This is part one of our Ultimate Guide to Heart Rate Training for Fighters, a series of articles that covers exactly how to improve your conditioning work for MMA, Muay Thai, Boxing, BJJ (and other sports) by using a heart rate monitor.
Here are the upcoming articles in this new series that will be published.
- How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor 101 (THIS article)
- Should You Train Anaerobically or Aerobically?
- How to Track Your Conditioning Progress with a Heart Rate Monitor
- Cardiac Output Training: Building Your Aerobic Base
- Improving Maximum Aerobic Power: VO2 Max Training
- Improving Aerobic Power Output: Lactate Threshold Training
- Ultimate Guide to Anaerobic Conditioning: Building Explosive Power & Endurance
Altogether between all these new conditioning articles, I’ve written over 30,000 words and spent a month writing this new series giving you everything you need to know.
Make sure to read my other conditioning articles for some background information:
The Heart Rate Monitor: Your Best Do-It-Yourself Conditioning Coach
One of the best tools you can use to improve your training methods and overall conditioning is a heart rate monitor.
This simple but amazingly useful device allows you to take the guesswork out of your conditioning work and precisely target, monitor, and improve your training with actual performance feedback from your body.
With heart rate monitor common devices, easy to find, and depending on what feature set you want, very much affordable, there is absolutely NO reason why you should not incorporate heart rate training into your strength & conditioning program.
Cost should not be an issue: you can pay anywhere from $30 to $700 for a heart rate monitor — from a basic heart rate chest strap that pairs via Bluetooth to a smartphone to sophisticated Running Watches that includes sophisticated built-in training programs.
Regardless of what sort of heart rate monitor you acquire, to actually benefit from all a heart rate monitor can offer, you need to know exactly how to use ii to achieve your conditioning goals.
This guide aims to help you master your heart rate monitor and incorporate some easy-to-follow guides that anyone can use to overhaul their strength & conditioning training.
There is not a ‘one size fits all’ training method that’s effective for everyone. One person may need to train one specific area to maximize improvements while someone else may be best-suited training a different area to achieve results.
The beauty of heart rate training is that it can be used to identify areas of weakness in your own conditioning so you can target and improve them.
A heart rate monitor gives YOU the tools to be your own effective strength & conditioning coach.
Why Training with a Heart Rate Monitor is a Better Way to Train
If you’ve never used a heart rate monitor to direct your training regimen, you are missing out on one of the best tools that can change the way you train. It’s the ultimate tool for those looking to train smarter.
Do You Need a Heart Rate Monitor to Improve Your Conditioning?
But the old method of conditioning (especially for those who train on their own and have no coach) is simply to do a bunch of different workouts (usually road work or HIIT type training ) and hope like hell your conditioning improves.
There are some obvious problems with this throw shit at the wall until something sticks method.
- How do you KNOW your conditioning is improving?
- How can you actually track your conditioning progress over time?
- How do you know what type of training to work on?
- What type of training will be most effective for YOU?
These questions can all be easily answered through using a heart rate monitor as a training guide.
You see, training with a heart rate monitor takes the guesswork out of your conditioning work, allowing you to make informed decisions based on actual feedback from your body.
This results in more efficient, more effective training that can save you a boatload of wasted time. Less wasted time means you can focus on what really works — a better use of your time.
Regardless of what sort of heart-rate you use, the important thing is that you USE a good heart rate monitor. This is absolutely essential if you want to push your strength & conditioning in the right direction as directed by actual data rather than a bunch of guesswork on your part.
You can use a heart rate monitor to isolate weaknesses in your conditioning (i.e. areas that need to be improved) and specifically target those areas with the right type of training. The result is dramatic improvements to very specific areas of your conditioning.
What Training with a Heart Rate Monitor Can Do For Your Combat Sport
Here’s a few things you can expect to gain by using a heart rate monitor (and by knowing HOW to use it for your training):
- Have explosive power but lack the stamina and endurance to keep going for five rounds? Then use a heart rate monitor to find your weakness and target those specific adaptions that give you more long-lasting stamina and the ability to be more explosive over and over without gassing out.
- Have plenty of stamina and endurance but lack explosive power? Then you need to train your body for explosive power.
- Want to improve your power output (how much ‘work’ you can do) over a period of time (say a five-round fight)? Then you need to increase your body’s work capacity.
In order to precisely target these specific areas of weakness and do the correct exercises to improve them, you need to use a heart rate monitor.
The Benefits of Using a Heart Rate Monitor
The benefits are substantial. Here’s some of them:
- Smarter training
- Prevent Overtraining & Better Recovery
- Monitor your conditioning improvements
- Allow targeting of specific conditioning areas (capacity, stamina, power) for the 3 energy systems:
- Aerobic Energy System Training
- Alactic Energy System Training (coming)
- Lactic Energy System Training (coming)
Each of these methods is a complete training system and merit a singular article. I’ve already written a comprehensive guide to the aerobic energy system and given, what I consider, the best free guide on how to train your aerobic energy system.
What Heart Monitor To Buy?
Before we get into the basics of how to train with a heart rate monitor and what it can do for you, you first need to get your hands on a heart rate monitor.
I recommend the Garmin 235 if you can swing it (about 230 bucks on Amazon). There are some much cheaper options though if you can’t spend that much.
See the ‘Best Heart Rate Monitors for Fight Training’ section at the end of this post for more information — I give a detailed overview of what heart rate monitors will work best for fight conditioning (based on my own experience). You can also see my best heart rate monitors list for a general best list.
The Basics of How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor for Training
Heart Rate Training is not a specific regimen you follow, rather it’s a training method that YOU can use to monitor and guide your training protocols. You can combine heart rate training with whatever specific fitness goals (for whatever sport you are pursuing) to optimize your training results.
Your heart will be your guide, literally.
When using a heart rate monitor for training, you will primarily be training the aerobic system. Training your high-intensity energy systems (anaerobic training) requires fairly short intervals and long breaks. This means heart rate monitors are not really required for the short duration high-intensity training.
Heart monitors can be used for specific kinds of training. I get into the nitty-gritty specifics on how exactly to use the heart rate monitor to improve your conditioning in the next article in the series, but here’s the basic overview of how you can use your Heart Rate Monitor to optimize your training…and see tangible, improved results through it.
Heart Rate Zone Training
The primary method of utilizing your heart rate monitor for training is to use it for Zone-based training.
That is, your heart rate is divided into different training zones. Heart rate zones are basically a range of heart rates that correspond to different training targets, with those targets often given as various physiological improvements that occur if you keep your heart rate in a specific zone.
Zone training is an easy way to train for certain conditioning improvements because you simply keep your heart rate in a specific zone at which those improvements occur.
Most heart rate monitors have built-in training zones and allow you to easily (and often visually) identify the zone you are currently working in.
Targeting heart rate zones
Most heart rate monitors will divide up heart rate ranges into three to four basic zones (what they are called may vary between companies); each zone is a measured as a percentage of the maximum heart rate (MHR).
This is the typical breakdown:
- Low Intensity (< 50% MHR)
- Moderate Intensity (50-70% MHR)
- High Intensity (70-95 MHR)
- Maximum Intensity (95-100 MHR)
You’ll see some heart rate monitors divide the zones based on what they do for your body. For example, the most popular division of heart rate zones I’ve seen is usually something like this:
- Aerobic Zone
- Threshold Zone
- Anaerobic Zone
- VO2 Max Zone / Maximum Zone
I typically just divide heart rate zones into five basic ones:
- Active Rest / Recovery Zone
- Aerobic or ‘Low’ Zone
- Power or ‘Moderate’ Zone
- Threshold Zone
- High Zone
Active Rest Zone
This is your ‘slightly, but not too elevated’ heart rate zone. A fast walk, light shadowboxing, light bag work, very slow skipping — any activity that’s below about 130 bpm falls into this. Typically, I keep around 90-120 bpm for this zone. It’s useful for active rest between work sets or to warm up your muscles or do a light recovery workout on your day off.
Working in this zone won’t build your aerobic fitness necessary, as the training stimulus is too low (not unless you are unfit, then anything over sitting on the couch will improve your fitness). But it’s great for active rest or some light recovery work.
The Aerobic Zone
The low zone you want to keep your heart rate between 130 to 150 beats per minute and stay in this zone for long durations (30+ minutes).
This zone works on your cardiovascular system, specifically on the endurance end of it. This zone builds your overall aerobic base is vital to all other types of conditioning. This zone is usually between 55% – 75% of your maximum heart rate.
The key to seeing conditioning improvements by training in the Aerobic Zone here is that you’ll want to do steady cardio work that keeps your heart rate in this zone for longer durations.
In my new upcoming article, I give extensive training guides on how to do this with a heart rate monitor. You can also see my Guide to Improving Your Aerobic Fitness which covers the topics in more broad terms.
The Power Zone
The power zone or ‘moderate’ zone works on your power output — i.e. how much overall work you can do over extended intervals. This zone is usually in the range of 70% to 95% of your maximum heart rate. For fighters, this zone is very important as improving it means you can increase your work rate during training or fight rounds without fatiguing. And more overall work in a fight is a good thing.
The Anaerobic Threshold Zone
Somewhere in the power zone (usually at about the mid-point, though this depends on the individual and their level of cardiovascular fitness), you have your anaerobic threshold (say about 80-90 percent of your maximum heart rate). Training the threshold zone pushes the limits of your aerobic energy production and can improve your overall aerobic power output during a fight.
In my upcoming article, ‘Increase Your Aerobic Power’, I give detailed training guides on how to train the power zone (for combat athletes), so stay tuned (it’s already been written).
The High / Max Zone
Finally, there’s the high intensity or maximum zone. Training this zone works the upper limits of your aerobic energy system. VO2 Max training, for example, is worked in this zone. Anaerobic training also lies in this zone, though for shorter durations (a few seconds to at most under two minutes).
Training in the High Zone pushes your aerobic system to the maximum. However, too much training in this zone can lead to overtraining. As such, you need to carefully ensure your training does not exceed your body’s ability to recover. As such, you want to minimize your training in this zone to only what’s necessary to see improvements and no more.
A lot of athletes spend the bulk of their conditioning in the High Zone and end up overtraining. However, training the other zones will also provide huge improvements to your overall cardiovascular fitness, especially if you understand how the different types of energy systems in the body work and how to improve them.
In my upcoming article, ‘Training for Maximum Aerobic Power & Capacity’, I give detailed training guides on how to train your maximum zone (for combat athletes), so stay tuned (it’s already been written).
It’s Not About Training in the Zone, but about HOW You Train the Zone
While Zone training can be effective, to really benefit from it, you need to know precisely the following:
- Your conditioning goals
- Your maximum heart rate, your true anaerobic/lactate threshold, your VO2 Max, your Resting Heart Rate
- The ideal time to spend at a specific heart rate range to see positive adaptation
- The ideal recovery time between intervals / training
If you don’t have a good idea of #1 to #4, you can’t accurately track your training goals, measure your conditioning levels.
In our next article, we’ll cover all you need to know about zone training and how to make it best work for your own training.
Heart Rate Recovery Training
Another key benefit gained from using a heart rate monitor during training is that you can accurately gauge your recovery / rest times both during training sessions and between training sessions.
You can use this information in two ways as a fighter / athlete
1) Optimize Recovery Between Sets / Reps
You can use your heart rate monitor to optimize your rest periods between sets and reps. This means you don’t need to ‘wait’ a set period of time (60 seconds, 2 minutes, etc) between exercises and can train when your body is fully recovered and apply maximum training stimulus
2) Recovery Between Training Rounds
You can also use the heart rate monitor to help measure your recovery between rounds (pad rounds, bag rounds, sparring rounds). You can use this information to a) test your overall conditioning for improvements and b) optimize rest times between rounds. For example, you can begin each new round only after your heart rate has recovered below 130 bpm to ensure you are fully recovered for your next round. This means your rest periods are dynamic rather than static and, as your conditioning improves, will shorten as you recover quicker. This also means you can continually push your conditioning higher and higher.
3) Prevent Overtraining
You can also use indirect measurements (Resting Heart Rate) to gauge how fatigued your body is between training sessions and when you should take rest days.
Testing & Tracking Your Conditioning
Finally, one of the most important (and underutilized) thing you can do with a heart rate monitor is to monitor your overall conditioning progress.
Make sure you read my ultimate guide on how to calculate and track your conditioning which explains everything in full detail.
That is, you can accurately gauge using a heart rate monitor both through indirect and direct methods if your conditioning is improving, has plateaued, or is worsening.
Based on your measurements, you can optimize your training to continually see improvements over the long term, rather than stalling your progress.
For people who are just getting fit or who are new to training a sport or who have never done conditioning work, it’s easy to see overall improvements by just doing any sort of training. However, these easy improvements will level off the more your start to train.
For athletes or people who are trying to see consistent improvements over the long term, it’s vital to track and measure your conditioning so you can make steady improvements based on that real feedback.
Calculating Your Cardiovascular Fitness…
Using a heart rate monitor, you will be able to track, record, and improve the following conditioning metrics:
Your VO2 Max
The figure that most athletes use to determine their overall level of fitness.VO2 max represents the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during at a certain work rate. A higher number is better.
We can use some real world test along with a heart rate monitor to calculate your VO2 Max. Some fancier heart rate monitors have built-in algorithms to calculate your VO2 Max automatically.
In our upcoming article, I show you how to find your VO2 Max with a heart rate monitor and how to increase it through specialized heart rate training work.
Your Resting Heart Rate
Your lowest heart rate while awake, usually taken right when you wake up in the morning while still in bed. Resting Heart Rate gives a good indication of your cardiovascular fitness. Lower resting heart rate indicate a more efficient heart (improved stroke volume).
You can test your resting heart rate with a heart rate monitor. Some of the fancier heart rate monitors automatically track your resting heart rate.
In our upcoming article, I show you how to find your Resting Heart Rate with a heart rate monitor and how to lower your Resting Heart Rate through training.
Your Lactic / Anaerobic Threshold
The point at which your aerobic system cannot remove lactate other associated waste products in your muscles and your body begins to accumulate fatigue and you are forced to reduce your work rate.
Increasing your lactate threshold is vital for combat athletes as it means you can improve your overall power output during a fight with a higher level of work (more intensity) done over each round.
In our upcoming article, I show you how to find your lactate threshold with a heart rate monitor during a real world test and give detailed training guides on how to improve it as a combat athlete using a variety of exercises and skill training routines.
Your Heart Rate Recovery
A measurement for how quickly your heart can recover after intensive activity. This measurement helps you track your overall cardiovascular fitness. A heart that recovers faster means your work capacity and recovery ability between bouts of intense activity are improved.
In our upcoming article, I show you how to caculate your Heart Rate Recovery with a heart rate monitor and how to use this to measure your fight fitness.
Your Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
The variability in time between each heart beat. A high HRV value is highly linked to cardiovascular fitness, VO2 max, and other markers of overall fitness. HRV data is tied to your parasympathetic nervous system and is a good all-in-one marker that can tell you a lot about your body and specifically, how fatigued it is.
We will talk a bit about HRV, but to measure HRV, you need to use dedicated apps and specializes sensors (most regular heart rate monitors + apps won’t).
There are a few HRV apps out there such as BioForceFRV and ithlete. These apps run on your smartphone and will pair with a Bluetooth chest strap or finger sensor and record your HRV.
HRV is an entire article just in itself; I’ll talk about the benefits of HRV training.
How to Start Training with a Heart Rate Monitor
Once you know the heart rate monitor basics (i.e. the basic idea of zone-based training), it then comes down to actually USING your heart rate monitor for training.
There’s seemingly an endless number of training methods out there. But which ‘method’ is the best for you and where should you start?
This is probably the first question you’ll need to answer if you want to improve your conditioning. Some methods are more effective than others and some methods may be better suited to some people.
This is where a heart rate monitor can be useful to help provide some guidance.
Generally, there are two broad types of conditioning work you can do: aerobic conditioning and anaerobic conditioning. The training methods for each of these is quite different…and even more, your conditioning often improves more when focusing on one type rather than both — at least for longer durations of weeks or months.
Should You Train Aerobically or Anaerobically First?
One of the reasons WHY you want to train with a heart rate monitor is so that you know exactly what (and how) to train without the guesswork. Both Aerobic training and anaerobic training require completely different intensities, durations, break periods and heart rate monitor usage.
When you first start working on your conditioning, you want to focus specifically on key areas of improvement rather than trying to do everything.
Your body can only, beyond a certain threshold, improve either aerobically or anaerobically. The adaptions that make for a more anaerobic athlete will come at the cost of aerobic adaptions. One cannot be both a high-level sprinter and high-level endurance athlete at the same time.
This is why for maximum results, you want to focus on either pushing aerobic adaptions or anaerobic adaptations during a training segment or block (1-2 moths). Trying to consistently train both anaerobic and aerobic adaptations at the same time will not be as effective as primarily focusing on one single energy system.
Why do you want to train the right energy system?
You may be a power-based athlete that lacks endurance. Or you may be a fighter with a lot of stamina but who lacks power and explosive ability.
By identifying the weak links in your conditioning (with the aid of a heart rate monitor), you can train to improve that weakness and thus gain the maximum result without wasting your time on training that does not improve your conditioning.
Aerobic Energy System Training
Aerobic training works on improving your body’s ability to produce, transport, and utilize oxygen during the ATP (energy) production process.
Aerobic training requires long duration training sessions (tempo’s or steady state cardio) and works on your cardiovascular system; your heart will become stronger and more efficient while your oxygen transport network (capillaries) expand to carry more oxygen to the working muscles. Your muscle fibers too undergo adaptations with increased mitochondrial production and more oxygen absorption capabilities. The end result is a body that’s able to produce and utilize much higher rates of ATP for longer periods utilizing the aerobic metabolism (oxygen).
Most of the useful heart rate training you will do will be for aerobic training.
Anaerobic Energy System Training
Anaerobic training works on improving your body’s rapid energy production, supply, and utilization — energy that does not require oxygen. Anaerobic training targets either the anaerobic lactic system (moderate duration energy) or the anaerobic alactic system (short term energy).
Anaerobic training is (usually) interval based with intense 5 seconds to 2-minute sessions followed by longer recovery periods between each interval rep.
This type of training improves your muscles’ ability to tolerate and buffer muscle acidosis and increases recruitment of fast muscle fibers for improved speed under anaerobic metabolism (no oxygen used to produce the ATP). The end result is a body that’s able to produce maximal intensity with more power (more work done over time) for longer durations.
Anaerobic training does not require heart rate monitors as the duration of work is usually very short and your heart rate is usually kept near the maximum. Rest periods are usually long, which means you don’t need to measure for heart rate recovery with a heart rate monitor between reps / sets.
In our next article, we’ll cover how to use a heart rate monitor to determine whether you should train anaerobically or aerobically (i.e. which ones of these energy systems may be underdeveloped).
Different Conditioning Training for Muay Thai, Boxing, and MMA?
Each fight sport has different conditioning requirements. Trying to improve your conditioning for MMA will require different training methods than say working on conditioning for Boxing or for Muay Thai.
You can’t optimize your conditioning for the sport of Boxing then expect to have great conditioning for an MMA fight. Each sport WILL have different energy requirements. It’s vital that you a) understand the energy requirements of your sport and b) train for those requirements.
The powerful thing about using a heart rate monitor and understanding HOW to best use it is that you can tailor your conditioning specifically for your sport. The goal here is to show you how to be your own strength & conditioning coach — or at the very least to have a basic understanding on finding what you need to work on and how to best achieve that.
No cookie cutter training program here — YOU will learn to make your OWN based on your own needs.
Heart Rate Monitor Buyer’s Guide
Choosing the right heart rate monitor is important because it’s the main tool you’ll be using for your conditioning work. You want a heart rate monitor that’s a) easy to use and understand and b) has the necessary features to help you improve your conditioning.
While you can get any basic monitor to record your heart rate, you might not actually use the thing if it’s not user-friendly.
Because you can use your heart rate for a number of different useful conditioning metrics, you can simplify your life and save a lot of time by getting a device that calculates those metrics for you rather than having to do so yourself.
For example, you can get heart rate monitors that will:
- find and track your VO2 max over time
- find and track your Resting Heart Rate over time
- calculate your current lactate threshold heart rate
- calculate your power output and mile running speed
- calculate your heart rate recovery time
- record your HRV data
So while you can get by on a basic monitor that only gives you your current heart rate, you’ll likely want a more sophisticated device that helps you use that data for a number of other things.
Features You Want in a Heart Rate Monitor
Here are some of the best features you want in a heart rate monitor if you plan on using it to improve your conditioning (i.e. to actually USE the data to improve your sports’ performance).
VERY GOOD TO HAVE
24-7 Heart Rate Tracking
I personally recommend getting a wrist-based heart rate monitor with 24-7 heart rate tracking built in. It helps track your resting heart rate over time (RHR) and you can use these metrics to gauge your level of fatigue and passively monitor your conditioning to see if it improves. Some interesting trends emerge when looking at your resting heart rate data. Suffice to say, it’s pretty useful to have, provided you are willing to wear the wrist-based heart rate monitor all day (I do).
At the end of the day, you’ll want your heart rate monitor to pair with your phone or computer to send training data. You won’t really want to use your actual device to sort through the heart rate data, but rather a sophisticated training app that’s linked to your monitor. Being able to pair your phone via Bluetooth also means you can stash your phone in a locker or gym corner and train with your heart rate monitor nearby. This makes it useful for skill training. What heart rate monitors support Bluetooth pairing with a strap depends on the brand. Garmin, the king of heart rate monitors right now, has been notoriously slow for implementing this and only the recently released Fenix 5 series can pair with a Bluetooth strap.
Ability to Pair with Heart Rate Strap
Required if you want to do conditioning work. Some of the training methods are high intensity which are not recorded accurately by wrist-based devices (sprints, circuit work, etc). For conditioning that utilizes skill work (shadowboxing, bag work, sparring rounds, pad rounds), you need a heart rate strap to monitor your heart rate accurately as wrist monitors fail completely here.
Some straps pair with Bluetooth (which is the best as it gives you the most range) while other straps will pair via ANT+ (most of the Garmin devices) which is very short range, requiring you to wear the heart rate monitor device on your body, close to the strap. I usually put the wrist device around my arm (it won’t fit comfortable under a boxing glove) or put it in a pouch around my waist; I wear the strap around my chest which is close enough to pair with the wrist device via ANT+.
Sophisticated Companion App
Most of the top heart rate or fitness tracker companies offer a companion app that pairs with your heart rate monitor, provided you get a fancier model and not a barebones one. These apps let you track things like your long term resting heart rate, your sleep quality, and monitor your training data. While you don’t need such an app, it sure as hell makes tracking your progress much easier. Very, very useful to have.
You’ll want to be able to have your heart rate monitor record and automatically calculate:
- Resting Heart Rate
- VO2 Max
- Anaerobic Threshold
- Heart Rate Recovery
Some of these features are only calculated automatically by the high-end heart rate monitors / running watches. The Garmin 235 calculates most of these. You can, however, crunch the data on your own or do some real world tests to calculate these on your own, just using basic heart rate records while doing an activity (such as a long run or sprint) for a certain period of time at a certain heart rate. I’ll give full details on how to calculate each of these in my upcoming articles.
If you have a heart rate monitor that can calculate and keep track of this data, it makes tracking your conditioning work and your overall improvements very easy. Not necessary, but very useful to have.
Ability to Create Training Programs
Many of the more sophisticated heart rate monitor devices allow you to build your own training programs and store that data on your watch device. You can then activate the training programs and follow along. For example, you can set up interval work with rest times and repeat sets (along with target heart rate zones to reach). The watch will tell you exactly when to start, when to rest, and when to begin. And after your workout finishes, it will provide you with heart rate data for that workout. Very useful.
I use my Garmin 235 watch with a dozen or so custom training programs built into work various aspects of conditioning. Starting one of the training methods is as simple as hitting a couple buttons on my watch. This means you can be your own conditioning coach using your watch to keep track of how much, how long, and what you should do.
Do you need this? No. Does it make your conditioning work a hell of a lot easier to follow and do on your own? Yes.
These are useful, but not required for conditioning work. Think of them as bonus features in a heart rate device.
Some heart rate monitors will track your sleep quality. It’s not necessary, but can be useful to have. If anything it lets you know exactly how your quality of sleep (or some guess at it) has been and you can plan for better future rests to make up for bad sleep you’ve had. However, you don’t ‘need’ this feature for your conditioning work.
Some heart rate monitors have built-in activity trackers which record how much you’ve moved around, walked, and so on. You don’t really need this feature for conditioning.
Some heart rate devices come with a built-in GPS (usually the running watches). For conditioning work, a GPS is not really necessary. For outside runs, it can be useful as it can help tell you how far you’ve run, which can be useful for some of your calculations on your power output tests (though you can use a treadmill for this), but unless you are a runner, a GPS is not really necessary for conditioning work.
Good for running, but for conditioning work, you don’t need this feature. Built in maps is only offered on the most expensive heart rate monitor devices like the Garmin Fenix 5.
You shouldn’t be reading WhatsApp messages or Facebook messages while doing your conditioning work anyways. Some of the pricier heart rate monitors pair with your smartphone and display message notifications on your heart rate watch — WhatsApp, Facebook, SMS, and other social media notifications.
Great to have. Most heart rate monitors don’t have a built-in MP3 player just yet. However, some devices let you control your smartphone song playlist, if the devices are paired.
Compass / Barometer / Altometer
These features are offered in the premium heart rate monitors like the Fenix series. Unless you plan on training outdoors or using your watch for hiking / long treks in the wilds, you won’t need these features.
Best Heart Rate Monitors for Fight Conditioning
Honestly, there’s a ton of different heart rate monitors on the market and pretty much all of them, provided they are somewhat decent, can be used perfectly fine for the heart rate monitor training you do.
However, some heart rate monitors are a hell of a lot easier to use for training than others. Like anything else, it comes down to the price you are willing to pay.
Here’s our three best recommendations for the best heart rate monitors for conditioning work for most people. I give three different options.
Best All-Round Heart Rate Monitor for Training
Garmin Forerunner 235 + Garmin Strap
There’s dozens and dozens of good heart rate monitor devices to choose from, some cheap and some expensive. I’ve tried many and the best I’ve found for conditioning work for fighters is the Forerunner 235 paired with a chest strap.
You can get the job done with much cheaper, more basic devices, but most often they are a pain to use and it’s hard to extract training data from them without a lot of extra work on your part.
The Forerunner 235, paired with a heart rate chest strap, allows you to easily measure and track your heart rate through all manner of training workouts (pad rounds, sparring, bag work, slow running, sprint intervals, etc). The included Garmin iphone/android fitness app allows you to easily quantify your heart rate data via your phone or computer to extract useful heart rate feedback from. The 235 (also the 230 model) includes a number of conditioning apps such as the ability to set up interval training workouts to follow, ability to test your VO2 max, and more.
I personally own and use the Garmin Forerunner 235 Running watch which includes a 24-7 hear-rate monitor. This is sufficient for measuring your Resting Heart Rate just by wearing the watch the bed (or for a week or two). I find with the Garmin that I specifically need to take my RHR in the morning rather than relying on the automatic measurement of it, which takes your average RHR over time. The average RHR values are a bit higher (2-5 beats higher) than if you manually take the measurements yourself in the morning.
Because THIS is the heart rate monitor I own and use for my own training, I will be writing specific guides on how to use this specific model for the training guides I give. You can easily adapt the specifics to other heart rate monitors, however.
Best Budget Heart Rate Monitor
If you don’t want to pony out several hundred dollars on an expensive running watch like the Garmin 235 (though, if you are serious about using heart rate training methods to guide your training and fitness, it’s absolutely worth the money I feel), you can opt for the bare bones Polar FT7 Heart Rate monitor with a chest strap for under $50 bucks. You’ll need to crunch some numbers on your own though and for some of the training programs, you’ll need to manually set things up yourself as the cheap Polar heart rate monitors don’t have
You’ll need to crunch some numbers on your own though as this device won’t have some conditioning metrics built in and for some of the conditioning training programs we’ll be talking about in upcoming articles, you’ll need to manually set things up yourself as the cheap Polar heart rate monitors don’t have built-in training programs that you can create and use directly on the device (which you can do with the Garmin 230, Garmin 235, Garmin Fenix 3, etc).
Best Minimalist Heart Rate Monitor
For those who don’t want to wear a heart rate watch device, either by itself as a wrist-based heart rate monitor or paired with a chest strap, the best option is to get your hands on the new Polar H10 chest strap and pair it with your smartphone (using a Android / iPhone Heart Rate app to record the heart rate data during your session).
There are some advantages here as the Bluetooth range will be 40 to 50 feet. You can leave your phone in a locker or in your gym bag while recording your heart rate simply by wearing the paired chest strap.
However, you won’t be able to really look at your heart rate data (such as your heart rate), which you NEED to do for many of the training programs we will be talking about.
So for the mosts part, I don’t recommend using, just by itself, a smartphone paired with a heart rate chest strap, especially if you pairing heart rate training as conditioning for a fighting art (boxing, MMA, Muay Thai, Kickboxing, etc).
You can’t easily carry around your phone while you train and gain the instant feedback you need after or during training — not without someone holding the phone and looking at the heart rate data for you.
Having a watch device (usually paired with a chest strap for high-intensity activities) means you can easily record and track your heart rate on the spot for every activity you do, both in training and after training. This means tracking high-intensity activities like sprints or other arm-heavy activities that wrist-based monitors are not able to track accurately.
There is also the advantage of being able to wear boxing gloves (something you can’t comfortably do with a wrist monitor) by ONLY using the strap paired with your smartphone. Wrist devices can’t easily be worn under your boxing gloves.
As for live heart rate feedback on the fly (remember, you won’t have your phone on your body likely so you can’t check your current data) there is a way around this. If you wear Bluetooth headphones and your heart rate app on your phone supports audio prompts, you can ‘hear’ your heart rate announced by the app over your Bluetooth to get your data without looking at the screen.
This makes it totally possible to NOT look at a visual monitor to ensure your heart stays in the the right zone.
The H10 Heart Rate Monitor
The H10 also has the ability to store ONE workout session to onboard memory. This means you can go running or do some workout without needing to sync it to a phone. After the workout, you can pair it with your phone to download that data. So you can use the strap to not only measure your heart rate, but to record the data for one session (again, you can’t see the heart rate data for the session until you sync it, so this is not good for live heart rate feedback).
Polar H10 vs Polar H7
The Polar H7 is a well-loved heart rate strap that’s considered the gold standard at this point. However, it’s been replaced by the H10 this year (2017). They both are good straps, but the H10 has more sensor contact points on the strap and does not suffer from the occasional inaccurate Heart Rate spikes you see with the H8. The H10 also lets you store ONE workout session worth of data to the on board memory, so you don’t need to pair the strap with a phone (or heart rate monitor device) if you don’t mind waiting till the session is done to see the heart rate info.
I’ve cooked up a detailed list of the best heart rate monitors in another post to give you a list of the best heart rate recommendations (I’ve used many, many heart rate monitors over the years).
Wrist-Based vs Chest Straps: Which One is Best for Conditioning Work?
Wrist-based heart rate monitors are by far the easiest to use, with some of the fancier models offering 24-7 heart rate tracking (useful for compiling trend data, tracking your long-term resting heart rate, etc), activity tracking, heart rate analytics, calorie tracking, and built-in training guidance. Wrist-based sensors are not very accurate for high-intensity training or any movement with a lot of hand/arm movement.
Heart Rate straps, on the other hand, offer superior heart rate accuracy over wrist-based tracking and work for high-intensity activities. Heart rate straps will pair with wrist-based monitors or with your smartphone via Bluetooth.
For your own training, I recommend BOTH a wrist-based heart rate monitor AND a chest strap to pair it with rather just a wrist-based heart rate monitor alone. For high-intensity training or when you want to record your heart rate when doing skill training (pads, bag, etc), a wrist heart rate monitor won’t record accurately.
The Final Word
Using a heart rate monitor is something every combat athlete should consider doing. You’ll find once you learn how to use one and how to implement the feedback you get from it that you can optimize your conditioning and see measurable improvements.
In the next article, I’ll be talking about how to determine what energy system to train first: aerobic or anaerobic. This is important to know because you want to train what you need to train the most (i.e. weaknesses in your conditioning). After, we’ll get into the specifics about how to go about training with a heart rate monitor.