The Difference in the Heart Rate Between Arm and Leg Exercises

The most effective exercise programs engage all the major muscle groups. Following a regular, routine exercise regimen has a host of health benefits than can improve your quality of life and ability to perform everyday tasks.

If you're not sure what your heart rate is, you can get a heart rate monitor. (Image: Kerkez/iStock/GettyImages)

You hear a lot about reps when weight lifting, or distances when running, or time spent holding a position, but there's a far more accurate way to measure the efficacy of your workouts — heart rate. The CDC tells us that our target heart rate during moderate-intensity exercise, like weight lifting, should be 50 to 70 percent of our maximum heart rate, which is based on age.

To calculate your target heart rate:

Your maximum heart rate - your age = X beats per minute (bpm). Multiply X by 0.5, and by 0.7. Each of these answers will give you your 50 to 70 percent range.

Even a solid weight session will boost your heart rate, but it varies based on smaller (arms) muscle groups or larger (legs) muscle groups. Here's why, and what to look for on arms day or legs day in the gym.

Cardiovascular Response

The cardiovascular system performs several vital functions during exercise, and these are reflected in your heart rate. Regardless of the size of muscle group, your body must supply adequate amounts of oxygen and nutrients to fuel the active muscles.

During a legs set, you are working a larger muscle group that has greater fuel and oxygen than a smaller muscle group, like arms. This explains why a leg workout boosts the heart rate more than arms.

Effect on Blood Pressure

Practicing proper breathing techniques during exercise also plays a role on heart rate and blood pressure, regardless of the muscle group. The focused breathing can help you to avoid spikes in blood pressure and heart rate.

A 1995 study by Loma Linda University found that heavy resistance exercise elevated blood pressure, even in smaller muscle groups. Researchers saw the blood pressure come down significantly when participants used slow exhalation. They concluded that heavy resistance exercise, like weight lifting, is much safer when you breathe properly through the workout.

Long-Term Effects

Your body will adapt to routine arm and leg exercises more easily when you improve the workouts' efficiency. Your heart will increase in size and strength in order to more effectively deliver oxygen and fuel throughout the body, especially to working muscles. The variations and elevations in heart rate during upper- and lower-body workouts may become less evident.

Your resting heart rate will be lower, and your recovery time after workouts will improve. To continue building strength and improving cardiovascular fitness, you will need to increase the intensity of your workouts through use of heavier weights or more repetitions, all focused on optimizing that target heart rate.

Order of Operations

When performing arm and leg exercises, focus on a particular order to avoid fatiguing your muscles too soon. You should begin with the larger muscle groups and work down to smaller muscles. For your arms, focus on exercises like the shoulder press before moving on to biceps curls.

For the legs, follow a similar pattern by concentrating first on exercises that target your quads before transitioning to lower leg exercises. You will be able to do a more complete — and more effective, workout this way.

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