Heart Rate Training 101: How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor

A guide to using heart rate training as a method for tracking your fitness goals

Simply put (and you likely already know this), your heart rate is the number of times that your heart beats per minute. When you exercise, your heart rate increases in order to meet the demands of your hard-working muscles that need more oxygen and blood as you continue to move.

Monitoring your heart rate while exercising isn’t mandatory, but for exercisers who want to keep track of their fitness levels or athletes aiming to increase their performance and VO2 max levels it can be a useful training tool.

When you purchase a heart rate monitor you’ll have to first set it up before you can use it in training. Most models will ask you to enter information about yourself such as your height, age, sex and weight. After you’ve entered this information your device will most likely move on to detecting your resting heart rate. The more advanced your monitor is, the more it will do for you automatically.

Most heart rate monitor models will use the information that you entered and your detected resting heart rate to determine your ideal training zones.

While it’s certainly convenient to use a monitor that calculates all these values for you, some more basic models simply serve as a tool for reading your heart rate levels while exercising, in which case you’d need to have a more in-depth understanding of heart rate training zones.  

Either way, understanding exactly how your training zones are calculated will help you better comprehend the purpose of training in terms of heart rate.

“I think it’s important that you understand how to use the heart rate monitor. For example, if you’re a runner, you should understand what running at 160 BPM means for you,” says Eric Orton, an expert running coach, author of The Cool Impossible and founder of the Eric Orton Running Camp in Jackson Hole Wyoming.

Related: Running 101: Training with a Heart Rate Monitor

Your target heart rate zones are calculated using your maximum heart rate; another value that most monitors will calculate for you using the information you provided when you first set it up.  You can also get a good estimate of what your max heart rate is for yourself by using your monitor during a very intense workout and then noting the recording for your highest number of beats per minute (BPM).

You may have also heard that you can calculate your max heart rate by subtracting your age from 220, and while this calculation might give you a rough estimate, the equation is outdated and no longer considered a reliable way to calculate your max heart rate.

Once you have a number for your max heart rate your monitor (or you) will calculate your target heart rate zones.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends exercise intensity levels that fall between about 64 and 94 percent of your max heart rate. The following equations demonstrate how your heart rate training range is calculated.

— Lower end of range: Target HR = (Max Heart Rate) x 0.64

— Upper end of range: Target HR = (Max Heart Rate) x 0.94

For example, a 22-year-old with a max heart rate of about 198 BPM would have a training range of about 126 to 186 BPM. Obviously this is a very large range that wouldn’t give the individual a good idea of where their heart rate should be when they’re training.

That’s where heart rate training zones that correlate with different levels of exercise intensity come into play. Which zones you choose to train in will depend on a number of factors including your level of fitness, you goals and heart health history.

The following chart from ACMS’ Resources for the Personal Trainer depicts max heart rate percentages in relation to exercise intensity.

Intensity Max Heart Rate(%)
Very Light <35%
Light 35-54%
Moderate 55-69%
Hard 70-89%
Very Hard >90%
Maximal 100%


Depending on your goals, you can use these ranges to set up a heart rate based training program that outlines specific exercise intensities for certain workouts.

ACSM personal trainer Linda Melone briefly explains the zones you might choose based on your goals:

“For endurance training and general aerobic conditioning, calculate 50 to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate if you’re a beginner; 60 to 75 percent for intermediate level exercisers; and 70 to 85 percent for established aerobic exercisers.

For example, if you’re a 45-year-old beginner with no known health issues, your maximum heart rate is approximately 175 beats a minute. Fifty to 65 percent of that maximum is 87 to 113 beats per minute; this is your starting point for cardiovascular activity.

For weight loss, use interval training to burn the most calories. Short bursts of high-intensity exercise (80 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate) followed by lower-intensity recovery periods (50 to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate) burns more calories than exercising at a consistent level of exertion for the same amount of time. Richard Cotton, M.A., ACSM’s National Director of Certification Programs, cautions, ‘Speed or anaerobic training done above those ranges (85 percent and over) and is not recommended for beginners.’

Your heart rate can also help you keep tabs on your progress: measure your heart rate 15 to 60 minutes after exercising and compare these numbers over time as you get in better shape. The numbers decrease as your heart becomes stronger.”

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