by Don Heatrick
There are many myths and misunderstandings when it comes to fighters using heart rate monitors in their training…
And despite many Instagram posts showing fighters wearing heart rate straps during training, many aren’t using this tool effectively at all.
So I’m going to debunk these myths, and explain how to use heart rate monitors to make you a better fighter, and avoid the pitfalls that I see many fighters and coaches going down when using this potentially powerful training tool.
Myth 1: Hitting a higher heart rate than others means you’re working harder
I see this a lot in Muay Thai gyms… fighters being pushed during pad work to reach the same heart rate as another fighter. And if their heart rate doesn’t get as high, believing that fighter isn’t working hard enough.
The truth is that your maximum heart rate is genetically predetermined. Everyone’s heart tops out an individual bpm rate, which is set entirely depending on who your parents are!
You can’t change it.
So although an increasing heart rate does reflect a greater training intensity…
Comparing one fighter’s heart rate directly to another’s is like comparing eye colour and expecting them to match!
For example, active fighter Joe Le Maire’s maximum heart rate clocks in at 193 bpm. Whereas mine hits a maximum of 199 bpm. If both Joe and I were both to hit 193 bpm, our relative effort levels would be very different… more on that coming up.
The point here is, you can’t compare heart rate bpm’s between fighters. It doesn’t mean anything.
Myth 2: Maximum Heart Rate reflects how fit you are
Being genetically set, your maximum heart rate doesn’t indicate how fit you are…
But, there are two measures that do.
Resting Heart Rate
The first is your resting heart rate. The slower your heart beats at rest, the more efficient that pump is running. It’s getting more oxygenated blood pumped around in every single beat, so it doesn’t need to pump as often to keep you alive!
Measuring your average heart rate for a minute or two, first thing in the morning before getting up out of bed, is the most accurate way to check your resting heart. As you become aerobically fitter, your resting heart rate will reduce.
Getting under 60 bpm is an athletic level of fitness. I like fighters to get to 55 bpm or lower.
Heart Rate Recovery
Another measurement that does reflect your aerobic fitness is heart rate recovery – the number of beats per minute your heart rate drops within a minutes rest after working at a rate of perceived effort of at least 8 out 10.
The quicker your heart rate drops, the more aerobically fit you are. Check your heart rate between rounds of sparring, on the heavy bag and on the pads.
I like fighters to drop at least 40 bpm in 1-minute after a decent physical exertion. Ideally, I want to see them dropping to a bpm in the low 140’s range.
Here’s an example heart rate plot for Joe Le Maire, during 5 fight rounds of fight paced pad work…
His heart rate drops between 50 to 65 bpm in the minute between rounds, consistently dropping below 140 bpm, regardless of how hard he worked in the round. That’s great aerobic fitness!
Now onto Myth 3…
Myth 3: You can calculate your Maximum Heart rate
You’ve probably come across the formula calculating your maximum heart rate based on your age… 220 minus your age.
Please don’t rely on it, it’s only a very rough “finger in the air”.
If you’re a healthy fighter, you must test it, don’t guess it.
At 21 years old, Joe Le Maire’s calculated max heart rate is 199 bpm… yet we know from practical testing that it’s in fact 193 bpm.
At 46 years old, my calculated max heart rate would be 174 bpm… but in testing it’s 199 bpm.
Here are some heart rate plots for Joe while carrying out a Cardiac Power Intervals training session in preparation for a recent fight.
Joe did 5x 2 minute rounds of maximum effort running, with 2 mins rest in between.
The objective of this session is to hit maximum heart rate in each interval. The first two interval rounds rarely reach max heart rate, it takes a while for the intensity to soak in!
You can see that by the 5th round, Joe hits his maximum heart rate of 193 bpm.
Once you know your maximum heart rate, you then have an idea how hard you’re personally working.
But that takes us onto our final myth…
Myth 4: Percentage of Max Heart rate sets your training zones
Most people are using heart rate training zones based on percentage of a calculated maximum heart rate… you can see how that could be wildly out!
But what about training zones based on a practically tested maximum heart rate?
Well, that’s still not great!
What’s important to a fighter is not percentage of maximum heart rate, it’s whether they are at their anaerobic threshold, above it, or below it. That’s what determines the training effect.
Your anaerobic threshold is a heart beat range that represents the hardest you can work, without ever having to slow down.
There’s a link to a video with more detail on this along with this video.
Going above this threshold will mean you’re on borrowed time before you’ll need to reduce the amount of power and effort you’re putting in. Spending a significant time above this threshold makes for a hard training session.
Working below this threshold means you are taking it relatively easy and you’ll not be stressing the body significantly… great for recovery and technical and tactical practice.
You’ll have an approximate heart rate that represents this Anaerobic Threshold, typically within plus or minus 5 bpm. And it’s unique to you. It can shift a little bit with training, but it largely remains unchanged as you get fitter…
But what does happen, is that you can generate more power at that threshold as you get fitter.
A good way to not only discover your anaerobic threshold heart rate, but also the amount of power you can currently produce, is to run as far as you possibly can in 12-minutes (a Cooper run), and measure your average heart rate over the whole test.
That average heart rate will be you anaerobic threshold, and the distance you covered represents the amount of power you can currently produce at that threshold.
Most fighters will discover their anaerobic threshold lies somewhere between 80 to 95% of their tested maximum heart rate… but again it’s individual.
Coincidently, both Joe Le Maire and I have anaerobic thresholds that sit at about 93% of our measured maximum heart rates. Joe’s sits at about 180 bpm, and mine at 186 bpm.
So if we were monitoring heart rates for both of us both of us on the pads, we’d need to bear in mind that:
At 180 bpm Joe would be in good, sustainable flow, and at 193 bpm he’d be fit to drop.
And at 186 bpm I’d be in my good flow, and at 199 bpm I’d be maxing out and ready to drop.
Heart rate & MT training
As a fighter, most of your Muay Thai bag work, pad work and sparring training will be around your anaerobic threshold and above. But having an idea exactly where you are pushing your fitness personally can be very useful.
A heart rate monitor provides a fighter with a way to quantify their Muay Thai training with time spent above their anaerobic threshold…
To determine what fitness training effect a session will have produced, how much recovery is likely to be needed, and how that session plugs into training week as a whole.
But that all depends if when you look at that heart rate reading, you understand what it really means…
Don’t just play heart rate top trumps with your teammates.
At best you’ve probably screwed up the sequence of fitness development in your fight camp; and at worst, you’re overtraining and heading for illness or injury.
If you’d like to learn about what the right order actually is and how to program your sessions properly, you can download my guide – The Optimal Fight Camp Blueprint.
When you download the blueprint, and you sign up, you’ll also get access to my Strength & Conditioning masterclass – The Science of Building Champions.
I’ll warn you – it’s very in-depth, and goes into the scientific principles behind everything outlined in the blueprint.
It’s for those of you who’d actually like to learn more about the science behind everything you do – but the blueprint is good enough for those of you who want to just do it.
Although I am a Muay Thai specialist, the principles in the blueprint and, masterclass, and my premier Strength & Conditioning program – Heavy Hitters – apply to all striking arts.
So no matter which striking art you train – if you want to optimize your Strength & Conditioning to get results as quickly and efficiently as possible, click the link in the description to get your copy of the Optimal Fight Camp Blueprint.
If you liked this video, please give it a like, leave a comment if you have any questions, and feel free to check out other Strength & Conditioning videos on my YouTube channel at Heatrick strength and conditioning