What is a heart rate monitor? The ultimate guide to HeartRate monitors 2013

Welcome to the first of our BurnTech.TV Heart rate monitor ultimate guide series, and we are starting off with answering one of the most basic questions: What is a heart rate monitor?

2013 has been the year of fitness technology thus far, with an influx of new gadgets, many of which have large marketing budgets (most notably, the Nike Fuelband). This is causing a lot of people to look at the fit tech market for the first time, but with the proliferation of new devices, confusion is reigning supreme.

English: CG ray tracing of a heart rate monito...
English: CG ray tracing of a heart rate monitor produced in Cobalt

What is a heart rate monitor?

A heart rate monitor is a piece of wearable fitness technology which calculates and measures your heart rate over a training session. A heart rate monitor typically consists of:

  • A sports watch: The sports watch acts as the display unit for the heart rate monitor
  • A chest strap: The chest strap wraps around your chest, just under your sternum, and it acts as the actual heart rate measuring device.
  • Fitness software: Many heart rate monitors come with fitness software which allows you to track your exercise sessions over time, monitoring your progress

What does a HRM do?

Often with cardiovascular training, it can be hard to tell exactly how hard you have worked out. It’s also hard to get anything close to an accurate idea of your calorie expenditure. Finally, its also very difficult to know if you are actually improving, as fitness performance increases typically come in a backwards, two steps forward kind of way. A heart rate monitor can help you get over these common hurdles by adding a scientific layer to your training, allowing you to get as nerdy (or not) as you like about your training.

Measure how hard you really train

How hard did I train? Was that a truly productive workout? These are some of the common questions that a serious gym goer may ask themselves. When we start out training, its mission accomplished just to make it to the gym, but after we’re in the routine, we often start analysing our performance a little closer. This is when a heart rate monitor kicks in. The conundrum often is: push myself to my limits and I run myself, quite literally, into the ground. Done push myself hard enough and I never improve. So how can a HR monitor help?

You start off my working out your maximum theoretical heart rate. This is calculated by subtracting your age from 220. I am 25 years old, so my maximum theoretical HR rate is:

220 – 25 = 195 beats per minute

I now know my maximum theoretical HR rate, and from there I can workout the intensity of my workouts.

Now I can start tracking my performance over the same workout over time. I like the consistency of the treadmill for this, and I find the good old 10km run to be a great benchmark. The treadmill allows me to keep everything consistent; I can set the same speed and incline whilst training in an environment where the temperature will be stable and the weather will not affect my performance.

A great fitness test is thus to run a 10km run with a heart rate monitor at a constant speed. You should make this a challenge, so that your heart rate is up around 75% of your theoretical max for the duration. This allows you to set a benchmark that you can measure against. You need to take note of your performance, especially your average heart rate and the settings that you inputted to the treadmill. Now you can repeat the exact same run every 8 weeks, with the ability to monitor how your heart rate behaves against that run compared to last time. If you complete the run with a lower average HR rate, then your fitness is moving in the right direction. If you have made no improvements, then you know you need to train harder over the next eight weeks. That is of course presuming that you are not simply aiming to maintain an elite level of fitness.

So when you ask, ‘what is a heart rate monitor’ one of the first answers should be a device which enables you to measure and track your fitness in able to make actionable improvements over time.


Train in the optimum zone

It is generally accepted that there are four core heart rate zones, and a heart rate monitor enables you to train accurately within them. Different zones have different goals in terms of what you can achieve by training within them:

The Energy efficiency or the active recovery zone: 60-70% of your theoretical max heart rate

This zone enables you to build up your endurance and aerobic capacity. This zone is generally considered ‘easy’, and it has a dual benefit. This heart rate zone is thought to lead to fat been the main energy type metabolised, so it is a very effective zone for burning fat based calories. The second benefit is that it is low enough intensity for your body to recover the glycogen within your muscle cells. Therefore this zone can be identified with a heart rate monitor and used in two ways

The first is as an active recovery zone between weights sets, meaning that you are burning fat whilst recovering from your set.

The second is as a low intensity cardio session, which doesn’t take much out of you in terms of effort whilst ensuring you burn some fat calories.

The aerobic zone – 70-80% of your theoretical max heart rate

This is the zone which helps you to really improve your aerobic capacity. This enables you to improve your body’s ability to move blood around your body and to remove carbon dioxide. This is the zone that lets you push hard over a 75% run, which really allows you to hit your fat burning goals.

The anaerobic zone: 80-90% of your theoretical max heart rate

Training in this zone develops lactic acid, and as such can improve your lactic acid system. You find your anaerobic threshold, and at this point your body is burning almost pure glycogen rather than fat. This is the zone that you work out in if you really work to nail high intensity sessions or brutal weights sets.

The red line zone: 90-100% of your theoretical max

This is the hardest heart rate zone to train in, and you can only spend a very limited amount of time here, even if you have successfully increased your anaerobic capacity. This is the fast twitch muscle territory, and is essentially full bore sprinting.

‘So when you ask what is a heart rate monitor and what can it do for me?’ another answer is that it can help me train to meet my specific goals. If you want to shed calories, then look to hit the anaerobic zone. If you want to increase your anaerobic threshold, then you need to be between the red line zone and the anaerobic zone. You get the picture…


Measure your calorie expenditure

Another reason to look into getting a heart rate monitor is to get a more accurate handle on your calorie expenditure. Most people, realistically, are using cardio training to try and shed body fat and burning calories is obviously key in this process.

Traditional cardio machines, like treadmills, cross trainers and exercise bikes have a rudimentary calorie counter on them, but without a heart rate input, these are near as dammit useless. By adding a heart rate monitor into the equation, you have the opportunity to greatly increase the accuracy of these devices. The calories that you burn are largely dependent on how hard you train – and without a HR input, the machine has no understanding of this.

Also, many machines and training styles don’t have a heart rate calculator at all. Spin bikes often lack a reader, as do all weights machines and crossfit style, high intensity circuits are a complete lucky guess zone. A heart rate monitor can give you an idea of your calorie burn from this style of workouts.

What is a heart rate monitor: how do I beat the jargon?

Below is the BurnTech.TV jargon buster:

Zone: The training zone that you completed your workout in, dictated by the percentage of your max heart rate

Calories: an estimate of the calories burned during your workout. The good heart rate monitors use data such as your gender and age to arrive at a more accurate figure than cardio machines.

Percentage max: Your current HR as a max of your theoretical maximum heart rate, calculated against your age.

Chest strap: the component of the set which measures your heart rate. This straps around your chest, just below your sternum

Strapless HR monitor: A heart rate monitor which doesn’t require a strap, instead using a pulse reader which is measured by the watch against your wrist


English: Suunto Heart Rate Monitor watch t6c
English: Suunto Heart Rate Monitor watch t6c

So in conclusion, when we ask what is a heart rate monitor, the answer is a piece of wearable fitness technology which helps us to do a better job of measuring our training and deriving good results from it. We will look in more detail at how to choose the best heart rate monitor for your needs in an upcoming post.

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