Understanding Heart Rate Zones and How They Help Boost Your Fitness

Understanding Heart Rate Zones and How They Help Boost Your Fitness

There are plenty of ways to measure a great workout. You might feel breathless, or drenched in sweat; maybe you lifted heavier or ran faster than ever before; you might feel a sense of empowerment or pride walking out of the gym. Those all matter. But there’s one tool far more accurate than the rest—and that’s the heart beating in your chest.

Tracking exercise intensity is an important piece of the puzzle because it helps you go “easy” and “hard” or “harder” as necessary during a workout, says Orangetheory research scientist Brittany Leboeuf, PhD. But if you rely only on subjective measures (like how hard you’re breathing), you might be selling yourself short. “An advantage to measuring heart rate is that it gives an objective measure of an individual’s level of effort. Basically, it helps keep you honest about how hard you are actually working in conjuction with subjective feelings of effort.”

Finding Your Zone

Your heart rate should increase during exercise, but it also has a ceiling on how high it can safely go. Workouts like the ones you’ll find at Orangetheory are scientifically designed to push you in and out of the different heart-rate zones–or intervals–to elicit specific responses, explains Dr. Leboeuf.

This training style, known as variable intensity interval training, has tons of proven benefits—from boosting metabolism and burning more calories in less time, to improving your cardiovascular fitness as well as your mental health.

A graph with the five performance zones showing percentages of personalized maximum heart rate

Here’s a closer look at the five heart rate zones that you’ll work through in every Orangetheory class:

Heart Rate Zone 1 or the Gray Zone (50-60% MaxHR): This is the light activity zone. Aim to be here during warm-ups, cool-downs and active recovery periods.

Heart Rate Zone 2 or the Blue Zone (61-70% MaxHR): This is the “slowly start jogging, power walking or rowing zone.” You’ll start to feel your breathing increase and talking becomes just a bit harder.

Heart Rate Zone 3 or the Green Zone (71-83% MaxHR): This should be what we call “Base Pace” and active recovery between intervals. It’s a challenging but doable pace.

Heart Rate Zone 4 or the Orange Zone (84-91% MaxHR): This is an uncomfortable zone achieved with Push pace and All Outs. You won’t spend long periods of time here.

Heart Rate Zone 5 or the Red Zone (92-100% MaxHR): You might hit this zone during an All Out effort. If you do get here, it should only be for a super short period before returning to the Orange or Green zones.

Each zone serves a purpose, and not all are created equal. “For example, longer efforts are typically performed in what we would call the green zone because that pace can be maintained for longer periods of time,” says Dr. Leboeuf. Efforts in the orange zone or red zone, on the other hand, are not doable for as long. While you’ll earn a “Splat Point” for every minute you spend in those top zones, the goal isn’t to get as many as you can. “In an effort to push our members towards better fitness, our workout design experts curate our workouts to achieve approximately 12 to 20 Splat Points during class. By having this Splat Point range as a target, we can help our members push themselves to higher heart rate zones without overdoing it.”

Measuring Progress

Okay, so you want to start monitoring your heart rate. But how exactly do you do it? Lucky for you, technology has made it easier than ever to incorporate real time heart-rate data into your everyday training. In fact, it’s woven into the DNA of fitness studios such as Orangetheory. Simply strap on their proprietary heart rate monitor before class, and you’ll be able to watch your heart rate when working out in real time. Using this connected technology during your workouts means you have instant insight into how your body is responding–both in the workout and over time.

Most heart-rate training zones are based on age-based equations that calculate max heart rate and generally decrease as an individual ages. While these can help give you a general guideline, where Orangetheory really shines is in its personalization. “After taking five classes in 120 days, our custom algorithm adjusts a member’s MaxHR to more accurately reflect their in-studio performance,” says Dr. Lebouef. “From there, a member's MaxHR will automatically adjust as needed with every class taken.”

This personalized, always-updating feedback also means your coach really knows when to push you further or pull you back. By using each members’ personalized data, they can prioritize safety–ensuring that you are successful yet continually challenging yourself, no matter your fitness level.


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