HR Zones 101

hr zone stock

How do you know if you’re training at the correct intensity?

Using Heart rate zones (HR zones) is one effective way to monitor how hard you’re training or competing. There are five HR zones based on the intensity of physical activity relating to your estimated maximum heart rate (HR Max).

HR zones are closely linked to your aerobic and anaerobic thresholds. Understanding this can really help when considering HR zones for planned physical activity, especially your HR zones for performance running or effective weight loss.

Simply put, HR zones can be defined as percentages of your estimated HR Max.

What are the HR zones?

There are five different heart rate zones (1–5) and your training plan can (and should) include workouts in all five zones. This HR zone chart shows the level of intensity and percentage of estimated HR Max used in each one.


Heart Rate Zone One (50-60% of HR Max)

This is the very light intensity zone. Training at this intensity will boost your recovery and get you ready to train in the higher heart rate zones.

To train at this intensity, pick a form of exercise that allows you to easily control your heart rate, such as walking or cycling.

Heart Rate Zone Two (60-70% of HR Max)

Exercising in heart rate zone 2 feels light and you should be able to go on for a long time at this intensity.

This is the zone that improves your general endurance and overall performance at higher intensities: your body will get better at oxidizing, or burning fat and your muscular fitness will increase along with your capillary density.

Training in heart rate zone 2 is an essential part of every exercise program. More and more data suggest that this where the majority of your cardio activity should be focused at for optimal health and performance. So keep at it and you’ll reap the benefits in the long run.

Examples include walking, hiking, cycling and swimming.

Heart Rate Zone Three (70-80% of HR Max)

Working out in heart rate zone 3 is especially effective for improving the efficiency of blood circulation in the heart and skeletal muscles. This is the zone that lactic acid usually starts building up in your bloodstream, causing muscular fatigue.

Training in this HR zone will make moderate efforts easier and improve your efficiency.

Heart Rate Zone Four (80-90% of HR Max)

Heart rate zone 4 is where the going gets tough. You’ll be breathing hard and working around the transition point of aerobic and anaerobic (without oxygen) activity.

If you train at this intensity, you’ll improve your speed endurance. Your body will get better at using carbohydrates for energy and you’ll be able to withstand higher levels of lactic acid in your blood for longer.

Heart Rate Zone Five (90-100% of HR Max)

Heart rate zone 5 is your maximal effort. Your heart and your blood and respiratory system will be working at their maximal capacity. Lactic acid will build up in your blood and after a few minutes you won’t be able to continue at this intensity.

If you’re just starting out or have only been training for some time, you probably won’t have to train at this intensity. If you’re a professional athlete, look into incorporating interval training into your training plan for peak performance.

Examples are very short maximal efforts such as 40-100m sprints.

How to calculate HR zones

To calculate your individual HR zones firstly you will require to know your maximum heart rate. A simple way to calculate an estimate is to use the following formula:

  • 220 – age = HR Max

Another, more accurate formula to calculate estimated HR Max is:

  • 206.9 – (0.67 x age) = HR Max

From here you are just calculating work rate percentages based off your HR Max. This can be done by multiplying your estimated HR Max by the minimum and maximum percentages for the required training zones.

For example, if a 35-year-old athlete was looking to conduct some zone two work the equations would like this:

  • 220 – 35 = 185 bpm
    • 185 x 0.60 = 111 bpm
    • 185 x 0.70 = 130 bpm

And with the second formula:

  • 206.9 – (0.67 x 35) = 183.5 bpm
    • 183.5 x 0.60 = 110 bpm
    • 183.5 x 0.70 = 128 bpm

Now that you have calculated your HR for each of the training zones, you will have more of an understanding of how hard you’re actually working during a session.

If you want to really capitalize on the benefits, then sit down with a coach and work together to develop a training plan to improve your overall fitness, and making you faster, fitter and stronger for longer. You will reap the rewards in the long run.

The problem with Stair-master


The Stair-master is a piece of gym equipment that has been designed to simulate the climbing of stairs. First of all, no machine will ever beat the real life task of climbing a set of stairs or hiking up the side of a mountain. The satisfaction of making it to the summit, along with the view, will always surpass the view of the gym car park or a row of televisions and or mirrors.

However when used correctly, the Stair-master can be used to supplement your training and have some cardiovascular benefits along with being a great tool in developing strength and endurance in the lower body.

This is not always the case as the majority of people are using the machine incorrectly.

The problem with the Stair-master
Almost every time you walk into a gym you will find people who don’t know how to use a Stair-master, or many of the cardio machines for that matter. The machine is meant to simulate climbing up stairs. Pretty basic right? Yet still you will find many people who find it necessary to add all of these un-natural movement patterns to try to complicate a simple movement.

Common mistakes people make on the Stair-master
In no particular order these are just some of the mistakes people make using the Stair-master.

Stair-master kickbacks
Not really sure how this movement developed? Did someone say that this would help give you bigger more developed glutes or did you see someone else doing this exercise so you thought it was worth giving it a go?

Just Squat. And Hinge. The act of kicking out your leg while using the machine does nothing for you other than giving you the impression that you think you’re actually doing something productive.

After you finish squatting, do some glute bridges and kettlebell swings.

Stair-master hanging
There are only two reasons you should need to hang on to the rails of a Stair-master:

  • You’re an older trainer and have poor balance;
  • You’re completely new to working out (or walking) and have developed no balance.

If you fall into the second category, you need to slow the machine down or take a walk around the park.

Stair-master sideways walking
Why? Is it because someone somewhere told you need to try to develop the outside (or inside) of your legs? Those muscles are probably already tight on you and if they’re not then going sideways on a Stair-master isn’t going to fix that.

Stair-master reading
Do you go to the gym to workout or do you go to the gym to read the latest gossip on the bachelor? There is a time and place for everything. Focus on the task at hand. If you want a good workout, then do a good workout.

Stair-master slump
How often do you walk into the cardio section of the gym and see people slumped over on the Stair-master? The aim of the machine is to simulate the climbing of stairs. There is zero transferable skill to slumping while conducting this movement pattern.

It’s bad enough to sit slumped over at your desk all day, but to go to the gym afterwards and make it worse by slumping over on a machine for an hour? One of the main reasons the gym exists today is to help correct the imbalances created by living in the concrete jungle.

Just slow down, stand up straight, chest up and shoulders back. And get those hands off the rails!

Chasing calories on the Stair-master
Why? Because you need to burn 500 calories so you could eat some food afterwards? Or the night before? There is another whole post here. Chasing calories will not develop successful training or eating patterns.

Firstly, if you’re slumped over and holding onto the rails then the number on the display isn’t even an accurate measure of calories burned.

Secondly, all this is doing is creating a negative relationship with both exercise and food. This will almost always end in failure.

How to use a Stair-master effectively

This picture tells a thousand words. Try a real set of stairs. Get outdoors and go for a hike. There is no machine that is going to help you with your movement so you actually have to do the work. You can’t lean on anything. You can’t read. It’s just hard work.

And that works.