Here’s an interesting fact.
Millisecond changes in your heart rate between beats can determine if you will perform well in your next workout, grow from your last workout, if you will get sick or not and even how well you’ll lay the pipe……
What is this mystical, scientific phenomenon you ask?
Heart Rate Variability! Often referred to as HRV.
This one factor determines success or failure in literally every area of life.
In this article I am going to take a deep dive into HRV;
- What is HRV
- How HRV affects your body
- Why HRV is the most important biometric to track & how to track it
- How to improve your HRV and…
- How HRV helps build bigger muscles
There will be some heavy science in this article,
But, I will do my best to break it down.
What is Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
HRV is the beat to beat difference in your heart rate.
That is right.
Your heart should not beat at a constant rhythm.
If your heart rate is 60 beats per minute (BPM) that DOES NOT mean your heart beat once every second.
This means your heart beat at uneven intervals that accumulated to 60 beats over the course of a minute.
When pacemakers first came out they were designed to beat on perfect rhythm.
And people DIED!
That’s right, people died as a result of there being no variation beat to beat in their heart rate.
We now know that people with a low HRV, meaning less variance beat to beat in their heart rate, are far less healthy overall and much more likely to get sick and will perform poorly in all areas of life.
The big question:
Why does this happen? How can differences in our heart rate determine our health and performance in literally every area of our life?
The big, nerdy answer:
Your heart rate is controlled by your autonomic nervous system (ANS).
Your ANS controls literally everything that happens in your body automatically.
To name a few things: Digestion, Growth, Healing, Heart Rate, Breathing, Sexual Function, Liver, most other organ functions and Hormone Regulation. There are many, many more things under ANS control.
It is estimated your ANS controls 90% of your body’s functions.
Your ANS has two main sub-groups; your Sympathetic Nervous System and your Parasympathetic Nervous System.
The sympathetic nervous system we will call your GAS pedal.
The gas pedal is being stepped on when your body feels it is under attack from any type of stressor.
Stressors can be summed up to 3 main groups:
- Things such as; exercise, sports, falling down a flight of stairs or being chased by a tiger!
- Foods, medication, environmental exposure
- Family, life, money, work, travel, etc.
In fact, a consistently low HRV is a great indicator you may be at higher risk of death (1).
When your body responds to any of these forms of stress it steps on the gas pedal and we see the following physiological response:
- Your body perceives something as a threat (stressor)
- Adrenalin is released into your blood stream
- Heart Rate Increases to get oxygen & nutrients where they’re needed and remove waste
- Blood Pressure Increases to help speed blood from one place to another
- Breathing Rate Increases to get oxygen in faster and remove waste faster
- Pupils Dilate to help see the environment, threats and escape routes
- Sugar gets pulled from storage into the blood stream for available energy
- Blood leaves the digestive system as digestion is shut down and lacks priority in the face of a threat
- Reproductive organ function shuts down as it lacks priority as well
- Blood engorges the skeletal muscles so they are ready to go
- And you are ready for action!
Well, that’s a whole lot to think about, and I only named some of what happens.
Good thing your ANS handles all of that!
On the other hand….
The parasympathetic nervous system we call your BRAKE pedal.
The job of the parasympathetic nervous system is to slow the body down and get it into a “growth & repair” state.
In the “How to Improve HRV” section I will mostly be talking about things to increase parasympathetic activity. As most of us need more growth, repair, rest and relaxation in our lives.
When you are in a parasympathetic dominant state:
- Your heart rate is slower
- Your blood pressure is lower
- Your breathing slows
- Sugar gets pushed out of the blood stream and put away for storage
- You can achieve and maintain sleep
- You can achieve and maintain an erection
- You can properly digest food
- You can think more clearly
- You can make rational decisions.
Now how do you know which side your dominating…
Gas or Brake pedal??
How to Track & Test Heart Rate Variability
When it comes to tracking your HRV there are a few options.
Most are good!
You can go the Doctor route…
But, most doctors don’t routinely check HRV, and if they do, it will be quite expensive and done so on an EKG.
Chiropractors who are concerned with wellness and not sickness will often check HRV. This test is non-invasive and takes around 5 minutes.
You can also go the hardware device route…
These can be pricey up front, but well worth the data you get.
Common devices that measure HRV include:
The Apple Watch, Oura Ring, CoreSense and a few others.
All are very good and consistent within themselves. It is debatable how accurate some of these tests would be when compared to an actual EKG, but as long as they are consistent in their inaccuracy, you can successfully use them the same.
You can go the App route…
Some apps are really good, and some apps are not so great.
Some require you to have hardware, and some don’t
Here’s a quick rundown:
Apple’s Health app:
If you own an Apple Watch and iPhone then you already have this app. To access the HRV feature check under the “Heart” section and scroll down to “Heart Rate Variability”. To actually do an HRV scan, go to the “Breathe” app on your Apple Watch and do a session.
This app can be downloaded for free and can be used with an appropriate Polar heart rate monitor, or the CoreSense device developed by the founder of the app.
The apps founder actually has a ton of great information on HRV. Check out his Podcast “Elite HRV”.
This app is developed has an amazing amount of data available. Best part; it can use your phones camera to measure HRV! So, you don’t need an external device. However, if you have an external device, you can connect that too.
There are a few other apps out there for measuring HRV. Personally, I found these three to be the best of my liking.
I confess, I haven’t reviewed them all the apps out there, so there may be a quality one I’m missing.
Now you have a way of measuring HRV.
Here’s the best process:
Always do your HRV measurement at the same time every day.
First thing upon waking is best. This will essentially give you your readiness score for the day.
After you have a week or so of data, you can start to see where your baseline HRV sits.
Now each day will be an up day, or a down day.
If you’re on an up day,
Go for it! You should be able to perform really well in all areas of life.
If you’re on a down day,
Hold back! Your performance will be sub-par and your chances of illness, injury or just plain F*%$ing up are greater.
And since you have this fancy tool….
You can take real-time HRV’s to see how different activities affect you.
Do a hard workout. Notice a drop in your HRV.
Do a 5-minute breathing or meditation session. Notice your HRV go up.
Go sky-diving….Ummm….HRV will probably go down.
Side Note: If you wake up tomorrow and your HRV is the best you’ve ever seen,
This IS NOT a pass to go do something stupid like attempt to max out 400lbs on the bench when your previous max is only 225lbs.
A good score won’t make you super human. Just the best version of you.
How to Improve Heart Rate Variability:
HRV can be improved in a number of ways.
Quickly, think back to what HRV is telling you.
It’s giving you a measure of your balance between your sympathetic nervous system (gas pedal) and your parasympathetic nervous system (brake pedal).
Gas pedal goes on from stressors and equals lower HRV.
Brake pedal goes on from positive health strategies and equals a higher HRV.
With that in mind;
Literally anything that promotes brake pedal activity will raise your HRV.
Don’t be confused.
Exercise will make your HRV drop initially, as it is a stressor.
Exercise is a positive stressor and therefore will ultimately help your HRV go up in the long run.
You just have to access the brake pedal side of things, so your body can do the growth & repair from your exercise session.
Here’s a short list of things that raise HRV:
- Deep Breathing
- Chiropractic Adjustments
- Improving your diet (anti-inflammatory)
- Doing things that make you happy
- Avoiding things & people that anger you
Here is a 2018 Study talking about how meditation will improve your HRV.
Of course, there are hundreds, even thousands of more ways to positively impact your HRV. Those are just a few easy quick ones.
Maybe the diet thing would be challenging for some?
How Heart Rate Variability Will Build Bigger Muscles
What does it all really matter unless your muscles are getting bigger and girls fight over you??
And guess what!
Your muscles will get bigger!! And you will look better!!!
If you pay attention to your HRV.
What this number represents is your body’s ability to take on challenges
Your body’s ability to repair and recover from those challenges so you can take on bigger challenges!
So here is how this works for building muscles using HRV:
When you exercise, your body is breaking itself down.
This is gas pedal (sympathetic) behavior.
It is a great thing to push yourself past your limits and STRESS your body to the next level.
But, it is exactly that, STRESS!
Unlike arguing with your girlfriend about sleeping with her sister, this is productive, good stress for your body.
When you place a positive stress on your body it will have a sympathetic response that indeed lowers your HRV.
When you go into your brake pedal (parasympathetic) mode, your body fully recovers from this stress, adapts and becomes stronger.
Side Note: My last article was on How Rest Helps You Grow Bigger Muscles. There is a deeper explanation of the science to growth from rest in there.
As a result, your muscles grow bigger in size and your neural connections become stronger to those muscles as well.
How HRV plays in is actually very simple.
HRV lets you know if you are getting into that brake pedal mode enough to optimize your growth or not.
That means if you’re not resting properly after a workout then you’re not getting the full benefits of that workout??
And that blows.
You could be busting your balls day in and day out and failing to see the gains you deserve. And all you have to do is take a day off and focus on breathing.
Worse yet. If you go in and push through on a day you feel like shit,
A day you have a low HRV.
You’re doing worse than not getting full benefit from your workout.
You’re likely causing your body to stay in a catabolic, destructive to muscle state. Meaning your muscles will shrink….
This study talks about how a constant high load training program will actually crush you HRV and your results.
Happy note here;
If you track your HRV daily, then you will know….
You will know when to go into the gym and bust your balls.
You will know when to take a day off and rest.
You will know when your overtraining and likely to injure yourself.
You will even know the days you will perform best in the sack.
The first thing to do is establish a baseline HRV.
The more readings you have for this the better. And as I stated earlier. Doing this reading first thing in the morning before getting out of bed is the best way to keep consistency and establish that baseline.
Now that you have a baseline you can use this to help your muscles grow.
Push for more growth on days you have a higher score.
Rest and feed your muscles on days you have a lower score.
This article has just begun to scratch the surface of what HRV is and the power of the things it can show you.
Now get out there and train hard!!
(Unless you have a lower than normal HRV, then rest )
Dr. Dave Hopper
1. Heart Rate Variability: An Old Metric with New Meaning in the Era of Using mHealth technologies for Health and Exercise Training Guidance. Part Two: Prognosis and Training. Singh N, Moneghetti KJ, Christle JW, Hadley D, Froelicher V, Plews D. Arrhythm Electrophysiol Rev. 2018 Dec;7(4):247-255
2. Effect of Heartfulness cleaning andmeditation on heart rate variability.
Arya NK, Singh K, Malik A, Mehrotra R. Indian Heart J. 2018 Dec;70 Suppl 3:S50-S55.
3. Use ofheart rate variability in monitoring stress and recovery in judo athletes.
Morales J, Alamo JM, García-Massó X, Buscà B, López JL, Serra-Añó P, González LM. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jul;28(7):1896-905.
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