Having had a zone test before, it's important to understand that your maximum workout heart rate will likely be lower than your maximum physical heart rate. It is also important to limit testing your actual physical heart rate to proper cardiologists. That said, you don't need to get the max physical heart rate to get a set of useful zones and a customized workout for you.
The testing process uses a heart rate monitor, and a VO2 analyzer. Many fitness gyms have all the necessary equipment/software. They are measuring your Aerobic Base (AB) and Anaerobic Threshold (AT) levels. (link represents where I got the test done, but also describes in more detail).
The process of the test is relatively simple:
- Walk on a treadmill
- The tester will increase the speed/incline to increase your heart rate
- The Cooldown starts after you hit your AT (determined by CO2 exchange)
You do not hit your maximum heart rate. Once the test is done, the software will supply some cardio work to help you improve your overall health--but you will notice that the max heart rate is well under your physical max. You will not gain anything by going over that heart rate.
The idea and purpose of the zone training is to help you understand your current cardiovascular health and how to improve your performance. Personally, my aerobic base is pretty high, which is good news. However, my anaerobic threshold is pretty low. As a result the cardio plan I'm on is going to help increase the distance between them. It's been about 3 weeks, and I've already noticed my zones starting to shift.
I've since had a proper cardio test with a cardiologist. The test process was different, but they were checking how much stress my heart could take (not for fitness, but because it was prescribed by my general practitioner). The test was done when I started to feel light headed, and my heart rate went much higher than the prescribed maximum heart rate from the zone tests. I still didn't reach my maximum heart rate, which would require going until I passed out.
Take note that only a few hard core athletes ever get tested to find their true maximum heart rate. That bit of info is from the trainer who did the zone test. He told me, and the advice is sound, that if I ever wanted to do that I should see a cardiologist. Considering the stress test I had with the cardiologist, I don't want to really find the MAX heart rate. It's going to change every year anyway.