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Working out with a Heart Rate Monitor

2012-12-16 7 min read Gym and Fitness marco

A while back, I read an article about the dangers of using heart rate displays on exercise equipment. The gist was that the machine told you to reach a certain heart rate, and if that was too much for you, you could injure yourself. Of course, the advice was sound, but the alarmist title, Are Heart Rate Monitors Dangerous? was not helpful.

I found using a HRM one of the biggest improvements to my workouts, so much so that I don’t even like to go to the gym at all if my HRM doesn’t work. The monitor motivates me and paces me, and those are two enormous benefits. In addition, I use it to set and track workout goals. Let me chat a little about all of that.

Goal Setting

So you decide to run. Should you go for a 2 mile run at 8 mph, or a 3 mile run at 7 mph? Really, you shouldn’t consider either relevant. You should decide on a number of calories you’d like to burn, and then burn them with whatever combination you can muster.

The advantage of doing so is that you don’t really care about speed or distance as absolute entities. You think of them as the thing that allows you to reach your actual goal, calories burned. You could start with a gentle warmup, then after 10 minutes go as fast as you can for as long as you can manage, then gradually reduce speed. Or you could do intervals. Maybe you want to just take it easy and go for a long job. It really doesn’t matter, you can have all of that and still meet your caloric goal, which is what you should ultimately strive for.

Setting a caloric goal has an added advantage: it allows you to monitor progress. You’ll notice that after a while, the same workout doesn’t generate the same caloric output. Maybe you used to run one mile at 6 mph (a ten minute mile) and burn 100 calories. But after doing that for three months, you only burn 80. That’s important to know, because it tells you how much better you have gotten at running (yay!) but also that you risk not making any progress. You have to push harder if you want to continue gaining muscle or losing weight.

As with most things related to fitness monitoring. You should always start by simply observing. Don’t set a goal until you know what you can do! Start by doing a routine workout and write down your maximum heart rate, your total calories burned, and your average heart rate. Try to gradually improve on total calories burned and average heart rate – while monitoring that your maximum heart rate doesn’t go up too far.


I used to take fixed-length sets. I’d choose an exercise and do a set, then wait 90 seconds, then repeat. The problem with that approach is that some exercises are more taxing than others, and that you don’t feel the same every day.

Nowadays, I replaced that fixed time routine with a base heart rate routine. I will choose a heart rate (depending on the day) that will prompt me to start the next set. Say it’s 100 beats per minute: I will do a set (which will get my heart rate up to maybe 145 bpm). Then I’ll wait for my heart rate to go down to 100 bpm and start the next set.

The advantage? Exercises that are harder will cause my heart rate to go up higher. It will then take longer to get to base heart rate, giving me a longer recovery on those exercises that are hardest.

As an added bonus, I will try a new exercise once in a while and realize it doesn’t do anything for my heart rate. Usually, that’s the case for very strongly isolating exercises (like for the lower arms). I then don’t do that particular exercise anymore and replace it with something that works that muscle just as hard, but that involves moving other muscles.


The original HRM I had needed to be sent to the manufacturer for battery replacement. When I got to that point and I got back to the weight room without the gadget – no dice.

The advantage of working to a calorie goal is that you can reach that even if you are tired. If you are hyper, you’ll get there faster, but if you have enough time, you can reach your goal, no matter what. And that’s invaluable.

Even if you are strapped for time, the HRM can help you. Just set your rest rate higher, even just a little bit, and you will squeeze out more calories out of your workouts. Add to that the information about which exercises work you out the most, and you can cram a short exercise that packs a punch.

But wait! There is more! Since you will soon find out which exercises give you the most workout for the fatigue you get, your workouts will in general become more productive. For instance, I found out that running and climbing stairs beat cycling by a mile. I can workout harder and feel less tired and sore after an 800 calorie run than after 500 calories on the bike.

How Does It Work?

I included the info in bits and pieces above, but let me recap here.

  1. Start by monitoring a typical workout. Register maximum heart rate on each exercise type and the time it takes to recover (the heart rate you get to when you want to go for the next set)
  2. Map the information to find your most effective exercises
  3. Start every session with a good warmup. The warmup should get you between the resting and the maximum heart rate for at least 10 minutes. For instance, my minimum rate is 110 and my maximum is 160, so i warm up gradually to a sustained heart rate of 135.
  4. Start a set as you regularly would. Once you are done, check the heart rate: if it is too low for your liking, try adding more weight or more reps; if it is too high, be very careful.
  5. Rest, moving, until you reach your minimum for the day. Don’t rest by sitting immobile on a bench. Even just standing up is better than being immobile.
  6. Go for the next set or exercise. Continue until you reach your calorie goal or you are out of exercises or time.

Things I Learned

Monitoring you heart rate while working out gives you interesting insights. Every body is different, so you may find out different interesting things about yours. Maybe some of the things I discovered for my body won’t work with yours. But here a couple of ideas:

  • A good warmup makes a huge difference to the quality of a workout. Without, your heart rate won’t go up as fast and will drop like a stone, making you work harder than you need to get to the results you want. The trick is that you need a lot more time to recover from a very high heart rate than you can keep it, so that the sustained heart rate of a warmup burns calories faster than the up and down of your exercise routine
  • Diet people talk about “starvation mode.” That’s when your body panics because you’ve been shedding weight too fast. All non-essential functions are reduced, your appetite is made ferocious, and you become obsessed with eating and lethargic. Well, you can see starvation mode in your heart rate – when your heart rate consistently stays below it should, even when you are warming up. Be aware of it, and make sure you act against it!
  • Sleep is incredibly important to your workouts. After a night with poor sleep, you’ll see your heart rate remain stubbornly down – almost like in starvation mode. The difference is that you can kill sleeplessness lethargy by going through a good warmup. Caloric expenditure wakes your body up, not just your brain.
  • Exercises that involve whole groups of muscles tend to burn more than exercises that isolate. Exercises you perform standing burn more than exercises for which you sit.
  • High rep / low weight exercises are very inefficient. High weight / low rep exercises also.