Heart Rate Zones: Fat Burning vs. Cardio


I live by my heart rate monitor these days, and previously I’ve been told by trainers that I didn’t need intensity when I exercised because the optimal heart rate zone for burning fat is about 65% of your maximum heart rate.  However, those same people were also telling me I might need to work out 2-3 times a day to see results.

Errrrm, okay….

In the past, the significant fitness goals I’ve reached occurred when I was doing some level of strenuous/intense exercise, bootcamp, kettlebells, etc. – along with healthy eating of course.  So I’ve had the dilemma of figuring out exactly how I’m supposed to train for weight loss and general fitness.

Since I’ve taken up spinning recently, I’ve been torn about the whole “fat burn vs. cardio” heart rate zone debate.  Spinning is killer cardio – no doubt about it.  I frequently work in my higher heart rate zones for most of the sessions – so did that mean I was hurting my goals?

The answer is no.

The “fat burn” heart rate zone is a true fact – you do burn a higher percentage of calories from fat when you train in the 55%-65% range of your maximum heart rate. 

However, when you exercise in the cardio range, 75-80% of your max heart rate, you burn more calories OVERALL.  The percentage of the calories burned from fat may technically be lower, but you still burn more fat calories and total calories from intense workouts.

So with that said, I think for me, and from my research, the best thing is a combination of the two.

Working in your “fat burn” zone is great, especially for strength training.  I mix in strength training on alternate days of cardio when I can.  It is important to help build muscle which will in the long run allow you to burn more fat as well.

In addition, the thing I love about spin and my circuit training class is that everything is done in intervals.  I may spend 1 minute going at a moderate “fat burn” heart rate interval followed by 45 seconds of going all out as fast/hard as I can at the 85% cardio heart rate.  The intervals are great because while I can’t go balls to the wall for 30 minutes all at once, I can blow it out if I know I only have to do it for 45 seconds at a time.

So the ultimate answer for me is that BOTH have their place in my workout regimen.  It’s good for the body to not get too used to doing one thing all the time to minimize plateauing.   High intensity/interval training, strength training and moderate intensity training all have a place on the menu if you are able to do it.

That said, the best exercise is the exercise you will do consistently – so nothing is wrong as long as you are being healthy and that at the end of the day your calories out are greater than your calories in then you’re golden.


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