Best heart rate monitor: chest straps & arm bands for exercise
If you’re after a heart rate monitor, the choice is between a chest strap, wrist band watch or armband tracker. What’s best depends on your needs – there are pros and cons to each type.
Table of contents
Why wear a heart rate monitor?
The best heart rate chest straps
Why wear a heart rate monitor?
Most people who exercise will tell you they want to lose weight or simply get fitter. Not many people, however, know what their heart rate is, or where it really should be.
This means that often, they are not training in the most efficient way to achieve their goals. The only way to actually know how many calories you’re burning while you’re exercising is to have a heart rate monitor that is consistently hooked up. All top athlete’s heart rate train, as they know this will help them to reach their top potential in the shortest amount of time possible.
Your body has five heart rate zones. Which zone you spend most of the workout in depends on your goal. For fat burn you want to go for zone 2, to build-up endurance zone 3, while zones 4 and 5 are for hard-core training. Typically you can spend very little time in the high zones.
Essential reading: Heart rate zone training with wearables
In simple English, this means that if you want to burn calories and burn fat drop your pace a bit. If you want to build up speed go for a quicker pace. You can read in detail about heart rate zone training on this link.
Types of heart rate monitors: watch, chest strap, armband
A heart rate chest strap detects your pulse electronically and sends that data to a receiver, such as a smartphone or a wrist-worn tracker. This is similar to what you can see in hospitals with patients who have sensors strapped to their chest. These type of monitors tend to be highly accurate.
The same is the case for heart rate rate trackers that you slip on to your upper or lower arm. This have only started to become available of late. But they have the advantage over chest straps in that they are more comfortable and much more easier to put on.
Fitness trackers, such as those made by Fitbit, Apple or Garmin, monitor your heart rate from the wrist. They operate by shining a light, which is then reflected by blood vessels passing through your veins. When your heart pumps, the blood moves through your veins at a quicker rate, causing less light to be reflected back. The wrist worn device then calculates your heart rate using an algorithm.
While this is a more convenient way of tracking your ticker, the accuracy can never compare with chest or arm band style monitor. If you are very serious about heart rate training, a chest or armband monitor is the way to go.
Heart rate chest strap vs wrist: the difference in accuracy quantified
A recent study has quantified the difference in accuracy between heart rate chest straps and wrist based heart rate monitors. It was published by the Cleveland Clinic in Cardiovascular Diagnosis & Therapy.
The study recruited 50 healthy, athletic adults (34 men, 16 women) with a mean age of 29. They all ran on a treadmill for 12 minutes with a three lead ECG and Polar H7 chest strap monitor and two randomly assigned, commercially available, wrist-based heart rate monitors. One was warn on each wrist. These included the Apple Watch Series 3, Fitbit Ionic, Tom Tom Spark 3 and Garmin Vivosmart HR. The speed of the treadmill was increased gradually, starting from 4 miles per hour to a final 2-minute stretch at 9 miles per hour (at zero incline).
The researchers then pitted the results from different heart rate monitors against the ECG. Unsurprisingly, the Polar H7 chest strap had the greatest correlation coefficient with the ECG (rc=98). This was the case at all paces. The Apple Watch was next (rc=96), followed by the other three wrist-based heart rate monitors which all had a similar level of agreement (rc=89). Each of the four watches was assessed a total of 25 times.
Whats more the study found that as runners went faster, accuracy of wrist monitors tended to suffer. The Apple Watch Series 3 fared best, once again. At 9 mph it was only off by 1.5 bpm, as compared to nearly 3 bpm for the Garmin.
However, at rest the difference was negligible. This would suggest that it’s perfectly okay to use such devices to monitor heart rate at low intensity activity and to keep tabs on resting heart rate which is perhaps one of the most important indicators of health and fitness of an individual.
This was not the first such research by Cleveland Clinic. An earlier study looked at accuracy of wrist-based wearables while participants were using a treadmill at moderate speed (up to 6 mph). The agreement with ECG was as follows: Polar H7 chest strap (0.99), Apple Watch (0.93), Garmin Forerunner 235 (0.92), Tom Tom Spark Cardio (0.88) and Fitbit Blaze (0.76).
It’s worth noting, these conditions do not exactly replicate running outdoors or on a different terrain. Furthermore, because they are running on a treadmill participants were in some instances recorded when gripping the treadmill handrail.
So what can we take from all of this?
While fitness trackers and smartwatches provide a more convenient way of tracking your ticker, the accuracy can never compare with chest or arm band style monitor. Particularly for high intensity workouts.
This may change in the future as accuracy of smartwatch and fitness band heart rate monitors improves. But for now we are still not there.
The best heart rate monitor chest straps
To come up with our selection of best heart rate monitors we’ve examined functions and features of each device carefully and thoroughly. We try to test everything personally, but where not possible we took user reviews into consideration and dismissed devices with bad customer reviews and low ratings.
The H10 is an updated version of Polar’s best selling H7 heart rate monitor. Just like its predecessor, it includes a soft fabric chest strap that seamlessly adapts to your body shape. There is a new buckle mechanism and silicone dots that help keep it in place during training, and interference-preventing electrodes that help ensure heart rate is captured accurately.
The H10 now provides internal memory. This can be handy in situations where you want to leave your phone behind. The tracker can only store one heart rate training session at a time so you need to sync right after the workout.
You can use your H10 strap with a number of different products as well as compatible gym equipment. The device is waterproof so you can wear it for swimming although the Bluetooth connectivity will not work.
The chest strap works with the excellent Polar Beat app. This makes using it very easy and all the data is presented in simple to understand charts.
- excellent accuracy
- non-slip design
- can connect two devices concurrently
Bottom line: In our review we found the Polar H10 chest strap works well. If you want a reliable heart-rate monitor and can live with strapping onto your chest, the H10 is one of the best options out there.
Wahoo Tickr X
Tickr X is the most advanced of Wahoo’s three heart rate training chest straps. In addition to information on your ticker, the device measures calorie burn, running form metrics, indoor run, spin cadence and counts reps during strength training.
Its internal memory can store up to 16 hours of heart rate data allowing you to leave your smartphone behind and sync later. The tracker is compatible with over 50 third-party apps including Nike+ Running, MapMyFitness, Runkeeper, Strava, Apple Health, and Cyclemeter/Runmeter.
Both ANT+ and Bluetooth 4.0 capabilities allow the Tickr X to connect to GPS watches, iPhones and Android devices. You can also link the strap directly to the Apple Watch to get heart rate data in the Workout app.
All things considered, you’ll struggle to find a better value in a heart rate monitor than the Wahoo Fitness Tickr X.
- Measures more than just hear rate
- Works with many third-party apps
- Both ANT+ and Bluetooth connectivity
- Great value for money
Bottom line: This is the most advanced heart rate monitor manufactured by Wahoo. TickrX works with lots of apps and has plenty of on-board storage memory. Couple that with ANT+ and Bluetooth connectivity and a low price and you’re sitting on a winner.
The MyZone MZ-Switch is a versatile heart rate monitor featuring dual-sensor technology that allows users to wear it on the chest, arm, or wrist. The device uses PPG to track low-intensity activities, such as running and swimming, with 95% accuracy on the wrist or arm, while the ECG sensor monitors with 99.4% accuracy for high-intensity activities such as HIIT when worn on the chest. This combination provides users with better quality data than a typical PPG sensor alone.
Although it doesn’t have a screen, the device has an LED indicator display that shows one of five colors, indicating the user’s heart rate zone. MyZone also incorporates a points system called Myzone Effort Points to reward users for their physical activity in accordance with the World Health Organisation’s guidelines.
The MZ-Switch is equipped with ANT+ and Bluetooth connectivity, making it compatible with cardio machines and smartwatches from Apple, Samsung, and Garmin. It can also sync with third-party apps like MapMyRun, Strava, and MyFitnessPal. The device can store up to 36 hours of exercise data and has a battery life of 3 to 6 months, depending on usage.
- Multiple ways of wearing it
- Dual-sensor technology (PPG/ECG)
- Gamifies fitness
- Bluetooth and ANT+ connectivity
Bottom line: The MyZone MZ-Switch is a versatile heart rate monitor with dual-sensor technology, enabling users to wear it on their chest, arm, or wrist for accurate tracking during various activities. Offering compatibility with cardio machines, smartwatches, and third-party apps, it provides more flexibility than typical heart rate monitors.
Garmin HRM Tri
This is a heart rate strap specifically designed for triathletes.
The built in accelerometer reports six running dynamics metrics including: cadence, stride length, ground contact time, ground contact time balance, vertical oscillation and vertical ratio. The HRM-Tri stores heart rate data even when underwater, then forwards it to your wearable at the end of your swim.
This is Garmin’s smallest and lightest heart rate monitoring module and it fits within the width of the strap. The strap’s soft, rounded edges and covered seams it super-comfortable in or out of the water. The battery lasts an impressive 10 months (assuming 1 hour/day use) with user-replaceable CR2032 battery.
- For triathletes
- Spits out performance metrics in addition to heart rate
- 10 month battery
Bottom line: This is a feature-packed chest strap, ideal for those that are in the Garmin ecosystem. No need to charge, swim proof design and running metrics make the product attractive. If you like to cycle, swim and run, this is the one you want.
Suunto Smart Belt
Size really matters. At least it does if you ask Suunto. The company says their product is the smallest Bluetooth Smart compatible heart rate sensor on the market right now. And they might be right. The sensor module is tiny and weights only 40 grams, while the strap width is only 30 millimeters.
When running, the tracker provides real-time heart rate data and calories burned. You can use it while swimming as well, as its water resistant up to 30 metres.
While you are in the pool the sensor stores up to 3 hours of heart rate data. When you are back on dry land, sync the device to your Ambit 3 watch or the Suunto smartphone app on your Android or iOS phone for post workout analysis.
- Streamlined, lightweight design
- Storage memory
Bottom line: Another good option, the Suunto heart rate chest strap has managed to squeeze all the tech into something very small. If you own a Suunto watch than its a no-brainer.
Now on its second generation, Fourth Frontier’s heart rate chest strap is a bit different from the competition. The company has definitely taken a novel approach to monitoring heart rate.
In our review of the device, we write about the plethora of features that are available on Frontier X. In addition to heart rate, the gadget provides information on ECG, heart rhythm, breathing rate, body shock at foot strike, cardiac strain, training load, cadence and more. Quite an impressive list.
Pair it to your Garmin or other watch to strain smarter. Or use it on its own.
In essence, you get has the potential to warn you if you are over-straining your heart. At least that’s the idea. Can you push harder? Should you take it easy. Frontier X attempts to provide these answers.
A few months ago the company released Frontier X2. It comes with faster sync, better connectivity and some software updates.
- Continuous ECG recordings
- Cardiac strain information
- Simple to use app and web dashboard
- Ability to live-stream your metrics
Bottom line: If you want something that goes further than other chest straps, go for Frontier X. It is quite a bit more pricey but for that you get something that adds a whole new addition to your cardio training fitness arsenal.
Wellue Strap-Free Heart Rate Monitor for Sports
As we note in our hands-on review, the Wellue Strap-free Heart Rate Monitor is a versatile, comfortable device for accurate heart rate tracking. Its sleek, lightweight design and flexible wear options cater to various user preferences.
Users can choose between the provided chest strap, akin to standard heart rate monitors, or opt to attach the measuring unit to the disposable ECG electrodes. The electrode patches offer a more comfortable fit, making it feel like you’re wearing nothing at all.
With Bluetooth and ANT+ compatibility, the device connects seamlessly to exercise equipment and smartwatches. Its built-in memory and sync capabilities allow easy review and sharing of heart rate data. The ViHealth app offers ECG monitoring and optional AI ECG analysis.
The Wellue monitor’s accuracy rivals high-end competitors. Its 48-hour battery life on a single charge enhances usability.
- Comfortable and versatile wearing options
- Accurate heart rate monitoring
- ECG analysis
- Customizable target heart rate alerts
Bottom line: The Wellue Strap-free Heart Rate Monitor offers a unique, comfortable solution for heart rate tracking at a competitive $77 price. Its features and functionality provide excellent value. Visit the Wellue website to purchase (use code GW10 for a 10% discount).
The best heart rate monitor arm bands
Our heart rate monitor review would not be complete without looking at armband style monitors. These have grown in popularity in recent years due to their convenience.
Scosche has a hyper-accurate armband heart rate monitor which boasts both Bluetooth Smart and ANT+ connectivity. RHYTHM24 brings a number of improvements over its predecessor As its name implies, the gadget will now run a full day between charges, a significant boost to the 8 hours of its predecessor.
Another important upgrade is waterproofing. The second generation device has an IP68 water-resistance rating, which means it will just about survive a swim session. Just as important, RHYTHM24 also comes with internal memory which safely stores your readings allowing for phone-free training.
There are five training modes and two multi-modes to choose from and a LED battery indicator with lights to indicate heart rate zones. On top of that, the device boasts a heart rate variability (HRV) mode that monitors the time between each heartbeat for stress and recovery tracking. There are also profiles for a number of activities such as swimming, running and cycling.
- Excellent accuracy
- 24 hour battery life
- Internal memory
- Lights to indicate heart rate zones
Bottom line: In our review we found RHYTHM 24 to be light, comfortable and accurate at measuring heart rate. If you are planning to ditch the old chest strap, Scosche’s latest arm band presents one of the best options out there.
Polar’s middle of the road solution features a great design with a few options in term of where you can wear it. There is actually very little not to like. What impresses most, though, is the accuracy of readings. Its close to what you would get with a heart rate chest strap and much better than a wrist based heart rate device. The Polar OH1 comes with BLE/ANT+ connectivity and attaches to swim goggles to measure heart rate from the temple.
Its main competitor is the Scosche Rhythm24. Identical in price, both dish out data of similar quality. In OH1’s favor is better waterproofing, and the fact that it’s smaller and more discreet as all lights are on the underside of the unit.
- Excellent accuracy
- Light, comfortable
- Attaches to swim goggles
- Bluetooth, ANT+ connectivity
Bottom line: Polar has a very competitive standalone optical heart rate sensor in its product range. It’s light, comfortable, has memory for caching, a great software ecosystem and is easy to sync.
Wahoo Tickr FIT
This is another heart rate monitor for those that like accuracy but dislike the chest strap. Similar to its two competitors, the Tickr FIT comes in a comfortable form factor. The elastic band can be slipped on either the inside or outside of the forearm, but unlike its competition not on the upper arm.
The heart rate monitor uses a trio of green LEDs around an optical sensor to ensure accuracy. It comes equipped both with Bluetooth and ANT+ technology to pair with fitness apps, smartphones, and GPS bike computers and watches. There is no internal memory though and its water-resistance rating is only IPX7, so don’t plan on going swimming with it.
- Bluetooth, ANT+ connectivity
- Good value for money
- Weights only 19 grams
- 30 hours of battery life
Bottom line: This is a solid offering that comes in at a reasonable price. If you’re in search for an alternative for a chest strap it may be an option worth considering.
The final device in our overview of the best heart rate monitors is MioPod. It comes with Valencell optical sensor technology to deliver a cleaner signal with less noise than typical heart rate straps. It performs particularly well at high intensity exercises such as HIIT and weight lifting, and can stream heart rate to other devices thanks to NFC / BLE / ANT+ Connectivity.
Whats more the device delivers haptic alerts and LED with colour prompts for heart rate zones. Around 30 hours of biometrics can be stored on the thing, it is swim-proof (5 ATM) and battery life is around 24 hours.
In addition to performance analytics and a personalised training plans, the accompanying smartphone app dishes out a bunch of Firstbeat analytics including Recovery Time, Training Effect and Training Load. The gizmo also plays nice with other apps such as Runkeeper, Strava and Zwift.
- Performs well at HIIT
- Haptic alerts combined with LED prompts
- Internal memory
- Firstbeat Analytics
Bottom line: The most recent addition to this list, the MioPod is a highly accurate device that comes with plenty of useful features. This represents Mio’s first effort since it pulled back from wearables in 2017. We’re glad the company is back and this certainly seems like a solid first offering.
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3 thoughts on “Best heart rate monitor: chest straps & arm bands for exercise”
If you do a follow-up post it would be good to include those wearables that include heart rate and breathing tech directly in the fitness garment.
This is a great article! I really appreciate the time and effort that went into making this article. I was wondering if there are any articles that include recommendations. I was also wondering if the MyZone heart monitor connects to any other apps (like MapMyRun).
For once, some decent data/feedback on questions I have been asking for many years! I have had a heart condition for 13 years and have always used a SUUNTO. It has tracked very well against all ECGs (within 1-2 bpm), however, it can give very wayward results that leave me frustrated at times. For instance, this morning, when I started training, my heart rate suddenly dropped 11bpm, then shot up 26 and started to normalise after about 7 mins…. So I am researching which chest straps are currently the most accurate (as one of my doctors once said- the closer to the heart that you measure, the more accurate the reading will be. If we wanted to use your wrist for ECGs, we’d put the electrodes there!).