Getting in the ZONE. It’s all the rage lately. There are tons of fancy electronics out there that will tell you when you’ve entered the FAT BURNING ZONE. You can join fancy gyms that have lots of technology built into them so you will know exactly how hard you are working and how long you stay in the “optimal” workout zone.

Wait,….what is an “optimal” workout zone? 

There are several different ways to work with heart rate-based training zones. The idea is that if you train at an exertion level of about 75% to 85% of your heart rate you will be in the best zone to burn fat faster. This is also called the “Fat Burning Zone”

Technology has allowed us to reliably track when someone’s heart rate hit’s this zone. For many people, this is considered to be the best way to tell if they are working hard enough to see results from their fitness program.

The title of this article is “Beware the zone” What is there to beware of? This seems like a perfectly valid way to determine the effectiveness of a workout.

How hard someone works isn’t the determining factor in the efficacy of their workout.

It certainly plays a role, but what about technique, progressive overload, variation in modality or energy systems targeted?

Heart rate-based training focuses on one single aspect of the process and ignores the rest. By doing so, it eliminates critical aspects of a comprehensive fitness program.

Strength training has to be watered down to something that can keep the heart rate up without allowing for rest intervals or weights heavy enough to elicit more than basic levels of strength gain.

Variation in movement and exercises are severely reduced due to the emphasis on high-intensity movement and limitation in the technology to read the effects of certain exercises.

The same can be said for metabolic training. Every workout is the same, meaning every workout trains the same energy system and leaves the overall training aspect of variation in time needing more.

We can assume that the reason someone works out is not just to work out but to see verifiable changes in performance.

I’m not talking about high-level athletes either. The reasons people work out can vary, but the end results are based in being stronger, leaner, having more endurance and stamina, etc.. These are performance-based measures. 
Using the heart rate training method to determine performance is like driving your car and using the tachometer, instead of the speedometer, to determine how fast your driving.

The goal of a good training program is to increase the amount of work capacity someone has. The underlying premise is that the measurable effect is in the work completed, not the amount of energy used to complete it.

Here’s an article on why work capacity matters

If it takes a person 5 minutes to walk up 20 flights of stairs, the amount of effort is inconsequential to the amount of time it took. If their training program is working, then the next time they climb those stairs, it should only take them 4 minutes. That is a measurable improvement.

High intensity without consistency or technique.

With the focus being set on keeping the intensity high, the ability to monitor the consistent performance of proper technique is greatly reduced.

Technique first, performed consistently, before increasing intensity… This is the method for safe, effective, long-term growth and development.

Heart rate-based training lends itself to starting with intensity first. This goes for each individual workout and for the mindset towards training, of those in the program. Over-training is likely and burnout can happen when someone is simply “going hard” all the time.

Where’s the Coach?

With all this emphasis on keeping the heart rate up, when does coaching happen? Sure there is a trainer there to hopefully make sure no one is doing anything egregiously unsafe, but how much attention can they really pay when they’re focused on keeping everyone pumped up and working hard?

In a program that is designed to bring someone in and get them to push hard, go hard, where is the intake process to find out what an individual needs and what will work best to help that person succeed?

Keep in mind

There can still be a place in someone’s fitness journey for heart rate-based training. 

  1. It can be super fun and that by itself can get someone off the couch and into a class. (#winning)
  2. Many people that have little to no experience in a gym can benefit from the reduced number of exercises and the simplicity of the program.
  3. It’s easy to understand and grasp the ideas being taught. Work hard, get your name into the zone and keep it there.

These types of programs are great for getting people into their first organized fitness program. There are many success stories of people making fantastic changes by doing these kinds of workouts.

Parting thoughts

While there is a place for all variations of fitness programs, not all programs are built to maintain someone’s fitness journey for years and years.

In many cases, people in heart rate-based programs hit plateaus and are not able to break through them until they move on to a more well-rounded and comprehensive program. 

At some point in time, most people will need a program that is based on functional movement where high intensity is constantly varied with different movements, exercises, time domains, and energy systems.

What do you do now?

When you’re looking at a program, ask yourself what your goals are and if you think that program will help you get there. Then ask yourself if that program will continue to help you reach the next set of goals after that….and so on. 


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