How to Check Your Pulse

To take a pulse check, there are 2 ways to count. The first is a 6 second count, the other a 10 second count. To figure the beats per minute, the 6 second count is multiplied by 10 and the 10 second count is multiplied the 6. (Actually there’s a third way – 15 seconds multiplied by 4!)

While multiplying by 10 is easiest – just add a zero to the number – the shorter count may not be quite long enough to produce a good count, so the 10 second count seems to provide enough time to get a good count. That number is then multiplied by 6.

There has long been great debate about what number to start counting with – 0 or 1? (It’s kind of like the question about what year the new millennium actually started – 2000 or 2001?) The pro-zero camp makes the argument that the idea is to count a full cardiac cycle, but one would wonder if a second would actually make that big of a difference. In a 6 second count, it probably would in that the shorter check time tends to have a greater margin of error. But the consensus seems to be that starting at one is okay as it errs on the safe side – overestimating the actual heart rate – as long as you are consistent.

Where to take the pulse?

There are four sites indicated for checking your pulse:

the wrist – radial pulse

the temple – temporal pulse

the neck – carotid pulse

the chest – apical pulse

To take the pulse, use the index and middle fingers, but not the thumb because it has a pulse of its own. The most common sites are either the wrist or the neck. When using the neck site, it is cautioned to avoid applying too much pressure to the carotid artery, which could possibly stimulate a reflex mechanism that can slow down the heart.

Performing the pulse check

Keep your feet moving as your perform the check to avoid blood pooling in the extremities. Place your 2 fingers at the check site, either the wrist or neck, and time a 10 second count. Multiply the count by 6.

Group fitness pulse checks

The typical aerobic class is built on a bell curve. Beginning with small range of motion movements, the class builds in intensity by gradually increasing range of motion, distance traveled, tempo, adding impact and movements of higher met expenditure to elevate the heart-rate.

At the peak of activity, the instructor may stop to check the pulse and advise you to keep your feet moving, and quickly time the count. The music should be turned down so that the pulse is counted, and not the beat of the music!

Where pulse checks in group fitness are still used, there is usually an easy reference chart. Checking it indicates if you need to be working harder or easier and the instructor generally provides modifications to adjust intensity.

The class quickly resumes at the higher intensity and then gradually decreases on the down-hill side of the bell curve to recover and cool-down.

Some instructors may take a “point of departure” or beginning heart rate before class starts, and then a recovery heart-rate as the aerobic session ends. This gives the participant an idea of improvements made in their fitness level. As your body adapts to exercise, you should see a faster rate of recovery.

What happened to pulse checks in groups fitness?

The pulse check, along with point of departure and recovery checks are not as common as they were back in the early 90’s. You can imagine that all the instruction, counting and multiplying added up to a considerable amount of time. Checking the pulse at the peak of activity tended to disrupt the flow of the class and many participants would stop completely to count – apparently to avoid counting the “phantom” beat of the music that was kept when you continued to move or march.

Timing the count could be difficult if a watch or sweep second hand is used to count the 10 seconds and it could take up to 30 seconds to perform the check and get back to the program. This would result in the fitter participants quickly losing their intensity and higher heart-rate and require you to re-build in intensity if the check took too long.

Group fitness programming also expanded from strictly aerobic activity to include a wider variety of formats, including strength and cardio circuits, interval training and sculpting.

Along the way, the instructors began to forgo target heart rate checks in favor of perceived exertion. Furthermore, for a significant portion of aerobic participants, the target heart rate check was inaccurate for a wide variety of reasons. Some people were actually troubled to find that they felt like they were working hard, but that the numbers they came up with in the checks did not seem to match their effort.

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