The Myth of Maximum Heart Rate

This is a repost of an article from our archives that Jennifer first wrote in 2008, which was then posted on ICA in 2011. It has become the basis for the heart rate training philosophy of the Indoor Cycling Association.

How many times have you heard from your students that the intensity (based on a heart rate you asked for) is just too easy? How many times have you been faced with comments from students that they “rode at 95% for the entire class,” but you know that that would be impossible?

That max HR chart you are using? You might want to toss it for good.

Indoor cycling instructors are faced with a conundrum. The fitness industry is “stuck” on the concept of using age to determine max heart rate (MHR), yet we know it is an incorrect assumption. Even worse, the bogus formula of 220 – age = max heart rate is ubiquitous; almost every cardio machine and heart rate monitor that asks you for your age is using that formula (or a similar one) to prescribe training zones based on MHR.

You’re no better off than if you closed your eyes and threw a dart at the maximum heart rate chart.

Studies have shown that maximum heart rate does not correlate well with age. We know that it doesn’t decline by one beat on your birthday every year. This formula of 220 – age (or 226 – age for females) was never intended by the original authors to be a universal formula; rather, it was intended to prescribe a safe exercise level for patients in cardiac rehab. It was the line of best fit in a regression analysis of limited data.

But somehow, it has stuck. The formula can be off by as much as 20–30 beats in either direction, which is a huge margin of error. This means it may apply to only 30% of the population. In any other industry, those statistics would be considered far too invalid to base a theory upon, but in fitness, it is the cornerstone of many programs.

In my years of personal training, teaching Spinning, coaching athletes, and performing metabolic tests, I have found that more often than not, the age-predicted maximum heart rate (APMHR) formula underestimates MHR. I myself am an anomaly, with an actual maximum that for most of my life was lower than the APMHR (i.e., my MHR was overestimated), so I will use myself as an example to show that if, in fact, the formula does match your MHR, it may only be by coincidence.

When I was 36, I was racing mountain bikes and due to the intense nature of the sport, I often reached my maximum effort in a race. The highest heart rate I ever attained—one that produced a fleeting blurred vision and a sensation of nausea—was 176. I never liked being at this intensity, which might also explain why I didn’t podium (except once in a race with three people!) and was just a middle-of-the-pack rider.

Using the gender-adapted APMHR of 226 – 36 predicted a max HR for me of 190. You can see that my actual maximum was 14 beats lower; that’s significant. Does my lower maximum heart rate mean I am less fit? No, it has little to nothing to do with fitness. MHR is genetically determined. If I didn’t know better, I might have been disappointed in myself that I could not get closer to my supposed “maximum,” even though it was extremely painful at a heart rate of 176.

If this was one of your riders in your cycling classes, they might feel like a failure if they couldn’t get closer to their alleged maximum.

Ten years later, I was no longer racing mountain bikes (thank God!) but on occasion I still reached a painful HR of 176 when out on my mountain bike. And yes, it hurt every bit as much as before to be at that intensity. You can see that my MHR did not decline by 10 beats in that decade.

At age 46, the formula predicted a MHR of 180. Notice that by coincidence, I was now fairly close to the APMHR charts. A couple of years later, I was exactly as “predicted.”

On the other end of the spectrum, those with actual higher maximum heart rates than the charts predict will find that their prescribed training zones based on APMHR are too easy. It’s no wonder why so many people say they feel like they’re doing nothing when they follow the “aerobic” training zones on the charts.

The fitness industry tends to water down almost everything to a formula applicable to a wide variety of less fit people in search of ease over accuracy. But this generates more confusion instead of helping people.

The question becomes, is maximum heart rate even valid as an anchor for training zones? Does it really even matter? The honest answer is, not really! I have completely dumped using MHR charts for good, and it has been a revelatory experience. In my e-book Keep it Real, I discuss the myth of MHR and provide alternate solutions for providing heart rate training zones to indoor cycling students using estimations of lactate threshold and/or ventilatory threshold.

Why is the fitness industry so stuck on using MHR as the determinant for training zones, when there is enough proof that lactate or ventilatory threshold is a much better anchor for training zones and predictor of performance? Why push yourself that hard in a max test, to the point of almost puking, when there are alternative sub-max methods that are even better?

It’s a bit of a dilemma because one cannot expect the average fitness enthusiast to pay for an LT or VO2 max test. The good news is that there is an easier way for the indoor cycling instructor, via doing field tests with your own students. Teaching instructors and students that zones should be based on one’s LTHR and not MHR is a daunting task. The fitness industry is slowly making the transition and educating fitness providers from personal trainers to indoor cycling instructors. But it takes even longer for instructors to educate their clients and students on how to use it.

It’s time instructors take understanding heart rate training seriously.

If you are an instructor teaching indoor cycling, or coaching any sport, hang up your attachment to maximum heart rate and do whatever it takes to learn about threshold-based heart rate training. I’ve provided several resources below that can help you. Please let us know in the comments if you are currently using MHR and thinking about switching to threshold-based zones, or if you have any questions.

{Edit 2014: Over the past four or five years, there has been a steady rise of indoor bikes with power meters across the globe. Power is the most important determinant of output, yet heart rate is still very relevant. Heart rate is the cost to the body of producing that power, so having reliable, personalized, and accurate heart rate training information in conjunction with power is key. The use of power makes it even more important to ditch MHR-based zones in favor of LTHR zones.}

Additional resources:

Keep it Real (In Your Indoor Cycling Classes), e-book by Jennifer Sage.

Joe Friel, Total Heart Rate Training. This is an excellent book that should be in every instructor’s library.

Gina Kolata was one of the first journalists to write about this bogus formula back in 2001 in the New York Times.

Sally Edwards’ article on the Ten Reasons Why 220 – Age is Just Plain Wrong.

The Surprising History of the “HRmax = 220-Age” Equation, Journal of Exercise Physiology Online, Vol 5, No 2, May 2002.


Join ICA

The best way for indoor cycling instructors to learn more about using appropriate heart rate training zones and educating their riders is to join the Indoor Cycling Association. 

ICA provides the education for indoor cycling instructors on how to train your students properly using threshold based heart rate zones. We give you the means to explain it to your students as simply as possible.

In doing so, you and your students will have far more success than ever before in reaching weight loss as well as performance goals—you can only imagine how much your riders will love you! That alone will be worth your membership at ICA.


  1. I’m a 63 year old male. I’ve been following the old cardiac formula for indoor bike riding at my gym. An interesting thing that I noticed is that my cardiac rate will vary on different days when using the same resistance on the stationary bycycle. I don’t know the reason but I believe that it could be from imperceptable daily changes in my metabolism and the effect of the mind. We often forget that the mind can’t be seperated from the body. Something as simple as a disturbing dream can have a profound effect on blood pressure and pulse. This is why I don’t push it if I feel weak, out of breath, with my heart rate up.
    I lost a dear friend who used to do windsprints on a treadmill. He was only in his 40s. His heart went into an arythmea and he passed out. He couldn’t be revived with the defribulator because his heart was beating too fast before he collapsed. (So his family was told.) He had been doing wind sprints most of his life and was in good shape. He did have a genetic cardiac weakness that ran on his father’s side of the family. He once told me that every male on his father’s side died from heart attacks in their 40s. Strangly, his lipid profile was excellent. I don’t know if working within a cardiac range would have prolonged his life.

  2. Try not to make things to complicated. Your hr can vary depending on
    Diet temperature, illness. My max hr is206 44 years old. Comfortable At 180 (talking singing) I tend to measure the drop in hr after 60s on completion of the exercise and use this as an indicator of how fit I am. This drop value is a good indicator of how quickly the body recovers after the effort.

  3. As a Primary Group Cert presenter, I always look to see if that classic chart is taped to the wall in the aerobic / cycling room. Haven’t seen that in years. Thankfully, the facilities I’ve been in are using perceived rate of exertion of some sort. Love the power meters.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve had personal training clients who STOP when they see their HR monitor top out with their estimated high end of their THR. They aren’t even breathing heavy. Just starting their warm up. It’s sometimes hard to convince people in general that it’s not the best method of determining effort.

  4. Interesting…I’m a new instructor -age 53- who has always had difficulty with my own MHR. I’ve recently just reset my top end to 183 after reading this article and trying to match to Ventilatory levels. Definitely going to do more research in the hope that if I understand more then my classes will benefit.


  5. I have been teaching the ventilatory threshold test in class to determine zones since January. For those that wear heart rate monitors, they Love having a better idea of work zones. For those that don’t, I constantly remind them to be connected with how they feel, how they are breathing and whether they can talk or not. It has really changed the way I teach and I feel it has elevated my students fitness. Thanks for all the insight and info!

    1. Author

      this is awesome to hear Jennifer. It echoes what I’ve heard from so many other instructors who have finally ditched MHR and started to educate their riders abt LT/VT, and giving them zones that are based on their actual fitness at that moment, not a wild guess. The beauty of it is that it’s very evident when their fitness improves and they can sustain a higher heart rate longer. They can see how their hard work has paid off!

  6. Its great to know I was not crazy in thinking that the ‘one size fits all’ maximum heart rate calculation that every one seems to use cannot possibly be correct. I am 51 and my heart rate is commonly up there at 170 when I push it even up to 180 at times. If I try to keep it down at around 145 I feel like I’m wasting my time not even breaking sweat. Good to know my old ticker is not about to explode!

  7. Hi – I am a cyclist and a spinner.
    Although I am 67 years old and over weight I average 142bpm in class but can still sing along to songs at 160+. My maximum beat can hit 176+ regularly and I recover at some minus 20+ beats every minute. If I sit still and relax I can get my heart beat down to 73 just sitting in a chair.
    My instructor worries that I am over doing it at the 220 – age = max calculation?
    Your thoughts?

  8. Completely agree. While racing, HR only provided an additional reference of previous performances. NEVER did a break away occur without me because the effort would go beyond a pre-calculated MHR (although break away groups did occur without me due to a anaerobic threshold ceiling ;).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *