When I was training under Mike Ferguson at Powerstation in Middletown, OH, his philosophy was “We’re going to grind until you feel like quitting, and when you’re ready to quit, we’ll just grind some more.”

This brute force, sheer will approach made me a physically conditioned athlete, far exceeding the limits of what I thought was humanly possible.

At the highest levels of competition, it’s sometimes necessary to push yourself past your limits. 

But as I learned later in my career, there’s more to training than just lifting enormous amounts of weights and reps.

With a background in mathematics, I’ve always been interested in quantifying results and using data to inform my decisions.

The question became, how can I measure my progress beyond weight x reps x sets?

It wasn’t until I got to Seattle to work with Matt Hume that I encountered Joel Jamieson. Joel was a pioneer in heart rate variability systems and he was the first person to introduce me to the concept.

HRV is a technology that measures the nervous system’s activity by analyzing the time interval between heartbeats. 

This technology can measure both the fight or flight system (sympathetic nervous system or SNS) as well as the relaxation system (parasympathetic nervous system or PNS).

When the body is under stress, the SNS is activated, and the heart rate increases. This leads to a decrease in HRV because the time between heartbeats becomes more regular. 

On the other hand, when the body is in a relaxed state, the PNS is activated, and the heart rate decreases. This leads to an increase in HRV because the time between heartbeats becomes more variable.

By measuring HRV, it is possible to assess the balance between the SNS and PNS and determine the body’s ability to adapt to stress. This data can then be used to track changes in both SNS and PNS functions over time, monitor the effects of different interventions, and make adjustments to training and recovery routines.

HRV systems can tell you how your body is recovering from training and lifestyle factors. Today, many fitness trackers and smartwatches have HRV technology built-in.

Using HRV in your workout

Let’s see how you might incorporate HRV into a hypothetical workout.

First, you’ll want to take your heart rate or HRV readings under normal conditions. This is otherwise known as your baseline. 

Assume you’re performing deadlifts for 3 sets of 8-10 reps. 

  • Warm-up: Start with a light weight and perform 10-12 reps, then increase the weight for the second set and perform 8-10 reps, and for the third set, increase the weight again and perform 8-10 reps.
  • Rest: Rest for 2-3 minutes between sets.
  • HRV Monitoring: Measure your HRV before and after the workout. If your HRV is significantly lower than your baseline, reduce the weight or the number of sets for the remaining exercises.

If your HRV reading after the workout is significantly lower than your baseline HRV reading, it indicates that your body is not recovering well from the workout and may be under too much stress. 

In such a scenario, it’s advisable to reduce the weight or the number of sets for the remaining exercises. This allows your body to recover better and avoid overtraining, which can lead to injury and hamper your progress.

Instead of having to second guess and wonder if your soreness and fatigue are truly signs that you’ve reached your limit, HRV becomes a much more reliable indicator of your progress.

I remembered how Joel and myself started using HRV technology to optimize physical output. 

Quite Franklin – Joel Jamieson

It became clear after years of top-flight competition both in the amateurs and other promotions that the fundamental principles of stress, recovery, health, and performance remain the same, whether you’re training for a fight or just trying to live a healthy life.

Regardless of training, the recovery period is crucial for both athletes and casuals alike. With sufficient recovery, your body adapts to the stress placed on it during training and gets stronger.

Recovery can be impacted by lifestyle factors such as sleep, nutrition, and stress. There’s still some due diligence required to ensure you get sufficient sleep, eat reasonably well, and avoid or find ways to mitigate stress.

When done right, HRV technology truly shines in combination with proper lifestyle choices.

That said, I think performance and fatigue can vary from person to person. Things like movement and breathing patterns are individualized and they may slightly affect HRV readings. 

It’s still recommended that you consult a healthcare professional before incorporating HRV monitoring into a training or recovery program, especially if you have underlying health conditions.

Despite its limitations, I really do believe in HRV and find it a great complement to my training. 

Working with Joel really showed me that while pushing yourself constantly is rewarding, recovery is equally and probably more important.

What are your thoughts on HRV? Have you tried it out?