4 Tips for Using Your Heart Rate Monitor in Circuit Strength Training

Circuit training has become wildly popular among fitness enthusiasts and professional athletes alike, both because it offers variety within a single workout and because it is a highly efficient way of exercising. The approach involves doing a series of moves of your choice that target different muscle groups, normally in fairly quick succession with minimal rest in between. Once you do all the selected moves for the program, you can repeat them again if desired based on your goals and fitness level. People have been using heart rate monitors for cardiovascular-based circuit training for years, but with a few tips, you can use your monitor to get more from a strength-based circuit workout, too.


Set Your Monitor to Keep You Working at an Intermediate Intensity

Make no mistake about it—weight or resistance training should elevate your heart rate, just as cardiovascular exercise does. In fact, according to fitness expert Wayne L. Wescott, the general recommendation is to design your program so that your heart rate stays between 70 to 80 percent of maximum. This heart rate range corresponds to moderate intensity exercise, or heart rate zone 3 of 5, which should produce some sweating and slightly heavier breathing. If you are above or below this level, you can adjust your weight, lengthen or shorten your rest periods, change the pace of your repetitions or modify the number of repetitions you do. A good guideline for getting staying in zone 3, however, is to try to use weights that are about 75 percent of your one rep maximum weight. Good monitors like the HeartQ not only give you auditory alerts when you go out of your zone, but also let you view your heart rate and percent of max simultaneously.

Watch for Your Heart Rate to Elevate

When you perform the first move in a strength-based circuit, your heart rate is still relatively low. Assuming you rest for only 30 to 90 seconds before going on (the standard recommendation), there won’t be a lot of time for your heart rate to go down significantly. The stress of the new move, combined with the need for the body to recover from the first one, usually causes the heart rate to keep climbing. Take this phenomenon into account when you plan your circuits. For example, if you know that a combo move like a squat into a military press really gets your heart pumping, you might not want to put it at the end of the circuit when your heart rate already will be higher.


Track Your Average Heart Rate over Time

As you go through a circuit program over weeks or months, gradually, your body will adjust to the demands you put on it, building up stronger muscles and, to a certain degree, becoming more efficient at delivering oxygen and nutrients to your tissues. A slow decline in your average heart rate, therefore, is a sign that the program is becoming too easy and that you need to make adjustments to what you are doing. Some monitors let you store data about multiple sessions so you can review it, but if yours doesn’t, just jot down the average heart rate reading after each workout.

Pay Attention to Your Position

Many weight-bearing or resistance exercises such as bicep curls are done with the body in a vertical position. Some, however, such as the bench press, are done in the horizontal positon. The difference in positioning matters because the heart must work harder to overcome gravity when you are sitting or standing up. Subsequently, your maximum heart rate can be as much as 15 beats lower for horizontal moves than for vertical ones. If you keep this in mind when you design your workout, you’ll have an easier time keeping your heart rate within zone 3.



People routinely associate heart rate monitors with cardiovascular exercises such as running, step aerobics or spinning/cycling. Nevertheless, these tools can be indispensable in a circuit weight training program, as well. A good one can give you great data that lets you pick moves, sequences and weight amounts that are safe for you. This combination of added safety and effectiveness is well worth the investment you’ll make in the device.


Burke, E. (1998). Precision Heart Rate Training.

ExRx.net. (n.d.) Heart Rate Tidbits.

About Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

Wanda Thibodeaux is a prolific fitness writer based in Eagan, MN.

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