How to Pick the Perfect Heart Rate Monitor for Killer Workouts

The sheer number of heart rate monitors (HRMs) out there can be daunting. If you don’t pick the right one, you won’t have a prayer of training comfortably, effectively, safely and efficiently.

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To Strap or Not to Strap

Modern heart rate monitors come in two basic styles. The first kind of HRM, sometimes known as a finger model, is just a device you wear like a watch. You get a heart rate reading by pressing your finger to a button near the face of the monitor. You have to stop what you’re doing to take a heart rate reading with these models. Additionally, even though a lot of them claim to track what your heart is doing in real time, they often continue to calculate based on the last heart rate reading you took. As an example, say you took your heart rate after your warmup and got 120 beats per minute. If you didn’t continue to take additional readings, the monitor would keep figuring your calorie expenditure at 120, even if you dropped to 80 or went all the way up to 180. Accuracy during exercise, therefore, is really problematic. Even so, these models can have a real usefulness in certain medical situations, such as if you’re trying to keep an eye on your blood pressure through the day or need to check how you’re reacting to a prescription.

Chest strap models are much more popular with professional athletes or those serious about their fitness or weight loss programs. You fit the strap around your rib cage, generally just under your pectoral (chest) muscles. The strap, which has sensors to detect your pulse, connects to a small transmitter, which sends a signal to the monitor, which you wear on your wrist. With these models, there’s no need to stop your activity, and accuracy is much higher because the strap and transmitter are providing data to the monitor truly in real time. You can identify which heart rate zone you’re really in with ease because of this, and assuming you’ve entered other data such as your height and weight properly into the general settings, calorie expenditure estimates are decent, too.

 

Most trainers will tell you to get the chest strap type of HRM because of their benefits. The added features and materials needed with these models unfortunately does give them a higher price tag. You don’t need to buy one with a ton of bells and whistles, but do get one with high quality so your investment has a good return.

Main Features

Heart rate monitors are not created equal, with each model having its own unique feature set. You’ll need to ask yourself what you need and what you don’t when you compare what’s out there. For example, do you want a model that will function like a regular watch when you’re not training? Do you want calorie tracking? What about a GPS function (great if you’re a runner or cyclist)? Do you prefer visual heart rate zone alerts or audio ones, or maybe both? Do you want the monitor to store workout data for you for further analysis (some models even allow you to download your data to a website so you can make graphs and charts)? Batteries should be user replaceable. Your general goal is to pick a model that gives you the functions you need for the way you train most often and that gives you the data necessary to make good decisions about your next workout. The more features you pack in, the more you’ll likely pay.

Other Considerations

Other elements can factor into which HRM you pick. One of the biggest is size. Functionally, the monitor should be as lightweight as possible so as to not impede your activity. It shouldn’t be so big that it gets in your way, either, but the display has to be easy to read at a quick glance. Aesthetically, women usually prefer smaller, slimmer designs, whereas guys typically are fine with slightly larger or more rugged-looking models.

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Another big factor to look at with HRMs is the materials they’re made from. Most monitors are made from stainless steel and various plastics, but you’ll find a lot of variance in how flexible they are and how they conform to the wrist. Some chest straps are more stretchy compared to others, and you have to watch how the strap hooks to make sure it’s going to be comfortable and stay put. You absolutely want a strap that’s fully adjustable to accommodate weight loss or muscle gain. Some straps are machine washable.

Conclusion

Tons of HRMs are out there, but generally, chest strap models are your best bet. Aside from that, you have to consider a lot of features, such as GPS, display and alerts. Always buy based on your own comfort and needs, not what the hulk next to you in the gym has. It’s not always necessary to spend a lot to get something that works great.

References:

Recreational Equipment Inc. (2014). Heart Rate Monitors: How to Choose

Runner 101 (2014). How to Compare Heart Rate Monitors.

Waehner, P. (2014). Before You Buy a Heart Rate Monitor.

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