Why You Should Use A Chest-Strap Heart Rate Monitor

Hey friends! In the next 5 minutes, we’re going to take a deep dive into the benefits of using a chest-strap heart to monitor workouts, and why I think you should be using one to track your progress.

In a nutshell, using a chest-strap heart rate monitor gives you cold hard data about what’s happening when you get hot and sweaty. Our bodies change in different ways when we’re consistently participating in cardiovascular activities at low intensities, at high intensities, and when doing intervals.

Most of the time we’re pretty successful going by feel and can guesstimate what intensity we’re at— just like when you look out the window to check the weather before you leave the house. In the same way when you’re not quite sure you take an umbrella anyway, using a chest-strap heart rate monitor is great verification that you’re working at the intensity that you want to.

You might have picked up that I’m stressing the phrase “chest-strap heart rate monitor” rather than referring to wrist-based wearable devices, and the reason for that is simple: A wrist-based wearable such as the Apple Watch, FitBit, or Garmin product is not accurate enough to use for real-time exercise monitoring.

Measuring your heart rate is important if you’re tracking interval training, and a chest strap is your best option. Chest-strap based heart rate monitors that measure the electrical signal from your heart will measure intervals with far more accuracy than a wrist-based tracker that uses optical sensors to measure blood flow through the skin. I’ll take a wrist-based measurement over no measurement, but if you really want to make the most of your fitness adventures, using a chest strap is the way to do it. 

Wrist-based wearables are useful for measuring steps or general physical activity through a day, but when we’re holding ourselves to the #SeriousFitness standard, they don’t cut it.  For context, one of my mentors, Brandon Marcello, the world’s leading expert on recovery, said: 

“Using a wearable to track heart rate is like using a random number generator. The Apple Watch is the best on the market and 95% of differences fall within -27 and +29 BPM of the electrocardiogram. Wear a chest strap.”

That range is massive, and because our bodies respond differently to different intensities, better data makes for better workouts.

In modern fitness, it seems like everyone using a heart rate monitor to hold themselves accountable to pushing the intensity, but that’s not how I first started using them. When I started mountain biking 5 years ago I was really strong from the time that I spent powerlifting, but my endurance didn’t match that. I would start rides so fast that 25 minutes later I’d be sitting in the woods trying not to throw up, and used the heart rate monitor to stop myself from going too hard. 

The chest strap can hold you accountable to your desired intensity if you’re prone to going too easy or not hard enough, and it’s really cool to see that as fitness improves, your heart rate actually decreases at certain work outputs.

Let’s say you’re riding a bike for 1 mile at 10 miles an hour – as you develop fitness, you should be able to ride that speed and distance at a lower heart rate.  This means you’re becoming more efficient, which is the goal of endurance exercise.

This is what measurable progress looks like. @WheelsFit has been training consistently and has metrics to back it up!

In the last 5 years I’ve used chest straps from Polar, Wahoo, and now MyZone, which is also what we’ve been using in classes at MFF for the last few years. Also, I’ve been wearing this Whoop strap for the last month, but I’m using it to track sleep, and not intensity during workouts because it’s on my wrist, not on my chest.

If you really want to be a nerd about heart rate training you might also get into Heart Rate Variability, which is a measure of the variation between heart rate that’s used to look at the stress of the central nervous system. Not all heart rate monitors can accurately measure the R-R intervals used for these measurements, but the top ones seem to be the Polar H10, Polar H7, and Wahoo TICKR X.

If you’re new to heart rate training and are giving it a try, I’d recommend FIRST getting one of those chest straps and wearing it for a week or two of your typical workouts before making any changes.  Remember, it should first be verification of intensity. Once you have that confirmation of intensity, you can start making modifications to your training intensity, and I’ll save that information for a future piece.

For now, know this – using a chest-strap heart rate monitor is a great way to validate the intensity of your workouts and track progress over time. We use them in Snatched: Project X and now Heart and Swole at MFF, and my biggest goal is for people to use them in their other activities outside of the Clubhouse, be it biking, hiking, while playing sports, or during any activity you want!

Okay, I’m curious about what experiences you’ve had with a heart rate monitor, so leave a comment and let me know. As always, you can watch these words on HGTV right HERE.

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