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The rise of group heart rate training and how it can help you reach the afterburn quicker

Rosie Fitzmaurice
Photo by Maryna Yazbeck on Unsplash

Name a person who doesn't want to make their workout more effective in less time.

Thanks to our growing obsession with technology and requirement for efficiency, London fitness studios are increasingly incorporating heart rate training wearables into their classes – and they say it'll help you get into the so-called "afterburn" quicker, a state which can leave you burning calories for up to 36 hours after your workout.

Orangetheory Fitness (OTF), adored by the likes of Michelle Obama, brought its 60-minute heart rate-focused workout to the UK in 2017, and it is rapidly gaining a loyal following among London's gym bunnies. The likes of Virgin Active and Third Space have since introduced Myzone chest-worn heart rate monitors to some of their classes, while cult Aussie workout F45 encourages members to use its own LionHeart monitors to track progress in real-time.

Everyone's getting tech happy, but will it make your workout more effective?

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"Heart rate training requires that you exert more energy in shorter periods of time, challenging your aerobic and anaerobic energy systems," says Israel Rivera, head of group exercise at Virgin Active. "Training in this way increases endurance, improves cardiac health and helps you burn fat while developing lean muscle mass."

It's basically the process of working out in specific heart rate zones measured as a percentage of your maximum heart rate, and therefore effort, explains OTF head coach, Tom Donaldson. This data is then projected onto screens, the studio uses a colour code to represent each zone, so as gym-goers train they can see exactly which one they're in (as well as everyone else).

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"It allows you to monitor how hard you are pushing yourself and ensure you're not undertraining or overtraining," Donaldson says.

"The main two zones we focus on are green and orange. Your green zone is the key to getting more out of life, it should feel challenging but doable, and this is what truly strengthens your cardiovascular system. Your orange zone should feel uncomfortable and is where you pass your anaerobic threshold, meaning your body has to burn stored sugars to supply the extra energy needed. This all contributes to building more stamina and energy."

The aim of the game in an in an hour-long OTF class – which uses OTbeat armband monitors – is to spend at least 12 minutes in the orange or red zone (84 per cent and above of your heart rate maximum) which would in turn earn you the same number of "splat points" – with the idea being you build on that each time.

"This will produce an afterburn in the body, which causes an oxygen debt and therefore a cellular change called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption called EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption)," says Donaldson

Quick recap. The EPOC ​or afterburn effect as it's known, refers to the boost in metabolism as the result of training hard, meaning you continue burning calories long after finishing your workout.

By earning 12 or more splat points, you'll elevate your metabolism for between 24 and 36 hours post-workout, he estimates.

'With chest-based heart rate data there is no hiding'

Luke Barnsley, master trainer at Third Space London, points out that tracking heart rate doesn’t elicit an afterburn in itself but doing so can allow you to ascertain whether or not you're likely to have triggered an EPOC effect from a workout.

"Generating EPOC requires very hard work, Myzone allows you to gauge if what you’re doing in the gym is actually 'hard work,' he says. "Prior to heart rate data our only way to track if something was hard was how we felt, rate of perceived exertion (RPE) but it's not very reliable as people tend to overestimate how hard they have been working.

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"With chest-based heart rate data there is no hiding."

Heart rate data is particularly useful for cardio training which naturally gets it pumping – Third Space and Virgin have introduced the tech to their Sweat X and H.E.A.T classes respectively which involve a Barry's-like mix of treadmill work and conditioning, while a typical OTF class involves circuit-style rowing, running and floor work – but Barnsley says the method can also make strength training sessions more productive.

"Lifting requires a systematic plan and a laser focus during a session," he says. "Wearing a heart rate monitor for resistance training allows you to track your rest periods in an accurate way. Wear a belt, perform your set, then rest the amount of time it takes your heart rate to return to the grey zone, then it’s time to go again."

While you can obviously monitor your heart rate and calorie burn on a fitness watch if you have one, projecting the data on a screen in a class creates a sense of community, according to Rivera, who says: "In the gym atmosphere, it can add a social element to a class experience and a friendly competitive edge to your workout."

It helps trainers ensure everyone is reaching the correct effort level required of each stage of the class, Donaldson adds. The information you receive is more detailed and accurate with a heart rate monitor that's solely designed for this purpose, he says, for example OTF members receive a detailed report after every class, outlining calories burned, points earned and a comparison table so that progress can be monitored over time.

Ultimately, if your goal is fat loss, heart rate training is an effective way to torch calories fast while also strengthening your cardiovascular system, though Rivera adds that diet is of course also a crucial element.

"Nothing can replace the need to track your caloric consumption for weight loss [but] we can all benefit from heart rate training once or twice per week, two or three max," he says.

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