Everything You Need to Know About Your Heart Rate and HIIT

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Photo: Getty/Luis Alvarez
Thanks to COVID-19, we're all finding new ways to work out. With the closure of gyms and cancelations of classes, our living rooms and backyards are suddenly the places to get our sweat on. To keep your fitness regimen from falling stale, now is the perfect time to incorporate HIIT (or high-intensity interval training). The metabolism-boosting, muscle-building, and heart-strengthening work out is a favorite of trainers and programs like Barry's Bootcamp and Peloton for achieving a long list of benefits in a fraction of the time.

The key to successful HIIT is in your heart rate. The short burst of moves should challenge your beats per minute (BPM) to an intense level before a brief recovery. Keep reading to learn why your heart rate plays such an important role, what your goal BPM is, and how to use it to get the most out of your workout.

Why does heart rate matter in HIIT?

If you wear a heart-rate tracking device, take a peek at it throughout your next sweat sesh. You'll likely be surprised at how much it ebbs and flows as you cycle through periods of maximum work and recovery. Paying attention to your BPM is important during HIIT since it can illustrate if you're actually pushing yourself or not. Generally speaking, your rate should stay on the steeper side throughout the whole workout, according to DeBlair Tate, a certified fitness coach. Ensuring you're in the right range (more on that later) will reap the most benefits from your exercise—not only in the thick of it but afterward, too. "The greater the intensity of the intervals, the greater the demand for the oxygen needed for you to recover. This forms an oxygen deficiency in our body and increases our metabolism for up to 48 hours after working out," Tate confirms.

What should your heart rate goal be for HIIT?

A good guideline is to strive for 70 to 90 percent of your maximal heart rate during the high-intensity sessions, and 55 to 65 percent during recovery, according to Len Kravitz, PhD, coordinator of exercise science at the University of Mexico and author of HIIT Your Limit. "The level of intensity during the work intervals stimulates many positive changes in the heart as well as positive changes in the muscle cells," he shares.

To find your max heart rate, subtract your age from 220 and then apply the percentages. So someone who is 30 years old would have these targets.

High-intensity at 85 percent: 161 BPM

Low-intensity at 55 percent: 101 BPM

If you don't have a heart rate monitor, check your breathing. If you can chat with your friend via Zoom while you're in the middle of your HIIT workout, you likely have enough energy to increase your output and speed up your heart rate.

How long should you stay in the high heart rate zone?

According to Tate, when you're at your peak performance, you're in the heart rate zone. Throughout a 45 minute to one-hour workout, she says you should spend 10 to 20 solid minutes at high-intensity levels to see results. "You burn more calories per minute than with the lower heart rate workouts, as you are covering more distance per minute," she shares.

However, there are two times when this is difficult: when you're first starting out and when you're an advanced athlete. Newbies may struggle to push themselves to an uncomfortable level, while experienced fitness enthusiasts will have to exert much more energy to reach those sky-high BPMs. Lindsay Ogden, personal trainer and small group program manager for Life Time health clubs, recommends beginning with shorter high-intensity intervals and longer low-intensity intervals so you can get through the workout.

How does heart rate training improve your heart health?

During the tough intervals, you should feel every part of your body putting in the work. Or, as Devan Kline, the co-founder and CEO of Burn Boot Camp describes it: You put all of your effort into your muscles, making your heart pump harder, thus improving the overall blood circulation to your body. As a result of exercising the heart muscle, your heart becomes stronger and healthier, which helps reduce the risk of heart disease.

Another benefit of heart rate training is increasing your VO2 max. As described by Ogden, this refers to the maximal amount of oxygen your body can utilize. "It's commonly used to test the aerobic endurance or cardiovascular fitness of athletes," she continues. "VO2 is important for heart health as it represents how much oxygen your heart can pump and how much of that oxygen the rest of your body can use."

How often should you do a HIIT workout?

When people start geeking out over tracking their heart rate, they may start to do tons of HIIT workouts to see faster results. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. According to Kravitz, if you feel exhausted and over-the-top sore after your routine, it may mean you've trained too hard or too long. "Most people can tolerate the varying intensities of HIIT quite well, but they just need to modify the workout for their fitness level," he explains. His recommendation is to perform no more than three HIIT workouts per week on non-consecutive days.

Also, Tate reminds fitness fans that heart rate tracking isn't only about cardio. In fact, you can amp up that BPM through many forms of exercise, including bodyweight, typical weightlifting sessions, sports-centric workouts, and so on. "Most people do HIIT cardio, but you can also go full intensity for any type of workout," she continues. "Remember that the purpose of HIIT is to go full steam—80 to 95 percent of your max heart rate—for a short time, followed by a period of low intensity. No matter how you do it, the goal remains the same."

Ready to get started? Click play on the video below for a HIIT workout at home:

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