train too hard during the majority of their training when they should be cruising. In practice, this means most people train in a mushy middle ground of kinda-sorta-hard.
Heart rate monitors allow us to put a cap on our recovery style-workouts so we don’t blow our load. (For some practical applications, read on to the end.)
NOTE: The reason we see such dramatic strength results in Snatched: Project X is because we use the programming and the heart rate monitors to have our Ninjas train easy strength style. Because we avoid grinding out crappy reps towards failure, most of our Ninjas see personal records for how much weight they lift.
Why Heart Rate Monitors Can Suuuuuck
Every coin has its heads and its tail, and heart rate monitors also have their drawbacks.
For one thing, they can put the emphasis on quantity over quality. In the real word, both of these elements matter. When you’re only tracking the quantities of one data set, it’s human nature to overweight the importance. This can lead to working to hit your heart rate number goals to the exclusion of other elements like movement quality. Over time, this can lead to reduced strength (and hotness!!) at best, and injury at worst.
Furthermore, there’s a wide variance of heart rates. While some formulas for calculating your maximum heart rate are more sophisticated than others, most people are going to be a bit off. This means we can’t follow the heart rate monitor percentages religiously, as we have to allow for individual variation.
Practically, this means people with a lower range of heart rates may feel like they’re getting their ass kicked at relatively lower percentages of their estimated heart rate maximum. In the group setting in particular, this can lead to people being frustrated as they can’t always hit their target numbers.
Lastly, while gamification has its upsides, it also can feed into the human desire to always want “more.” Once you’ve set a personal record for intensity and/or duration of your session, you may be the type that always wants to do just a little bit more. In theory, this is very admirable. But over the long haul, it can lead you to train too hard over time to get optimal health and hotness results.
And speaking of gamification, it’s worth noting the estimations of how many calories burned are likely pretty off. While tracking your heart rate theoretically gives you a proxy for total effort and calories exerted, we shouldn’t live or die by that number. Not only can we not out-train our diet, but in practice, this is another guesstimation with tons of room for error.
How To Use Heart Rate Monitors In Your Training
After looking at the pros and cons, here are some practical suggestions for using heart rate monitors.
First of all, you can simply track for the fun of it. As mentioned, getting a sense of how hard you’re working compared to where your heart rate can be interesting. Plus heart rate monitors make it easy to track behaviors, as they create a digital log of how many workouts you’ve done.
You can also create some simple heart rate intervals to spice up your training. Although the exact ideal interval will depend on your conditioning and the exercises, common parameters will have you work up to 85-90% of your heart rate max. You then recover until your heart rate drops by 20% (to 65-70%), then start again. This can make a great 5-10 minute finisher or be a great standalone workout.
Lastly, my very favorite use is keeping the lid on intensity during easier training sessions. Using your heart rate monitor, try to keep yourself in the 60-80% range continuously. Brisk walks on an incline are a great training choice for this kind of training. When done well, these kinds of workouts can improve your base aerobic conditioning, speed up recovery, and burn some extra calories without compromising your joints or strength.
And remember, it should feel easy. If you’re looking for a very low-tech way to get in some recovery work, try doing your workout with your mouth closed and only breathing through your nose.
Heart Rate Training And YOU
Hopefully you now have a sense of the pros and cons of heart rate training. Whether it’s a fit for you will depend largely on your goals and your personal temperament. While I don’t think it’s necessarily a “must-have” when the goal is health and hotness, I do think it can be a valuable so long as you steer clear of the pitfalls.
As personal tech continues to advance, it holds a lot of promise for helping us kick more fitness ass in our lives. But like any tool, it’s a wonderful servant and a terrible master. By analyzing the use of a given device in the context of your personal goals and preferences, you’ll be able to make solid decisions about if and how to integrate it into your own training.
Happy heart rate training or not depending on what you think is best for you!