By Priscilla Flynn

As personal trainers, we think we can gauge how well clients cope with the exercise we prescribe by observing quality of movement, sweat level, breathing rate, or their mental/ emotional state. When I started using heart rate (HR) monitors with clients, I encountered a huge wake up call.

You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover

Converting to heart rate tracking involved a tremendous educational shift for both trainers and members. With live HR tracking, I could really see what was going on with clients. I witnessed HR’s being affected by emotions, interactions, lifestyle factors (such as hydration), or movement style preferences. The most profound discovery, was realising how easily I could over-train clients when I didn't track their HR.

For Some It Was Empowering, Others It Was Confronting

Some members rejoiced at the live HR feedback, which gave them permission to acknowledge that compromised lifestyle factors like stress or poor sleep, meant they didn’t have to force themselves to train harder than they felt ready to.

Other members struggled to honour HR feedback, which may have indicated their body was more stressed than they were aware of. The discrepancy between perceived exertion and HR was so hard to swallow.

Despite powerful HR feedback that efficiency was lacking, many didn’t want to stop and listen. I often felt panicked when hard-core members couldn't reach an intensity they were happy with. These members at times grew frustrated with us telling them to stop, and thought they were simply too fit, and needed to be challenged more.

With continued exposure, members embraced their feedback and were empowered to make changes that resulted in better HR efficiency.

Heart Rates Don't Lie

When you embrace HR feedback, you can use it to your advantage. If you don’t like it, you can change it. You can do it instantly within your session, or you can make changes to your lifestyle that will better prepare you for training (and life).

Is your HR Trending High and Recovery Slow?

If you do only a few reps and suddenly your heart rate is near max or recovery is delayed, then it’s clear that mental, physiological or lifestyle stress may be higher than you realized.

The below graphs provide a visual example of when one's HR is trending consistently high during a training session.

heart rate monitoring

Difficulty Raising Your Heart Rate?

A HR that isn’t responding as expected indicates a lack of efficiency and a primal need for strategies to improve HR variability. In some cases, the worst thing you can do to someone whose HR isn’t responding is push them harder and throw more stress at them.

So What Other Options Are There?

To benefit from heart rate training, you must accept it is honest feedback about your resilience and whether your current routine is helping, or hindering you. If your HR is responding exactly as planned, then it’s a powerful indicator that you are on track towards gains in health and fitness. But if efficiency is lacking, there is a need to either reduce the sessions target volume or intensity, or find ways to increase efficiency.

Aside from managing lifestyle factors like nutrition and sleep, there is much can you do in session to boost HR efficiency. Some options include:

  • Drink water and use lower intensity, nourishing movements
  • Perform fascial fitness drills like foam rolling or trigger point therapy to reduce stuck stress, increase tissue hydration and mobility
  • Play fitness based games to help mitigate mental or emotional stress
  • Breathe to normalise the nervous system
  • Move small, and with rhythm

The image below shows some efficient HR responses that include great peaks and fast recoveries.

What Gets Measured, Gets Managed

HR monitors help elicit changes that might otherwise not occur. It can be challenging to help clients make smarter choices (like better nutrition / sleep or hydration), and I have found HR training to be an invaluable asset in the transformation process. When clients correlate health promoting, or health hurting behaviours with their HR, they are inspired to course correct and improve.

When clients come to a session and claim they feel great, HR feedback often exposes their lack of efficiency and helps to bring their awareness back to what is really going on in their body. This priceless reminder helps people admit that their internal stress is often higher than they were aware, which helps them reflect on what may have contributed and adjust accordingly.

HR training has enabled us to help spread the message to train smarter, not harder and help convert former overtraining intensity junkies to a more sustainable, and a powerful approach for real results.

Flynn HeadshotI am a 35 years old Melbourne girl and have been in the fitness industry for 15 years. After working at a desk for 7 years as an Industrial Designer, I took the leap to full time fitness in 2009. I started my career as a group fitness instructor teaching Les Mills Classes and have worked as both Group Fitness Manager and Personal Training Manager for Fitness First. In 2011 I won Fitness First Australian Group Fitness Manager of the year, out of 93 clubs nation wide.

My personal journey hasn’t been a smooth one, and in the last decade I have suffered from chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and depression. I have had 19 operations on my vocal cords for aggressive vocal papillomas that left me unable to talk for 2 years.

After over a decade of living with illness and pain, I have developed a passion for wellness and am constantly exploring new modalities to gain greater health and wellbeing. My passion is working with clients who are living with chronic pain, poor health, or mental illnesses like depression anxiety. I am about to undertake study to be a functional medicine coach so that I can help more people with integrative health care.

In 2013 I opened a small fitness studio with my husband Nathan Flynn called in2great fitness. Our studio focuses on an integrated approach to fitness and training the human being, not just the human body. We focus on wellness as a precursor to fitness and our focus is to educate, entertain and empower clients.

My greatest strengths are my thirst for knowledge, and passion to share what I have learned to help others in seminars, blogs, social media and client sessions. Working in the fitness industry has been the constant that has enabled my to feel better, stay positive and enjoy life, and I love empowering others to experience it too.