The Truth About Target Heart Rates


I know. You’re probably saying “here he goes again” and you are correct. You’re thinking “Come on, don’t attack the target heartrate zone idea too”. Sorry. Here we go again. Every time I have this conversation with a group I always get the question “ If this stuff isn’t true, why is it plastered on the front of every treadmill”. I can’t really answer except to say that it probably came out of the legal department.

The truth is that target heartrate zone training is a highly flawed concept that could result in us drastically overtraining or undertraining  ourselves or a client.  Why is it a flawed concept? Because the physiologists know that only a small percentage of the population actually fits the formula. Did you know that seventy percent of the population is plus or minus ten to twelve beats from the theoretical 220- age formula. Yes seven out of ten people don’t fit the mold. Even worse, thirty percent of the population deviates nearly twice that much.

In mathematical terms for seventy percent of the population maximal heartrate actually equals:

220 – age plus or minus 10-12 beats per minute

For thirty percent of the population maximal heartrate actually equals:

220- age plus or minus 20-24  beats per minute

Why is this such a big deal? To realize why, we need to first state that those whose heartrates are on the high end are at little to no risk. All that happens with those folks is that we don’t push them hard enough. The problem is with the folks who have an unusually low maximum heartrate. If we were to push a person in the thirty percent group that is minus twenty-four beats per minute to eighty percent of their theoretical maximal heartrate, we would actually be pushing them to ninety percent. This would be a major error that could have significant ramifications.

The lesson here is that, as with so many of the so-called truths of fitness, there is actually significant variability in what we seem to think is an accurate and time-honored formula. Be careful with yourself and with you clients. Buy a heartrate monitor and learn how both you and your clients really respond to exercise.

18 Responses to “The Truth About Target Heart Rates”

  1. mboyle1959 Says:

    Thanks Don. I need to get my guys to use their monitors even more.

  2. My experience with continuous heart rate tracking started about 10 years ago. I started strength coaching in 1986. Along the way I’ve had the opportunity to coach Olympians, clients from 3 of the 4 major professional sports leagues, NCAA All Americans and 2 NCAA Players of the Year. I thought I was a pretty good physiologist, making training decisions based on personal observations using RPE tools. When I started using continuous heart rate monitoring I quickly learned I was kidding myself. I equate a strength and fitness professional not using a heart rate monitor to a race car driver trying to judge their speed by counting telephone poles along side the road. Now 100% of my clients record heart rates in nearly 100% of their workouts. It’s just too easy to collect information that I’ve found to be invaluable while reviewing workouts preparing scrips for up coming sessions.

    Don’t get hung up in the formulas. For what it’s worth, the equations mentioned have been appropriate for at least 80% of my clients. I personally start with them, when I observe VT changes not consistent with the predictions, I will do deeper testing to set the heart rates. If I’m working with an athlete who is taking more than a casual approach to the training, I will start with AT/VT testing. The testing tell me more about power at threshold then about training zones.

    Heart rate monitoring tools are affordable and I think clients are expecting us to use all the tools available to ensure their progress.

  3. Very good article. I don’t know why everybody’s hang up is on the target hr range either other than the fact that they want to use it as an excuse to not engage in high intensity exercise. I love kettlebell training and trust me, there is no “keeping your heart in the zone” with that ancient device. Good post. Feel free to check out my blog and leave a post sometime.

  4. […] The Truth About Target Heart Rates « Michael Boyle's Strengthcoach … […]

  5. Well put. And I like the comment about “linear solution to a non-linear problem.” What are your thoughts when you identify a “max” heart rate during a given task and training around that HR range to justify effort when training for that task? Maybe looking at respiration rates with HR to identify “recovery” and/or “fitness”?

  6. One of my ex-phys professors always said “The standard Max HR formula is trying to apply a linear solution to a non-linear problem.”

  7. […] The Truth About Target Heart Rates « Michael Boyle’s Strengthcoach.com Blog […]

  8. mboyle1959 Says:

    Pretty sure it was the ACSM Black Book . It was a while ago.

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