Now Strength Training with Heart Rate Monitors

In the past I have not been a fan of heart rate monitors. There are several reasons for this:

  1. They’re expensive
  2. Heart rate (HR) and rate of perceived exertion (RPE) can be measured intuitively and reliably with the Talk Test (Click for more info at ACE)
  3. The software and research are primarily focused on runners

But the times they are a-changin’.

Besides measuring your heart rate zones (how hard you’re heart is working), heart rate monitors also measure heart rate variability (HRV), and this is exciting stuff!

HRV is the change in time between heart beats. It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s best to have it less consistent. More variability between beats is better. HRV is higher when you’re fitter and your body is less stressed. It is lower when you are stressed or deconditioned. There are (as yet) no standards for HRV; the rate is entirely unique. To discover its rate for you, you need to create a baseline and then test it through experience.

You Want Stress!

HRV can tell you whether you are stressed and what kind of stress or overtraining your body may be experiencing. You may feel low energy; fatigue occurs because recovery isn’t adequate. Your markers of inflammation may be elevated. Your connective tissues aren’t healing. Your neurotransmitters and anabolic hormones may be dropping and your catabolic hormones may be rising.

You have two parts to your autonomic nervous system, and they need to be balanced to achieve recovery:

  • Sympathetic activities are often referred to as “fight or flight.” Too much stimulation can lead to fatigue, low libido, frequent colds, poor sleep.
  • Parasympathetic activities are often referred to as “rest and digest.” Too much stimulation can lead to weight gain, anxiety/depression, low blood pressure, sarcopaenia, underactive glands.

HRV tells you how strong your parasympathetic system is in relation to your sympathetic. The “rest and digest” system isn’t a panacea. You don’t want to be in its anabolic mode all the time. Complete rest is not the way to achieve recovery. Rather, different kinds of activities will activate your nervous system differently, and altogether, they will create balance.

If you need recovery, your HR may be elevated and HRV can tell you what kind of recovery to pursue, such as relaxation with meditation or active recovery like walking. Your nervous system wants stimulation, but it wants a balance of stimulation. Complete rest does less for recovery than anything else. 

Heart Rate Monitors for Strength Training

A typical strength training prescription consists of frequency, volume and intensity. Heart rate monitoring allows client and trainer to monitor and provide feedback for the intensity of exercise and to alter the volume if needed.

Often, I have a client perform 3 sets of an exercise with 1-2 minutes rest between the sets. The rest is there to return heart rate to a moderate level and allow slow-twitch fiber to refuel before the next set. Slow-twitch fibers may recover but will your heart rate? A more individualized method is to have a client wearing a heart rate monitor and let them rest as long as it takes — and just until — their heart rate returns to a moderate zone (60-70% of their max).

This summer, I’ll be using heart rate monitors to better my clients’ conditioning. The numbers will help us know when to push harder and when to ease up.

We perform baseline standardized tests of ability and use them to measure progress, and we have monitors at the studio that will record this information to the cloud.

Most of my clients see their progress every day in personalized experiences of changing pants’ sizes and greater functional strength. Now, they’ll have quantifiable measures reflecting their cardiovascular strength through central and peripheral aerobic improvements.

As I always say: strength training IS aerobic training…especially when you can improve performance with cutting edge science.


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