Heart Rate-Based Training for Retention and Growth

For Gym Operators

Heart Rate-Based Training for Retention and Growth

Heart rate-based training technology can better equip your trainers to identify select workout intensities for members’ different fitness goals. How important is measuring heart rate in fitness training? What are some of the factors affecting heart rate? Heart rate training will keep your instructors and training programs accountable, and your members motivated.

The following is a summarization of an education session from the 2016 IHRSA Convention, produced with full permission from IHRSA. The full-length video is available for purchase at ihrsastore.com.

About the Speakers

George Centeio, POLAR Manager of Training and Education and Laura Calleia, POLAR National Account Manager – Health Clubs.

What’s Behind Heart Rate-Based Training?

Imagine for a moment you're driving a vehicle without any gauges. You’re unsure of how much fuel is in the tank. You don't know how fast you're going or if you're about to get a speeding ticket. You don't know if you're redlining and about to blow a gasket. I don't know about you, but that’s not a vehicle I want to drive. Luckily, when it comes to our bodies, we have a very reliable gauge, our heart.

By measuring our heart’s beats per minute (BPM), we gain objective feedback. Of course, we can ask the question, “how do you feel on a scale of 1 to 10” and get the rate of perceived exertion (RPE). However, with heart rate sensor technology, you take the guesswork out if it. You’ll know how hard a member is working. You won’t need to ask and can better monitor their workout intensity.

The net result is training efficiency. Members don’t have the time to spend countless hours in the gym to get the results they’re after. They want to train smarter, not necessarily harder or longer.  This will pay off in higher retention among your members and revenue growth by adding a fee-based service.

Where To Start – Heart Rate Threshold Testing

If you're starting to incorporate heart rate-based training into your programming, a very important aspect is max heart rate. Maximum heart rate (MHR) is the highest number of beats per minute someone can achieve in an all-out effort. It's based on age, heredity, and fitness level. It’s the key first step in any heart rate-based training program.

There are different formulas to approximate max heart rate. One estimate is achieved by the 220-minus-age formula, which works for about 70% of the population, give or take 10 beats. It offers a good starting point for working with most members using heart rate-based training. For the other 30%, who deviate beyond the results of using 220-minus-age, this isn't a reliable indicator. It’s important to test, monitor, and learn about your individual members’ cardio fitness.

Get In the Zone

Heart rate training zones are the building blocks of heart rate-based training. There are five different zones of intensity used to improve fitness over weeks, months, and years. Briefly, they are:


Zone Attribute

Percent of MHR

RPE Scale



Rest & Recovery

50 – 60 %





60 – 70%





70 – 80%





80 – 90%




Max Anaerobic

90 – 100%



Train at the Right Intensity

Remember, it’s not always faster and harder that produces the desired fitness results. It depends on the goal. A good heart rate-based training program uses different intensities of each zone. For example, to build a member’s aerobic endurance, you’ll want them to work out in the green and yellow zones. Most people can go a good 40 minutes at this level of intensity. In the orange zone, they’ll hit their anaerobic threshold where the focus is on interval and speed training. For the most part, this is not a comfortable intensity to sustain for a long period.

Perhaps a member approaches you for help in training for a competition or wants to improve their speed or efficiency. They’ll need to a program that works at high intensities. Another member wants to manage their weight. They’ll require a program that emphasizes aerobic base building at low- to mid-intensity workouts. The idea behind incorporating the five training zones is to have a good mix either within a single workout or over the course of a week, a month, or more as you plan your training cycles.

Cueing Tips for Heart Rate-Based Training

The value of using heart rate zones in a group setting is that it levels the playing field among participants. A class is likely to have people who cover a range of fitness levels and abilities. Their heart rate thresholds will vary. So, to say, "Everyone should now be at 130-150 beats here," won’t necessarily apply to everyone.

  • Don’t emphasize target heart rates so as not to discourage members or set them up for failure.
  • Use zone colors to direct workout intensity. 
  • Call out time in zones, e.g. “We’re here in the yellow zone for 5 minutes, and then we’ll push to orange for two minutes.”

Heart rate zones are a useful tool to guide a heart rate training workouts.

Build Credibility and Stronger Relationship with Members

Imagine this scenario: a member takes your indoor cycling class for the first time and doesn’t know their max heart rate. They are 50 years old. Using the 220-minus age formula suggests they have a max heart rate of 170 (220 – 50). You begin class, putting riders through some sprints and climbs for a good 45-minute session. At some point during those 45 minutes, your first-time member’s heart rate peaks at 183 beats per minute. It is hard to refute the 183 heart rate and though it may not be their true max heart rate, it is more accurate than the estimated 170.

How can you turn this to an advantage?  It gives you the tools to personalize a member’s workout training. By monitoring their intensity and max heart rate, and making slight adjustments, their zones will match up to their current cardio fitness. This keeps trainers engaged with members and builds credibility. If you see a member working at 80-90% but they don’t feel like they’re working that hard, simply modify their MHR and recalculate their zones. Alternatively, a person who is breathing heavy and working at a high intensity, but only shows 70% of their max needs to lower their MHR and adjust their zones.  This level of member attention not only guides them to train efficiently, which they’ll appreciate, but also creates stronger relationships.

Show Me Results

There are “tools” with heart rate training which demonstrate to members the value they gain from their experience training. Two simple ones are average heart rate and resting heart rate. Using baseline testing, you create an anchor point from which you can then measure the progress of a member’s training.

What is average heart rate? It is an average of the heart rate over a workout session, e.g. strength training, cardio-based, interval training, etc. During the workout, the heart rate will fluctuate depending on training intensity. It may peak at 180 and be as low as 110. For this test, you’ll want the average.

Here’s an example of how to establish a base line or pre-test average heart rate. Have the member get on a treadmill. Put it to a 2% incline and have them jog at five miles an hour for 15 minutes. Record their average heart rate. Then get them started on their training program. After six weeks, repeat the test. Hold the test variables constant: 2% incline, five miles an hour, 15 minutes. Compare the second average heart rate with the pre-test. Ideally, it is lower than the baseline! You can say to the member, “Look, you're getting more efficient. You've improved your cardio fitness. You can do more. The same amount of work is less taxing on your body."

Improved cardio fitness is also shown by a change in resting heart rate. Resting heart rate is the number of beats in a single minute while the body is at complete rest and is a strong indicator of that person’s basic level of fitness. Have a member record their heart rate first thing in the morning while lying down and relaxed. It’s best to have them do this over five consecutive days and to take the average for a baseline resting heart rate.

Typically, an adult’s resting heart rate is between 60 and 80 beats. A resting heart rate below that is usually a sign of good fitness, and could also be a sign of good genes. An efficient resting heart rate means that the heart doesn't have to work very hard at rest to circulate the blood throughout the body. It can also indicate potential illness or stress. If exceptionally high, this could be an indication of something more serious.

Checkups on the resting heart rate are another tool trainers can add to their toolbox to demonstrate progress. It’s encouraging to show members that they started at 71 and now they’re down to a resting heart rate of 55.

It takes a good six weeks of consistent training to notice improvements. With less fit individuals you’re likely to see more significant changes in average and resting heart rate. On the flipside, high-level athletes achieve minuscule gains and it’s tough to see those increases. However, for somebody just getting started, you can visually show their progress and get them encouraged to want to continue their training with you.

Factors That Affect Heart Rate

You’ll want to stay mindful of the different factors that can affect heart rate when using heart rate-based training. These include an individual’s genetics, gender, and simply how they’re built – heart size. Likewise, there are personal factors, types of exercise or the modality of the training, environmental conditions, and also lifestyle.

You’ll notice differences in heart rate thresholds between cycling, swimming, or running. Running hard for an extended period usually elicits a higher heart rate than cycling, which is different from swimming. High intensity group fitness classes tend to produce higher average heart rate as opposed to mobility and toning classes. So, it's important to consider small adjustments to threshold and training zones depending on the type of exercise training.

Here are a few other personal and environmental factors that affect heart rate that you’ll want consider in your heart rate based training programs.

  • Humidity
  • Hydration
  • Heat
  • Elevation
  • Stress
  • Medication
  • Smoking

Always ask members about their health and medical conditions before proceeding with a heart rate-based training program.

Retention and Growth

Setting up a heart rate-based training program offers significant value in member retention and growth for your facilities. Essential to the training technology is the ability to provide real time feedback, a personalized approach, follow-up, and accountability – not only on the part of the individual, but for the trainer working with the client. And, members are willing to pay for the added value of this type of a fee-based service.

Heart rate-based training is a chance to educate members and to connect with them. How did you do today? What were your times in the various zones? Did you hit your goals? How do we adjust next time so that you can benefit more out of the session? You can even add an element of gamification to the training. Create reward incentives based on most time in zones, highest super burners (most calories burned), or cool down champions (quickest time to drop to zone one).

You’ll begin to see a community build around your fee-based heart rate training program. This will improve retention and referrals. Plus, with this technology-driven training, you’ll have insights to better manage club activity. See which classes are the busiest and staff up accordingly. Monitor training hours and which trainers are most popular.

Heart rate-based training coupled with the technology is a feature-rich program to run successful individual and small group training programs, and boost your club’s growth.

Author Information

Danielle Rainwater
Danielle Rainwater's picture
Danielle was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. She is a certified ISSA certified Personal Trainer and feels very lucky to be able to combine her passions of marketing, health, and fitness into her career.
Last seen: 2 hours 45 min ago
Joined: 2016/05/23 - 14:48