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Using HRV To Determine Training Intensity, Part I

by Mike T. Nelson
Home/Blog/Protect Your Mental Wellbeing During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Everyone has amazing days in the gym and some bummer days where they wished they stayed in bed. Wouldn’t it be great to maximize the great days and limit the bad days? This would allow you to maximize your training, especially for those who have a limited time to train. Is technology the answer to our hypertrophied dreams?

Heart Rate Variability

Heart rate variability (HRV ) as it is known may be one way to do this. In the past 5 years as I’ve been researching HRV, I’ve seen it go from lab equipment costing thousands of dollars to being run on your smart phone with a simple heart rate strap. Pretty darn cool.

Technology has effectively removed the biggest drawbacks: 1) cost and 2) access to the equipment.

What Is HRV?

Instead of looking at just your average heart rate (HR), we can look at the fine scale variability—how much your HR changes ever so slightly from one beat to the next. It turns out this slight variation holds valuable information about your physiologic health (4) and potentially even your metabolic health (ability to burn fat, 1-3).

HRV analysis gives us the status of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which has 2 branches. 1) The Parasympathetic (aka rest and digest). This branch is dominantwhen you are at rest. 2) The Sympathetic (aka fight or flight). This branch is dominant when you need to run from a lion or perhaps your boss is yelling at you. It prepares your body for rapid movement.

You want a balance of both. Too much parasympathetic and you will feel horrible and sleepy as you drool on your couch all day (which can happen to athletes that are massively overtrained).

Too much sympathetic and you are burning the candle at both ends and impairing your recovery. If you keep it up, you will drive yourself and your gains right into the ground.

HRV tells you the state of your ANS –is it go time in the gym or is it better to do some low intensity recovery-based work so you can hit it hard the next day?

How To Use HRV

Plug your favorite HRV program into your phone (my fav is Ithete) and run the measurement as instructed first thing in the morning before you do anything else. If you have to use the bathroom, by all means get up and take care of business; then lay resting for 5 minutes before you start the test. Most tests take only a couple of minutes or less and will report to you a score.

A higher score is more parasympathetic indicating you are more recovered. A lower score indicates you are still more sympathetic dominant, and taking an easy day is in order.

Important Points 

HRV allows you to see the response to stress. Everyone responds differently, and knowing this response is absolutely key to custom training to YOUR body and demands. If you did a hard session, and your HRV is good the next day, recovery is humming along nicely. If your HRV drops like Miley Cyrus out of the lime light the next day, you probably exceeded your current capacity to recover (which is not good for long
term gains).

HRV responds quite well to stress, in all forms. This is wonderful and maddening at the same time since it will not only respond to stress in the gym, but from the stress of deadlines and relationships, too. Make sure you look at the whole picture of stress in your life and what you can control. Usually the biggest one that you can control is stress in the gym.


HRV is a simple and noninvasive method to monitor your recovery to enable much faster progress on your goals to be stronger and leaner.

In part II, we will look at four common pitfalls of using HRV to determine training intensity.


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