HEART RATE MONITORS: the difference between training with results and "working out"

DBS uses the Polar Flow heart rate monitoring system.

DBS uses the Polar Flow heart rate monitoring system.

So many things can influence your perception of your workout's intensity. For instance, during a cardio workout, it can be difficult to tell how hard you are actually working, compare your effort to a previous effort, and then afterwards monitor your progress. This is where the heart rate monitors come in. A heart rate monitor is an unbiased measure of the effort exerted by your cardiovascular system.

Why should I use a heart rate monitor?

If you are serious about your fitness, a heart rate monitor is a great tool to use for exercises that stress your cardiovascular system. This form of biofeedback helps to optimize training by allowing you to monitor your cardiovascular effort in real time. It literally tells you how hard your heart is working. You can then use this information to track your progress and compare your workouts. A heart rate monitor can help you ensure your workouts are consistent.

Another example: if your Heart Rate hit 180bpm during a similar workout last week, you might strive to achieve the same effort again. Similarly, training with a heart rate monitor can help avoid overtraining: if your heart rate is shooting up unusually early during your warm-up, maybe it's an indicator of some underlying fatigue. Ultimately, this tool helps you to get in touch with your body, which is valuable for anyone who is serious about their health and fitness goals.

The 5 most important things to know about Heart Rate Training

  1. It's EXTREMELY individual. You cannot arbitrarily compare with others.
    Your heart rate at any given time is dependant on SO MANY FACTORS including age, weight, body composition, fitness level, familiarity with an exercise, genetics, mood etc. A person with a lower max heart rate or higher max heart rate will not necessarily be fitter than you. The literature is based on averages across a large number of people and does not have the same validity on an individual basis. It is not a competition to see who has the highest, or lowest, or most consistent, or most varied number. Erase the following misconceptions from your mind:  “A higher number means I'm fitter because I'm able to push harder.” FALSE.  “A higher number means I'm out of shape because my heart rate is higher and you still look like its the warm-up”. FALSE.  In a class that displays heart rate (such as DBS:EPIC Bootcamp) its best to do as they say in yoga and “keep your eyes on your own mat.” In other words, your heart rate data is useful to you and your instructor, and no one else.

  2. Track your progress!  Effectiveness increases exponentially with repeated use.
    Heart Rate training is an amazing comparison tool.  Your analysis might go something like this:  I did the same thing yesterday and my heart rate was much lower. What other factors may contribute to my heart working harder today? Did I get less sleep? Am I stressed? Am I taking too short of rest between efforts?  Over the long-term you can track your ability to recover between intervals, or the cardiovascular demand of a given activity. The level of self-analysis granted by heart rate data allows you to train smarter and see results. (Technology such as Polar Flow is a great user-friendly way to achieve this!)

  3. Bigger isn't always better.
    A heart rate monitor is necessary to make sure you train at the correct intensity. High intensity training (for example HIIT) is undoubtedly beneficial, however solely training at your maximum capacity can actually be detrimental to your progress. Effective workouts have a very specific goal: For instance, for many athletes it is very important to build up your aerobic base, which requires training at a very low intensity for long periods of time. Similarly, on recovery days - pushing into a harder zone could have a detrimental effect on recovery. On the other hand, many interval workouts are designed to be most effective if effort is maximal.

    Heart Rate is commonly divided into 5 zones to help organize and distinguish between the different training objectives and effects at different intensities (see below). Each zone has its own purpose, and determining what zone to train in for a given workout is dependant on your training plan and ultimately your goals.

  4. Not all types of training are designed to focus on your cardiovascular system.
    There are many different elements to overall fitness, but not all of them are effectively monitored by heart rate. For example: aerobic (cardio) training, interval training, and circuit-style training, are effectively monitored using heart rate, whereas strength, speed, and power training are typically less so. That being said, many athletes will use heart rate monitors for all training to keep tabs on their training and help them LISTEN to their bodies.

  5. It's just a number. You need to engage with it for it to mean something.
    The biofeedback received while wearing a heart rate monitor is always potentially valuable - but as with all knowledge, the important thing is to learn how to interpret it. The easiest way to do this is to track it and look for patterns. Try using an app like Polar Flow, or just old-fashioned pen and paper! Get the most out of your training by communicating this information to your trainer or coach.  

HR Training & You <3

It can be intimidating to use a heart rate monitor. You may have heard lots of terms thrown around about zones and thresholds, and may not see how this tool can be valuable to you without a degree in exercise science.

Let's de-mystify some jargon:

Max Heart Rate: The highest your heart rate can go! (In other words, if your heart rate monitor is reading a number greater that what you thought was your max, you need to update your settings in your Heart Rate monitoring software).

Resting Heart Rate: Your heart rate at complete rest. Best thing to do is to take your pulse while you are still in bed in the morning, and average it over 3 or 4 days. As you get fitter, your resting heart rate should decrease (but that does NOT mean that someone else with a lower RHR is automatically fitter than you!) As you get sick, stressed, or overtrained, your resting heart rate will increase, making it a great tool to keep tabs on your body. Check out this link for info on how to find out your RHR.

V02 Max: This number measures the maximum volume of oxygen your body can use (ml/kg/min). There is a fundamental correlation between VO2 max and aerobic power. There is also a direct link between VO2 Max and Heart Rate. Precise VO2 Max measurement requires a laboratory, although good "field tests" exist.

Aerobic Threshold: The point just before your body switches from using primarily the aerobic energy system to using primarily the anaerobic energy system. Aerobic = With oxygen. Anaerobic = Without Oxygen. Training at your Aerobic Threshold is key to improiving your aerobic ability. 

Anaerobic Threshold: Also known as "Lactate threshold," this is the point at which there is a build up of lactic acid in the blood. Commonly this is the point at which you are "breathless."   There is a significant difference between the percentage of VO2 max at which this threshold occurs between healthy individuals and elite athletes. 

Zones: There are 5 Heart Rate Zones.

Zone 5 (Red) 90-100% (Max Effort)

Zone 4 (Orange) 80-90%  (Anaerobic threshold)

Zone 3 (Green) 70-80% (aerobic threshold)

Zone 2 (blue) 60-70% (Moderate)

Zone 1 (grey) 50-60% of your Max Heart Rate. (Easy)

Check out this article for a great overview of Heart Rate training as well a good description of zones.

High Tech


At DBS Fitness Concepts, we use  Polar Technology to allow clients to benefit from Heart Rate Training. Polar gives you 4 pieces of information during your workout:

1. Your Heart Rate percentage of your Max HR

2. Your Heart Rate

3. Number of calories burned

4. What training zone you are in (by colour)


After your workout, in your online polar flow account you can see a chart of your heart rate fluctuations over the course of the workout, and the summary of your workout zones (see example below).

heart rate zones

Some Common Quandaries:

  • My heart rate is always in the red while everyone else's is in the green.
    There could be a number of reasons for this. The data on your Polar Flow account may be inaccurate, or you might be truly pushing yourself to the max. 
  • I am sure that Polar has my zones wrong. What can I do? 
    On https://flow.polar.com you can modify your: Height, Weight, Age, Training background, Max Heart Rate, Resting Heart Rate, VO2 Max, Aerobic Threshold, Anaerobic Threshold. Polar estimates these values, but if you are interested in obtaining more accurate values talk to your trainer about performing a field test..
  • I can never get into the Red Zone! 
    It could be simply that your workout is not stressing your system to the max. Alternatively, you may need to adjust your stats in Polar Flow. Fitness and familiarity with the exercise plays a role here: Although entering your maximum zone easily can correspond with low fitness, untrained individuals may have a harder time pushing themselves into their max zone.
  • My Heart Rate is higher than others but their percentage is higher.
    This could be because they are much older, or less fit than you. Your Heart Rate zones are calculated taking into account all of the information you have entered into Polar Flow. This is what makes the percentage so useful - It already takes into account the many variables and tells you where YOU are at a given time.
  • Which number should I be paying attention to? 
    The Heart Rate percentage and your Training Zone colour are the most useful pieces of information during your workout. Calories are also good to track if you are keeping a close eye on your energy expenditure, but aain this is only and ESTIMATE. 
    Although polar uses a scientifically backed calculation, there are many things that affect caloric burn that it does not take into account; notably, body composition, metabolic rate, workout type and EPOC. (Keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming blog on EPOC which will explain how your workout could be worth more calories than you might think!)
  • How are calories linked to heart rate?
    Your muscles need fuel in order to contract. In aerobic exercise, fuel is burned through cellular respiration with the help of oxygen that is pumped through your bloodstream by your heart.  Thus, there is a direct link between heart rate and caloric expenditure for aerobic exercise. This relationship becomes more complex (and the estimate becomes less accurate) with high intensity exercise as well as strength training, where the primary energy system is not aerobic. This article explains that the polar caloric estimator is very accurate (when compared to lab-based tests), for moderate intensity exercise. For very low and very high intensity, it can OVER estimate your caloric consumption by as much as 12%. DBS: EPIC Bootcamp aims to get clients into the red zone (90% Max HR and above), which is above the ideal zone for accuracy...so take that number with a grain of salt
  • I want to lose weight, should I always train in the Red? 
    NO! Since the Red zone is your Maximal effort, it is very hard on your body to continually train in that zone without appropriate recovery. No matter your goals, any training plan should incorporate variety. Cardiovascular training should balance time spent in zones 1 & 2 with intensity workouts. Taking your resting heart rate daily is a great way to check in with your body and see if you need a recovery day.

More Fun Facts:

  • Strength exercises that target large muscles like your quads and glutes will raise your HR more than smaller movements.
  • Indicators of fitness include ability to get HR up high for efforts and recover to a low HR quickly.
  • Target zone for desired result can vary based on fitness level, and activity. For example zones will be different for cycling than for running. (Fardy, P.S., Training for aerobic power.)

Some resources for your reading pleasure: