This past weekend at the Physique Summit we learned quite a bit about physique competition. One piece of information that was new to me was Heart Rate Variability and how it can be used to determine your current stress levels. At first, when I heard “Heart Rate Variability” (HRV), I thought this would be a seminar about how to optimize your heart rate during your training. What I discovered was that you can actually monitor your current level of stress based on the results of the HRV test you do in the morning.

This session was taught by Dr. Mike T Nelson, who is an exercise physiologist that studied the impact of HRV on training and fitness. What he shared with us, I found fascinating. By understanding how HRV works, you can identify the days that you will likely experience better performance based on that morning’s HRV test results, you can also know the days that you may likely not have great sessions. Do you ever go to the gym and say “I just am not feeling it today!” Chances are, you may have been able to identify “those days” ahead of time and possibly accommodate for it by adjusting your training if you knew what Heart Rate Variability was telling you.

So, what is HRV?

As discussed in the app, “Ithlete”, which is an app that helps you monitor your HRV rate:

“Unlike measuring resting heart rate (HR) which is an imprecise mix of multiple elements, HRV is so useful because it allows monitoring of recovery via changes in the timing of each heart beat when breathing slowly in and out (figure 1).  These small changes in beat to beat timing can be detected using finger pulse or chest strap heart rate monitors. By measuring HRV at the same time every day and comparing to your normal level, you can tell how stressed or recovered you are.  Perhaps counter intuitively, less variation is a bad thing, so if someone’s HRV is below his or her normal level, they are more stressed than normal, so they need more recovery before they are ready for an intensive session. On the contrary a high HRV level shows the body is well recovered and ready to respond to any demand placed upon it.”


So for me, I believe this information can be quite helpful. HRV can tell you when your body is very stressed which can be not only because of very difficult training sessions, but also life stress, lack of sleep, illness, general anxiety, etc. Even though I may know when I am feeling crappy, I believe having an objective tool to tell me that I may need a recovery day or two could be very useful.

Dr. Nelson also shared with us how competitors that are getting ready to compete on stage may be experiencing chronic stress (understandably). He showed how one competitor’s nervous system basically shut down as she was approaching the competition stage because of overtraining and hard dieting. In these “shut down” circumstance, the body is not really absorbing nutrients optimally, nor is it a great state to workout in, it also doesn’t make for a great peak week either! By monitoring this information ahead of time, I believe it could help predict training and diet scenarios that could be avoided.

So, with all that said, I believe monitoring HRV could be quite useful for a variety of reasons. I am hoping to get this started myself as well as with several of my clients. I’m excited to see what I will find out! I will be happy to share the results when I find out more. In the meantime, if you would like more information about heart rate variability, check out the app “Ithlete” at www. and also check out Dr. Mike Nelson’s youtube video explaining HRV:

“Wise people treasure knowledge, but the babbling of a fool invites disaster.” Proverbs 10:14 (NLT)

Jon Arnold
Owner and CEO of Integrated Fitness of Dover LLC
ACE Certified Personal Trainer, NASM CES, B.S. Nutrition