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In the Zone

Using training zones can help members break out of the exercise doldrums and achieve new levels of fitness. Design cardio programs around training zones, and offer group classes that incorporate this type of training.

Do you have members who are getting discouraged because they aren't seeing results with their cardio workouts? These members, and others, may be in need of some "zone training." Most exercisers are not getting a mixture of volume, intensity and rest. They go at the same rate, be it easy or hard, most days of the week. Their bodies adapt to the routine, and they get stuck in a plateau. For members who seek weight loss or improved performance, the right training mixture is crucial.

What is zone training?

Zone training refers to the use of heart rate training zones. For most fitness enthusiasts, what they know as "target heart rate zone" is an estimate derived from either age-predicted percentages or the Karvonen formula, which includes resting heart rate. These zones are typically figured based on a person's fitness level, starting at a lower range for a beginning exerciser, and then adjusting to a higher range once exercisers achieve a better level of fitness. Heart rates generally stabilize after someone reaches a solid level of fitness, not changing much after that point.

For apparently healthy participants with no known risk factors, an assessment and subsequent use of a heart rate monitor can be the solution to a better, balanced cardio program. Select a progressive treadmill protocol and record heart rate and ratings of perceived exertion. From that you'll be able to determine personal heart rate zones for the individual. These results give you an opportunity to emphasize with members the difference between low, moderate and vigorous exercise intensities. You can then relay to them the importance of each category, and an appropriate amount of time to spend in each during exercise.

This information is not just reserved for hardcore athletes. Recent studies reveal that people with heart disease risk factors benefit more from vigorous exercise than the previously recommended moderate intensities. Many clients need encouragement and a clear description of what these intensities feel like. Relate exercise intensity to participants' abilities to talk, or their degree of breathlessness. Refer to the length of time someone would be able to sustain that kind of exercise. These make intensities easier to understand for participants who are less familiar with exertion.

Poll a handful of your members and you'll find that not many know what heart rate is optimal for reaching their goals. Ask them what their heart rate is when they go breathless, and many will tell you that they don't go breathless. They'll also be the ones who aren't getting the results they want! By simple observation, it is obvious that many of your members do not use an intensity level that is congruent with their goals.

Calories and fat usage

Most exercisers are not going to push themselves to perform higher-intensity work without help. Motivate clients by sharing specific information relating to calorie usage. Inevitably, the question on "fat burning" will come up, and you will need to sort through facts and myths for them. Commonly, participants believe that the best way to "burn" fat is to stay at a lower intensity. The truth is, as the intensity of work increases, the percentage of fat used as fuel does decrease, and the use of carbohydrates increases. However, because the total caloric expenditure is so much greater, even with a lower percent of fat used overall, the total fat used is still greater at higher intensities.
Intensity Kcals per minute Fat % Duration Total kcals Fat kcals
50-60% 4 85 60 min. 240 204
70-80% 10 45 60 min. 600 270

Motivating members

In addition to explaining calorie and fat usage, another way to motivate members is to create programming. Begin by educating members with introductory classes and personal training seminars that will orient them to new activities, and help them get more out of the services that you already offer. Then continue to offer creative cardio training options.
Zone 1 Nose breathing, can talk to anyone RPE 1-3
Zone 2 Mouth breathing, less talking RPE 4-5
Zone 3 Can't whistle, just phrases RPE 6-8
Zone 4 Breathless, short words RPE 8+
Zone 5 Gasping, unsustainable Usually not held

Sample Weekly Percentage of Time in Each Zone

Zone Intensity Level Exercise Time Per Week
Zone 1 50-60% 10-15%
Zone 2 60-70% 70-80%
Zone 3 70-80% 8-12%
Zone 4 80-90% 3-5%
Zone 5 90-100% 2-3%
Consider offering a "Zone Training" course that combines education with supervised assessments and use of heart rate monitors. Through eduction, members will understand that higher zones (zones 4 and 5) will be used only for short intervals, and they will have information about the length of time they'll need to maintain that level. They should know how they'll feel and what their "breathless factor" will be. Let them know that each zone has value, and that alternating work in various zones produces the most optimal fitness.

Include zone training for group cycling, aquatic and other group fitness classes, walking or running outdoors, and treadmill and other cardio workouts. The more confident participants are about using their heart rate monitors in a variety of settings, the more value they will find in heart rate training. Provide exercise prescriptions for participants for various classes and workouts. Individualize the proportions of time members should spend in each zone during a week. It should depend on a combination of a person's fitness status, goals and comfort level.

Got variety?

Motivation for members depends on many variables, and variety is one of them. Offering different classes and programs that can include heart rate zone training will help your members get the most out of their cardio training. Here are some examples.

Social dance. The graying of the U.S. population means that some diversity among your cardio options is required. Social dance can now demand a prime spot in your group fitness schedule. Dancing can meet the cardiovascular intensity needs of many older adults, as it offers Zone 1 and 2 options. Find an instructor who can teach a continuous movement class so that participants are moving the majority of the time.

Aquatics options. During down time in your pool, offer adult swim clinics. These instruction-oriented classes can serve many people at one time, yet allow for individual attention. Adult learners benefit from listening to technique suggestions, as well as watching others (Zones 1 and 2). Take the stroke clinic a step further and help newly improved swimmers understand how to structure a workout in the pool. You are now just a step away from creating a Masters swim program, which is no different than group personal training in terms of revenue-generating potential. You can accommodate several levels of fitness in one class by grouping levels appropriately in lanes, and varying the distances or times according to their fitness and skill levels (Zones 3 and 4).

Bootcamp. Agility drills using ladders, hurdles and cones can add fun and variety to the otherwise mundane repetitive movements of cardio workouts. Most exercisers are not going to push themselves to do Zones 3 and 4 themselves, so several options in these zones is key. With interval training, remember that beginners need short work and greater recovery time (e.g., 1:3). On the other hand, athletes can take the opposite with a longer work bout and shorter recovery (e.g., 2:1). Structure obstacle course lines so that each participant can choose the appropriate work/recovery to reach their personal goals. It still allows various levels to work in the same environment. Hour-long bootcamp/sport camp classes can include almost all components of fitness, or classes can be short and time-efficient, depending on how you choose to structure them (Zones 3, 4 and 5).

Group cycling. Aside from your regularly scheduled group cycling classes, offer special classes that incorporate zone training. For instance, offer an all-cycle mock triathlon. The instructor will coach participants through the mock swim, cycle and run phases - all done on cycles. Transitions can include a fun, off-the-bike sprint around the facility. Visual imagery can take the participants to a course nearby or virtually anywhere, and resistance challenges will come from tides, hills or the pack closing in. Hour-long or slightly longer classes accommodate short-distance triathlons well (Zones 3, 4 and 5).

Zone training for results

Personal training and exercise prescriptions often focus more heavily on strength training, compared to cardiovascular intensity, duration and frequency. To help members and clients better reach their goals, specific cardiovascular programming is the perfect complement to strength training. Participants will need practical support and guided programming to help them adopt the zone training program that will get them results.
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