Defining the Different Heart Rate Zones and How They Can Hack Your Workout

male runner looking at his smartwatch

Scientists, trainers, and athletes have long regarded heart rates as essential performance metrics, revealing the body’s degree of exertion during exercise. But the advent of wearable tech has made heart rates more visible to millions. 

Whereas measuring your beats per minute once required a clunky monitor, Americans can now glance as their wrists for an accurate reading. Some smartwatches and fitness trackers are even sensitive enough to perceive stress-related heart rate spikes and screen for cardiovascular illnesses.

In tandem with the wearable tech boom, many popular exercise clubs now employ heartbeats per minute (bpm) as the guiding metric for their members. To do so, they utilize a system of heart rate zones. Each zone corresponds to a percentage range of an individual’s maximum heart rate: The harder you’re hustling, the higher your zone at that time. 

This system works well because it’s both personally tailored and comparable across individuals. While your maximum heart rate may differ from mine, we can both aim for, say, 75% to 85% of our respective upper limits. In a class involving many fitness levels, heart rate zones help everyone give their own best effort while staying on the same page.

But heart rate zones are useful for more than group fitness. Because each heart rate zone offers specific benefits, you can use heart rate metrics to customize your workout to your own health objectives. In fact, heart rate zones can help you maximize your exercise efficiency, transforming your approach to aerobic activity.

In this article, we’ll show you how to calculate your maximum heart rate. From there, we’ll illustrate how each zone occupies a percentage range of that total. As we discuss each zone, we’ll explain its particular fitness function and possible health benefits. Moreover, we’ll show you how moving between zones can help you achieve a more balanced workout – and get you closer to your goals without overdoing it.

Calculating Your Maximum Heart Rate

Because heart rate zones represent a percentage of your maximum heart rate, you’ll need to establish just how quickly your heart rate could theoretically beat when pushed to its limit. When working with professional athletes or conducting research, scientists use technologies to determine maximum heart rates for each individual. Thankfully, you won’t need to undergo a battery of tests to get a close approximation of your true maximum.

Rather, experts suggest using simple age-based equations to estimate your maximum heart rate. There are a few popular methods to consider, and you don’t need to be a math wiz to put them to good use.

The first common equation is exceedingly straightforward: Simply subtract your age from the number 220. For example, a 30-year-old would arrive at a maximum heart rate of 190 bpm. 

Some scientists, however, suggest that a slightly more complicated approach can produce more accurate results. Two popular variants are the “Tanaka” and “Gelish” equations, outlined below.

  • Tanaka equation: 208 – (0.7 x age)
  • Gelish equation: 207 – (0.7 x age)

Using these methods, a 30-year-old would have an estimated maximum heart rate of either 187 or 186. In the grand scheme of things, these minor differences won’t matter much at all. Because heart rate zones correspond to percentage ranges of this total, a beat or two shouldn’t significantly alter your workout effort.

Know the Zones: Understanding Each Heart Rate Range

male and female on exercise bike

Once you’ve determined your maximum heart rate (or at least a good estimate of it), you’re ready to dive into the different heart rate zones. We’ll lead with a disclaimer: There are several ways to divide and name heart rate ranges. Some experts, for example, use a four-zone approach, with levels ranging from “active recovery” to “high-intensity.”

For our purposes, however, we’ll use the popular five-zone system for classifying heart rate ranges. One reason we’ve opted for the system is its ubiquity: Many fitness experts and programs use these five zones. Moreover, these five zones offer a valuable degree of nuance – without becoming exhaustingly overcomplicated. 

Zone 1: 50% to 60% of your maximum heart rate

Sometimes called the “healthy heart rate zone,” this zone encompasses exercise in its most casual forms. Walking with a friend in the park or pedaling easily on a bicycle? That’s what Zone 1 feels like. You should be able to have a conversation in this zone, though you might breathe a bit more heavily than if you were stationary. 

Sure, Zone 1 won’t deliver many training benefits, and you won’t torch tons of calories through this easy-going exercise. But this kind of activity has lots of advantages, particularly for individuals with health concerns or limited mobility. When done consistently, Zone 1 exercise can help reduce one’s percentage of body fat, lower blood pressure, and decrease “bad” cholesterol. 

For avid exercisers, however, Zone 1 also offers particular benefits. If you’re doing strenuous activity multiple times a week, you’ll need to build recovery days into your fitness regimen. A leisurely Zone 1 walk or bike ride could be the perfect way to rest up while still getting active.

Zone 2: 60% to 70% of your maximum heart rate

Also known as the “fitness heart rate zone,” Zone 2 ups the intensity slightly. The effort should still feel sustainable, however: You’ll still be able to speak cogently, though you might get winded if you try to deliver a full diatribe. 

This zone is built for the long haul: At this degree of exertion, you should be able to endure. Most amateur marathon runners, for example, hover around this zone throughout their races.

For individuals with shorter, more intense exercise plans, Zone 2 is essential to smooth transitions. If you’re working on high-intensity interval training, for example, this zone would be suitable for warmups and cooldowns.

Relative to Zone 1, you’ll clearly burn more calories: Incrementally increasing the intensity makes a difference. In fact, if you’re looking to burn fat, long bouts in Zone 2 may be the best approach. 

Many people mistakenly blaze through Zone 2, assuming that they need to work harder to burn through fat. But according to sports scientists, if you keep your heart rate between 55% and 75% of your maximum, your body uses fat as its main fuel source. Push harder, and your body will start to burn carbs. Accordingly, longer workouts in Zone 2 are a great way to bust your gut. 

Zone 3: 70% to 80% of your maximum heart rate

Zone 3 promises great benefits for aerobic endurance, even increasing the capacity of your heart and lungs over time. You’ll find this level of exertion challenging but doable over a moderate period of time: You could sustain this level of effort for approximately half an hour. You’re not gasping for breath, but speaking isn’t easy either.

In this zone, calorie-burning kicks into a higher gear. If you’re running or cycling regularly, this zone will feel familiar: not easy by any means, but not unduly tough either.

Zone 4: 80% to 90% of your maximum heart rate

Here’s where things start to get intense: Zone 4, sometimes called the anaerobic zone, pushes your body into uncomfortable territory. You’re working hard, breathing too heavily to speak more than a word or two at a time. 

Thankfully, this labor is richly rewarded. Because you’re hustling so intensely, your body enters a process called anaerobic metabolism, searching for sources of energy. Even better, this process continues long after your workout ends. Hours after you’ve finished, your elevated metabolism will still be burning up fat. 

If Zone 4 sounds like a gift from the workout gods, know that it should be pursued somewhat cautiously. You should only stay in Zone 4 for roughly 10 minutes at a time, or as part of an interval-based workout. Otherwise, you risk burning out or sustaining an injury, 

Zone 5: 90% to 100% of your maximum heart rate

If you feel like you’ve got absolutely nothing more to give, welcome to Zone 5. Think about an all-out sprint that leaves you gasping for breath, heart pounding in your chest. This zone is for short bursts of extreme exertion, not sustainable effort or endurance training.

Most people won’t want to spend more than 30 seconds to a minute in Zone 5. You’ll burn tons of calories, but you could easily over-exert yourself as well. If you have a heart condition, be especially cautious about this zone’s risks.

In the Zone at Home?

Armed with an understanding of each heart rate zone, you’ll be able to assess the benefits of your workout. Additionally, you may identify new ways to adapt your exercise routine, whether by amping up your effort or including more active recovery.

Moreover, heart rate zones are a truly flexible tool for tracking fitness effort. No matter what kind of exercise you’re doing, your zone will indicate when you’ve hit your upper limit – and when you can give a bit more to enjoy greater gains. That means you can sweat up a storm while avoiding overexertion, an essential balance for preventing injury.

Because heart rate zones give you the means to monitor and improve your workouts, you can optimize the physical activity you do on your own. No need for a trainer to bark orders: You’ve got the knowledge to push yourself in the comfort of your own home. 

Let us help you build a foundation for challenging and varied workouts at home. With our expert reviews of many types of fitness equipment, we’ll guide you toward the machines you need to hit every heart rate zone.