I'm not one to tout exercise as the be-all and end-all of weight loss. I mean...you can't exercise away a bad diet, right? But exercise is great, and different levels of exercise do more than just make you sweat. Everyone has a fat-burning zone, or that sweet spot that helps your body burn fat more efficiently. I want to help you define what it is for your body. So if you're interested in getting your heart rate up a little, then the information that follows will be just what you need.

Find Your Fat-Burning Zone

In my life, exercise is a lot like medicine. If I'm having a crappy day, the best thing I can do is workout. My mood and stress level are almost always heightened after I finish.

I do not doubt that it could benefit you in the very same way, whether your workout is a 45-minute walk, an hour-long yoga class, or a hard run. Everyone has their preferences. The most important thing is that you move - whether you have weight to lose or not.

But if you have extra unhealthy fat hanging onto your body - especially in the belly area - then you'll be happy to know that consistently pushing your heart rate to a specific number of beats a minute can help you melt fat away.

Before we get into how many beats your heart rate should be, let's talk about the 5 zones. These zones are determined by knowing what your maximum heart rate is. As a general rule of thumb, your max heart rate is simply 220 - your age. From there, you calculate percentages, based on this number.

Heart Rate Calculator

Here is an easy calculator to help you figure out where you need to be. Make sure to read through the zones to know which workouts you should do to get you there! 

  • Enter your RESTING HEART RATE (default is 70)
  • Enter your AGE
  • Enter the INTENSITY (or the percentage you want to be at...read below)
Heart Rate Calculator
Target Heart Rate Calculator

Zone 1: "Light" or Recovery Zone

This is about 50 - 60% of your maximum heart rate, and a good place to be if you want to keep your body in an active state without taxing reserves too much. Your body, specifically the muscles in your body, needs time to repair after several continuous days of hard work. Despite the fact that this is not considered the fat-burning zone, your body can still burn fat here, just not as efficiently as other zones.

When should you do Zone 1 workouts?

  • In between very hard workouts that push into higher zones
  • If you're feeling unusually stressed (physically or emotionally) in this zone
  • When you need to give your muscles a chance to recover from strenuous activity

What are examples of Zone 1 workouts?

  • A very brisk walk or very easy jog
  • A light yoga class
  • Any type of cardio activity that keeps your heart rate between 50 - 60%


Zone 2: Aerobic or Fat-Burning Zone

The famed aerobic zone that has long been touted as the “fat-burning zone” has you working somewhere between 60 – 70% of your maximum heart rate. There is a lot of value in training within this zone. Mile after mile of a long run are largely spent working here, building your slow-twitch muscle fibers, stamina and ultimately (most importantly) the mental endurance it takes to cross the finish line.
Your fat-burning zone also helps you build physical endurance and lung capacity.

As for fat loss…this is where you should spend a good chunk of your time when it comes to a workout unless you're specifically training for something. If you've ever run a marathon, half marathon, or any long event, you're familiar with the terms "long and slow," which apply here.

When should you do Zone 2 workouts?

  • To build greater lung capacity (= breathe better) and muscular endurance
  • To burn fat, especially through the belly (AKA visceral fat)
  • Anytime you just want to "get in a workout" without thinking about it too much

What are examples of Zone 2 workouts?

  • A jog or run where you can maintain a conversation
  • A fast-moving power yoga class
  • Almost always any sort of cardio you can maintain for 45+ minutes without thinking it's too easy

All that said, there have been a lot of new studies that show the next two zones are where it’s at for weight loss.

Zone 3: The Lactic Threshold Zone

Everything changes after you hit your lactate threshold, or between 70 - 80% of your maximum heart rate. Legs start feeling heavier, breathing is not as controlled and you start feeling that burning feeling in your legs, bottom, arms, or whichever part of your body your working. What happened?

Don't be scared off by this zone! You don't have to spend as much time there to get great benefits.

The burning feeling you get when you exercise is called lactic acid. Your body gets good at clearing it out of your muscles the more frequently you exercise. Your muscles produce lactic acid in every stage of training (even recovery!).  In fact, every time you move lactic is being produced. For most people, getting to or over the lactic threshold means you’re no longer working aerobically, thus oxygen isn’t as readily available to your cells. The byproduct is lactic acid.

Your muscles get stronger here, which helps to boost your metabolism, creating a sort of defacto fat-burning zone.

When should you do Zone 3 workouts?

  • To help build muscle, boost metabolism, and burn unhealthy fat.
  • To help your body get better (more efficient) at getting rid of lactic acid at a harder level
  • Two to three workouts each week should include a little bit of this zone

What are examples of Zone 3 workouts?

  • A tempo workout (basically, you spend your entire workout here knowing it will be a little more challenging, but worth it)
  • A strength workout that includes a high repetition of weights (bicep curls, squats, lunges, etc)
  • A couple of workouts a week built into training for a longer endurance event

All that said, there have been a lot of new studies that show the next two zones are where it’s at for weight loss.

Zone 4: The Anaerobic Threshold Zone

Coming in between 80 - 90 percent of your maximum heart rate is the anaerobic zone. Within the world of endurance athletics, the anaerobic threshold means one thing: speed. For many other people who are training to get fit, it means pushing your body anaerobically, or without oxygen.

You don't need to be a cardio queen or endurance athlete to hang around in this zone a lot. In fact, a lot of people who enjoy Crossfit or bodybuilding use this zone a lot to get into great shape!

You can definitely burn fat in this zone, but a lot of it happens after the workout is over. Unlike the fat-burning zone of Zone 2, Zone 4 is much more intense and taxing on muscles. This zone needs more recovery but also experiences more "afterburn," or the idea that your body burns fat for up to 36 hours after the workout ends.

When should you do Zone 4 workouts?

  • A couple of times a week
  • To develop muscle and tone the body
  • to dramatically improve cardiovascular race times or significantly improve lung capacity

What are examples of Zone 4 workouts?

  • A HIIT or Tabata workout (see The Belly Burn Plan...it's full of them)
  • Low repetition, heavy-weight strength training
  • Crossfit workouts


Zone 5: Maximum Effort

Working in this zone is not for the faint of heart. You'll hit this zone at 90 to 100% of your maximum heart rate. This zone hurts and everyone should be well-rested to push themselves here. That said, you really don't tinker around in Zone 5 for too long.

When I train people, I use Zone 5 to test max heart rates with my clients. I might revisit this zone once every couple of months to see how much progress we've made.

I used to train triathletes almost exclusively and would be in Zone 5 once every three weeks. Today, I work largely with women who want to look and feel like their best selves. I can help them get here much, much, much easier without going to Zone 5.

When should you do Zone 5 workouts?

  • To race
  • To test yourself (either max heart rate or performance)

What are examples of Zone 5 workouts?

  • A sprint or an all-out race
  • A max heart rate test

For most people, the length of time in this zone might be a few seconds, or it might be a few minutes. Regardless, there are benefits, but you want to know what you're doing!

Do you have questions about your workout or are you looking for someone to develop a training plan for you? Let's connect.