3 Ways to Fix Heart Rate Training

3 ways to fix heart rate training

Back in 2008, I convinced Polar to give me one of their Polar Team 2 heart rate monitoring systems in exchange for helping to spread the word about how to use heart rate monitoring with teams.

I quickly put up a big TV in the gym and started connecting it all together.

It was very early days with this kind of tech, so it was a huge pain to set up and get running. This was before iPads even existed, so I had to buy a special PDA and then figure out how to connect that to the TV.

Once I finally got it working, though, it was awesome!

For the first time ever, I could see everyone’s heart rates while they were training. More importantly, this meant I could use live heart rates to coach a group.

Up to that point, it was next to impossible to do this with more than one person at a time.

Even then, the only way I could see someone’s heart rate was to have them wear a chest strap and then hold a watch while I made sure I stayed close enough to them to not lose the signal.

I’ll be honest, It led to some awkward moments.

Being able to use live heart rate with everyone that came into my gym was truly game-changing. It changed the way I coached.

There’s no way to know for sure, but I’d be surprised if I wasn’t one of the very first gyms in the US to have a big TV up on the wall with live heart rates.

Fast forward 14 years, and you can find this in gyms all over the place. Given how powerful using heart rate can be, that should be a good thing… but from what I’ve seen, most of the time, it’s not.

The truth about heart rate training is that the technology has evolved, but the way most people use heart rate hasn’t.

Today, if you walk into most gyms with with a heart rate monitoring system, you’ll almost always see either one of two things happening:

  1. People have heart rates up on the screen, but they’re paying literally no attention to them. It’s not connected to their training at all.
  2. A room full of people trying to drive their heart rates as high as they can over and over again to earn points, or because that’s what they think they’re supposed to do.

Number 1 is mostly just a waste of time. Number 2 can often lead to more harm than good. If you don’t know why, just read this article.

Fortunately, using heart rate training the right way isn’t really that difficult. The key is just following a few basic rules and strategies.

To help you get started, I’ve put together the 3 most important things you can do to use heart rate training the right way and make sure it’s improving your results.

#1: Get to work and find your true max heart rate

find true max heart rate for accurate heart rate training

When it comes to heart rate training, accuracy matters. Unfortunately, this is where things often go wrong from the start.

That’s because almost every heart rate app or device uses a zone-based system built around percentages of your max heart rate.

I’ll talk more about zones later, but the problem is that very few people doing heart rate training actually know what their real max heart rate is. They end up just guessing, or using the old “220-age” formula that everyone knows.

What most people don’t know, however, is that literally zero research has ever supported that the 220-age formula is accurate.

Instead, it was an arbitrary equation that researchers came up with back in the early 1970’s as a rough estimation after looking at heart rate data from just 35 people of different ages.

It was never intended to become the gospel of max heart rate that it still is today, 50 years later.

The reason it caught on is likely because of convenience and simplicity, not accuracy. Anyone can subtract their age from 220, but subsequent research has shown it can be off by as much as 10-15bpm, either high or low, which is a lot.

The truth is that there is no heart rate max formula that will be particularly accurate for everyone. There is a lot of variability in max heart rate from one person to the next.

That means that if you want to get the most out of heart rate training, there’s only one way to do it—suck it up and find your true max heart rate the old-fashioned way.

So, what’s the best way to do that?

If you’re an athlete that plays a sport where max heart rates come into play, then simply wearing a good heart rate monitor like Morpheus to record this training is often the best way.

You can see an example of what this looks like from my own heart data during a racquetball game.

heart rate training with Morpheus

When you hit a true max heart rate, you’ll see that no matter how hard you work, it just doesn’t go any higher. You’ll also usually only be able to sustain it for 20-30 seconds, at most, before fatigue forces you to slow down.

If you don’t play a sport that gets up to max heart rate, then my preferred method is to do a very thorough warm up and then 3-4 all-out sprints between 60-90 seconds, with 2-3 minutes rest in between.

It usually takes 2-3 reps before you’ll hit your true max heart rate, so don’t expect to hit it on the 1st one.

One thing to keep in mind is that max heart rate is position specific. This means your max heart rate while seated, like riding a bike or rowing, won’t be the same as it is when you’re running.

If most of your heart rate training will be doing exercises on your feet, then getting a max in an exercise like sprinting will be all you need. If you’re doing a lot of rowing, cycling, or other seated exercises, then you’ll want to get a seated max heart rate to use when you’re doing these types of movements.

While going up to max heart rate is not fun, the good news is that your max heart rate doesn’t really change with your fitness levels.

That means you really only have to put in the work to get an accurate number once.

After that, you can set it and forget it.

#2: Use zones for intervals (ZBIT), not just steady state

heart rate training zones for intervals

Over the last 10+ years, the fitness industry has become obsessed with High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).

Read just a few articles and it’s easy to see why so many people believe that high- intensity intervals are like magic. They can make you leaner, faster, better-conditioned, prevent heart attacks, cure cancer, etc.

If it was that easy, nearly everyone would be in shape because pretty much everyone is doing, or has done, plenty of this type of training.

But the truth is that they’re not, so why is that?

The shortest answer is that it’s because the way intervals are done today is largely broken because it’s based on the misguided idea that there’s just one way to do them: at high intensity.

That’s why virtually every type of high-intensity interval is some variation of the same formula – go as hard as you possibly can, rest, repeat.

This is the same as trying to get stronger by doing a series of 1 rep maxes over and over again.

The fundamental principle of fitness that HIIT fails miserably on is that just like we need to do more than single rep sets to get stronger, our bodies need more than one level of intensity.

The interval formula needs to change. There is a better way.

“Go as hard as you can” needs to be replaced with, “Go as hard as you should.” The “rest” part needs to be more than just trying to catch your breath before repeating.

It’s around the need for more than just one level of intensity in interval training that the concept of Zone-Based Interval Training (ZBIT) was born and why you should start doing it.

What makes Zone-Based Interval Training different?

zone based interval heart rate training

The main thing that makes this type of interval training different is that it incorporates a much wider range of intensities—for both the work and the rest part of the interval.

That’s done through the use of heart rate zones.

Although the biggest thing that made the use of heart rate zones popular is the idea that there is a special fat burning zone (there isn’t), the real benefit is that different zones represent different levels of intensity.

Using zones to drive both the intensity of how hard to work and rest has a ton of benefits when compared to standard HIIT:

  • Can target different parts of the body’s energy systems more effectively
  • Allows for higher training volumes and frequencies without overtraining
  • Develops better control of energy management and pacing
  • Helps prevent the development of poor technique that comes with fatigue
  • Is more specific to sport performance
  • Offers greater variety and is more fun to do
  • Produces better results over the long-term instead of leading to plateaus

To help you see exactly how this new type of interval training is done, I’ve put together two sample training methods using Morpheus in the videos below:


There are virtually endless different ways to incorporate ZBIT into your training. All you need is an accurate heart rate monitor (see #3 below) and max heart rate.

If you want to learn more about how to put together a complete zone-based interval training, look for a new free course with 12 different methods and more coming soon.

#3: Use the right tech for the job

heart rate training equipment

If you’re using any sort of wrist or arm-based heart monitor during high-intensity training, I have bad news for you: your data is not accurate.

To understand why, it’s important to go over a quick overview about the two basic types of heart rate monitors available today—optical and electrical.

Electrical heart rate monitors have been around forever. Polar brought the first one to market all the way back in the 1970’s. Although they’ve evolved to use Bluetooth instead of the old analogue signals, the way they work has remained largely unchanged.

As the name implies, this type of monitor measures the electrical signals from the heart to calculate heart rate. This is the same tech that’s used in ECGs and it’s extremely accurate no matter what type of exercise you’re doing.

The only potential downside of electrical heart rate monitors is that they really only come in the form of a chest strap, which not everyone loves to wear when they’re training.

What about optical sensors?

sensors for heart rate training

The other type of heart rate monitors available today, the kind that generally go on your wrist or arm, are able to take a different form because they use optical sensors instead of electrical sensors to measure heart rate.

They essentially work by shooting light through the skin and then measuring how much is reflected back, which changes depending on your heart rate. This method is known as photoplethysmography, or PPG for short.

The advantage to this is that it’s possible to put optical sensors in a huge variety of devices, from watches to trackers and anything in between, which makes them convenient.

The downside, however, is that this convenience comes at the cost of accuracy, particularly at higher heart rates and speeds.

This is because when you’re at higher intensities and/or you’re moving faster, optical sensors have a much harder time detecting small changes in light through the skin as you’re moving around.

This leads to what are called motion artifacts and the end result is that you can end up with very inaccurate heart rate readings. Heart rates may show up as much higher or lower than where you really are and it can have trouble getting any reading at all.

Even worse, the color of your skin tone can also have a big impact on this. Optical sensors generally perform significantly worse on people with darker skin or tattoos.

The bottom line is that while optical sensor-based monitors may be comfortable and/or convenient, this comes at the cost of accuracy during your high-intensity workouts, that’s a big problem.

Where they can be used, however, is for basic monitoring of everyday activities and sleep. This is where they are generally accurate and can prove valuable.

When it comes to high intensity training, on the other hand, there is no substitute for a chest strap. They are the gold standard here and likely will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

Love them or hate them, wearing a good old chest strap like the Morpheus M7 (click here to learn more about Morpheus) is the only way to get good, accurate heart rates no matter what type of training you’re doing.

Getting the most out of heart rate training

When it comes to using heart rate to dial in your workouts, just seeing a heart rate number on a wearable or app isn’t enough.

If you’re going to put in the effort to monitor your heart rates, it’s important to make sure the numbers you’re relying on are accurate and you are doing more than just looking at them.

This starts with:

  1. Making sure you’re using the right monitor for the job
  2. You know what your true max heart rate is
  3. You’re using your heart rate to guide your training intensity

The great thing about heart rate training is that it doesn’t matter what your goal is.

Whether it’s to improve your health, body comp, performance, or anything in between, it can be an invaluable tool when it’s used as I’ve outlined in this article.

To see what I mean, make sure you have the right monitor, find your true max heart rate, and then get to work. The results will speak for themselves.

If you want to learn more about ZBIT, look for my new free course on interval training coming soon and make sure to fill out the form below to sign up to learn more about my upcoming 8-week conditioning program, Metamorphosis.

If you’re a coach or gym owner and ready to start using heart rate training in a whole new way, click here to learn more about how I can help you do that.

Join the Conversation