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Get in the Zone

Cardio. The word alone is enough to elicit strong emotional responses from most people. Some live for it; others loathe it. But at some point, everyone’s going to have to do it. And no one wants to feel that the time they invested in it — however long or short it may have been — was wasted.

Enter heart-rate training zones. Whether you have an athletic goal to achieve or just a “look” you want to mold yourself into, knowing how to manipulate these zones is the tool to get it. “Do you want a body like a world-class sprinter, an elite running back in the NFL or a marathon runner from Kenya?” asks Jim Ryno, founder of LIFT personal training studios and a nationally recognized personal trainer who works with clients in the New York metropolitan area (jimryno.me). “That’s the difference.”

With his clients, Ryno uses different heart-rate zones:

  • 1: the “heart healthy” zone (50 to 60 percent of maximum heart rate) for beginners and the elderly
  • 2: the “fat-burning” zone (60 to 70 percent MHR)
  • 3: the “endurance training” zone (70 to 80 percent MHR)
  • 4: the “anaerobic” zone (80 to 90 percent MHR)
  • 5: the “red-line” zone (90 to 100 percent MHR)

Of those, zone 1 is used the least. “It’s when you put someone in a walk to a brisk walk — just to get them healthy and strengthen their heart, not necessarily to get more fit,” Ryno explains.

Zones 2 and 3 get used more often because “your functional capacity is greatly improved,” Ryno says. “Besides fat burning, you’re really developing your cardiovascular system. That’s reached by running.” If a client is training for an endurance sport, like a marathon or triathlon, these are usually the zones Ryno will use. But for the vast majority of his clients, Ryno prefers zones 4 and 5 — shorter overall workouts in which subjects go from 80 percent all the way up to their maximum heart rate with all-out effort. “My philosophy is train hard, heavy and fast because it’s going to make you fitter, faster, stronger,” he explains. “I really don’t promote a lot of steady-state cardio because I just think it’s a waste of time unless you’re training for a marathon.”

Though the anaerobic zone is so named because it means “without oxygen,” at 80 to 90 percent of MHR, a person can still breathe. In the red-line zone, the person can’t. “You’re working all-out, and it hurts,” Ryno says. “Even top athletes are only getting there for a few seconds. And it’s huge for building strength and power.” Basically, those all-out bursts work the same way as weight training: They cause microscopic muscle tears, which then mend themselves to grow bigger and stronger.

For maximum fat loss, Ryno and other top trainers recommend short rounds of high-intensity interval training. A growing body of research shows this burns more fat — while keeping and even building muscle — than hours of steady-state cardio. Ryno usually has his clients do 20 minutes three times a week, alternating two minutes in the anaerobic zone with up to one minute in the red-line zone.

So don’t fear cardio. Just identify your goal — and then get in the zone.