Nowadays, people who train reap all the benefits from the ever-expanding tech world. Whether you are using your smartphone, a smartwatch, or any other type of fitness wearable, you are getting quite a lot of information that was previously inaccessible to most people. HR sensors are becoming more and more common within the fitness community and they’ve unlocked a whole new wave of opportunities to train in specific heart rate zones and allow us to monitor exactly what our cardiovascular system is enduring throughout the day and during our workouts.
Some of the best chest-strapped heart rate monitors come from familiar brands like Garmin and Polar but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other (cheaper) alternatives that are just as good for an avid runner. That is why I decided to make this guide where we will go through all the top models for 2021 and then discuss the various features that you need to take into consideration when making the final choice. Let’s start with a brief comparison between all of the models that I’ve chosen…
Chest-Strapped Heart Rate Monitors Comparison Chart
Best Overall – Polar H10 Heart Rate Monitor Chest Strap
In the world of heart rate monitors, Garmin is known to be a market leader in both quality and tech improvements. Still, brands like Polar give the HRM models from Garmin a run for their money. The H9 was one of the most successful chest straps for the brand and its successor, the H10, is a much-improved option that has superb tracking capabilities and a ton of connectivity options. All that comes in a comfortable and a fairly reasonable package in terms of pricing.
The materials used in this HRM are top notch and are second only to some of the Pro models from Garmin. The strap itself is comfortable dimensions wise, it features a wide strap and a centerpiece that has a removable receiver with silicone dots for electrodes on its inner side. All in all, it is one of the most comfortable straps out there thanks to that wide and flat design.
In terms of connectivity, the H10 really shines. It connects seamlessly with most Bluetooth 4.0 or 5.0 devices (both Android and iOS). It works with iPhones from 5 beyond and other portable devices running on iOS. It can also connect via an ANT+ connection and 5 kHz one which allows it to connect to cycling computers, things like Peloton, or other cheaper wearables. The HRM gets software updates constantly via the Polar Beat app.
The battery here is improved from previous Polar models and can run for almost 400 hours with a single battery. The battery change is easier than it was in the H9 and it easily stays dry even when you take the HRM for a swim. As a whole, if you are looking for a good all-rounder, this is one of your safest bets currently.
- Great all-rounder
- Good battery life
- Good for most type of sports
- Comfortable design
- Silicone electrodes
- Improved connectivity
- Works with ANT+ devices
- Not ideal for swimming
- Not very cheap
- Struggles to connect with certain iPhones
Most Comfortable – Garmin HRM-Pro Premium Heart Rate Strap
When it comes to tracking training data, Garmin is one of the most well-known brands out there. Apart from their watch division, they have some of the best chest-strap heart rate monitors on the market and even if they are also one of the most expensive, they do deliver all the performance you pay for. The Garmin HRM-Pro is the top-of-the-line model from the brand that has everything they can offer. What sets it apart from other HRM straps is that it has Bluetooth. Other than that, it has the typical triathlon functionality, durability, and comfort of other HRM wearables like the HRM-Tri.
In terms of connectivity, this is the best Garmin can provide. It works with both ANT+ and Bluetooth bands but it only works well with its compatible Garmin devices. Other wearables will be able to use some of its functions (like live-HR rate) but won’t be able to tap into the deeper details the strap can provide. Almost all Garmin watches are compatible with the HRM Pro but there still are some models that are left behind without proper connectivity to this heart-rate strap, so make sure you check your model before you order this HRM. Additionally, if your Garmin watch is compatible, the strap will offload any training information it has stored during your workout if you decided to only go out with the strap without taking your watch. The things it tracks and stores are heart rate, vertical oscillation, ground contact time, vertical ratio, stride length, and others.
Lastly, in terms of battery performance, this HRM can last up to one year which is far more than other Pro-level straps. The coin-cell battery can be easily replaced once depleted unlike it is on some other chest-straps. The thing that puts off most potential buyers and beginners is the price tag of this strap. While it does come with all the bells and whistles of a high-end chest-strap HRM, it is also one of the most expensive models on today’s market. If you’re willing to spend the cash, this is a solid bet for any type of training, both indoors and outdoors.
- Very comfortable
- Durable and soft strap
- Wide electrodes on the strap
- 1-year battery life
- Good for all sports
- ANT+ and Bluetooth connectivity
- Works perfectly with compatible Garmin watches
- Very expensive
- Not very comfortable with certain sports bras
- The cloth band absorbs a lot of sweat
- Zwift connectivity issues
Best Budget Option – Powr Labs Heart Rate Monitor Chest Strap
Cheaper HR monitors have gone a long way in the last few years and the Powr Labs Heart Rate monitor chest strap is one of the best examples for this exact progress. It is a relatively budget gadget that works reliably well in various conditions and has a comfortable feel to it, good enough for most beginners.
The Powr Labs HRM has both Bluetooth 4.0 and ANT+ connectivity. Still, there are multiple reports that it struggles to connect with certain apps and fitness equipment like ellipticals, stationary bikes, and more. Still, it does connect to Android phones and other fitness wearables without much issues. The hard part is when you try to use a third-party app to track and record your training progress.
One thing that I dislike about this tracker is that even though it is rated for water submersion, the company advises against swimming with it as it cannot accurately track in water and can be damaged after longer swimming sessions. Still, the IP67 rating should keep it intact on outdoor runs and bike rides in all sorts of weather conditions. As a whole, for this price, this is one of the best chest-strapped trackers on the market, and thanks to its connectivity, long battery life, and relatively comfortable design, it is a solid choice for beginners.
- Great for beginners
- Very cheap
- IP67 rated
- 6+ months of battery life
- Fairly reliable HR readings
- Connects with ANT+ and Bluetooth
- 12 months of service warranty
- Not good for swimming
- Doesn’t have Bluetooth 5.0
- Has trouble connecting to certain apps and fitness equipment
Best for Running – Garmin HRM-Run
The Garmin HRM-Run tracker has always been the go-to tracker for runners, as the name suggests. It brings a familiar Garmin quality to the table combined with all their latest tracking features and dynamic metrics such as vertical oscillation, cadence, ground contact time, stride length, vertical ratio, and ground contact time balance.
The tracker also comes at a decent price, making it super competitive to the rest of the running tracker alternatives. What really sets the HRM series aside, though, is their well-made straps. They are wide, soft, and can take the test of time. One downside to that fabric-like material they are made of is the fact that they absorb way too much sweat during workouts and can accumulate scents over time if you don’t wash them often.
Still, the built-in electrodes in the strap provide a super accurate reading on your heart rate and the real-time data can be sent to any type of Garmin wearable via the on-board Bluetooth connection. As a whole, this isn’t a better alternative than the HRM-Pro but it does come at a cheaper price and is a dedicated runner’s strap, making it a bit more running-oriented, unlike the Pro and Tri models which are geared towards multiple types of activities.
- Measures 6 running metrics
- Real-time data
- Works with most Garmin wearables
- Great battery life
- Very comfortable
- Accurate sensors
- The module isn’t removable anymore
- Longevity is an issue
- There are some known battery changing issues
Best for Swimming – Garmin HRM-Tri Heart Rate Monitor
The Garmin HRM-Tri is the second most capable Garmin chest-strapped heart rate monitor. It is surpassed only by the HRM-Pro which is the top-of-the-line model. One of the main appeals of the Tri is that it comes in cheaper and is also smaller and more comfortable than the Run and Pro models.
Still, even with this battery rating, it cannot beat the battery king which is the Garmin HRM-Dual heart rate monitor, which can last up to 3.5 years on a single battery. Other than that, there have been multiple users complaining that the HRM-Tri drains its new batteries in no time and has connectivity issues every time you swap in a new battery. This particular issue is one of the reasons it is so far down in my list and the main reason I will always recommend the HRM-Pro instead of this one, as the price difference between the two isn’t very significant. If you want to have an HRM with a rechargeable battery, I suggest checking out the Wahoo TICKR X.
One of the best features here, similar to most other newer Garmin heart rate monitors is that the Tri can store up to 20 hours of HR data during your workouts. This includes swimming, cycling, running, and more. In terms of running, it does measure metrics like vertical oscillation, cadence, and ground contact time when you pair it with your Garmin watch (via Bluetooth). Additionally, it also supports HR variability and other improved heart rate metrics.
- Detailed training information
- Good for running, swimming, and cycling
- Stores up to 20 hours of data
- Works with most Garmin wearables
- A lot of battery issues
- The strap fabric isn’t great
Best For Cycling – Wahoo TICKR X Heart Rate Monitor with Memory
Last but not least on this list is the Wahoo TICKR X Heart Rate monitor. It is one of the most famous trackers out there thanks to its recognizable design, budget-friendly price, and straight-forward design. While simple in nature, it also records advanced motion metrics such as running analytics (cadence, oscillation, contact times, and more), as well as rep counting for other types of workouts.
Apart from real-time HR capabilities, the Wahoo tracker can measure and store your training information and sync it later with your smart device. It connects to most devices out there via Bluetooth 5.0 and ANT+. Thanks to the ANT+ connection, it can work with bike computers and GPS watches that use that data transfer protocol. Additionally, the Wahoo Fitness App is amazing and lets you record all sorts of data and later review it in their detailed dashboard. You can also upload your data to other apps like Strava.
The strap is fairly wide and sits on the chest quite comfortably. Its diameter can vary from 23 to 48 inches when fully stretched. The battery inside is a coin cell one and typically lasts up to one year. After that, the replacement is relatively easy to do on your own. There are two LED indicators upfront in order to show you that the tracker is paired and running. On the note of pairing, it works flawlessly with wearables like iWatch, Samsung Gear, and other Android smartwatches. The workout memory is up to 16 hours.
- Good battery life
- Comfortable strap
- LED indicators
- 16 hours of workout storage
- Waterproof up to 5ft
- Connectivity is sometimes tacky
- Wahoo’s quality control isn’t stellar
Chest-Strapped Heart Rate Monitors Buyer’s Guide
In this guide section, I want us to go through a few important questions such as how do these monitors work, what to look for when buying one, how to put one on, what are the most common mistakes, and a few more things that are related to this topic. Even if you haven’t picked a model from the ones listed above, by the end of this part you should be able to pick one based on your own newfound knowledge and research. Now, let’s start with one of the most important questions here…
How Do Wearable Heart Rate Monitors Work?
Chest-strapped HR sensors work by using electrodes. All sensors have a pad on their inner side that makes contact with your skin and is mostly made out of one (or two) metal electrodes. When those touch your skin, they will measure the electrical activity of the heart and send it to the main part of the sensor that acts as a sender/receiver of information. It then transmits the information from the electrical impulses of your heart to your device, be it a wristband or smartphone. In order for those electrodes to work, they need to have moisture around them. That means that the more you are sweating the more accurate those readings will be and the more reliable the information is.
A good contact patch with your skin is also key for accurate readings and is a good enough reason for men to shave the part of their chest that makes contact with the HR monitor’s electrode pad.
If you’re wondering what are the different advantages and disadvantages of using wristband HR monitors vs chest-strapped ones, I highly suggest checking out my detailed article on that topic by clicking here! Now, let’s take a look at all of the individual features that you have to look for when buying your first heart rate monitor.
Features to Look For
Just like with the wristband HR monitors, there are certain similarities when it comes to the type of sensor you are picking and its accuracy. Let’s go through all of the important features one by one now and discuss exactly what to look for in regards to each one:
- Build quality
- Battery & Internal Memory
The accuracy of a heart rate monitor (be it a chest-strapped or a wristband) is one of its most important features. While it also depends on how well you’ve placed it on your chest, proper monitors will rely on more advanced electrodes to ensure proper measurements. While no monitor can guarantee 100% accuracy, most models will be around +/- 5% of your actual heart beat, since the electrodes on them essentially pick up the electricity generated from your heart muscle when it contracts.
When it comes to the build quality, it is essential to understand that it proportionally goes up with the price tag. While cheaper brands will offer you similar accuracy and battery life, they will lack on these two essential features – comfort and long-term durability. Brands like Polar and Garmin really use the highest-grade materials available to ensure that the straps are well-made and durable in any condition. Chest-strapped monitors are constantly exposed to elements when runners train shirtless in the summer heat. Additionally, the plastic, rubber, and other synthetic materials on them have to endure the constant exposure to the salty sweat without degrading. One of the most common signs of poor build quality is the chest strap losing its elasticity and stopping fitting properly to your chest.
One of the biggest obstacles for chest-strapped HR monitors up until a few years ago was putting the electrode and receiver onto your chest without the annoying feeling of a bulge sticking out of your chest (or worse – towards your chest when you’re training).
This is why newer models from Polar and Garmin have pushed for flatter bodies of their chest strap models. That, combined with silicone housings and wider flatter chest bands allows for the heart rate monitor to feel very comfortable and flat against your chest without getting on your way when you’re training.
The best tip I can give you regarding comfort is to look for the widest strap possible. That will ensure it won’t feel like it’s cutting through your skin when you tighten it up.
The connectivity of your chest strap is a very important aspect you should look into. HR monitors can connect to an external device via two ways – Bluetooth or another transfer protocol called ANT+. Technically, there is also a third way via radio waves for budget models but it is becoming less and less popular with the improvement in Bluetooth technologies and the appearance of cheaper Bluetooth smart wearables.
Chest-strapped HR monitors that use ANT+ are often going to have a more reliable signal to their receiver but most smartphones do not have an ANT+ receiver and only operate via Bluetooth. ANT+ is used on most cycling computers, though, meaning an ANT+ chest-strap is going to be very handy for cyclists. Bluetooth chest-straps, on the other hand, are extremely useful as they can connect to pretty much any smartwatch, mobile phone, or even most cycling computers as well.
If you want to learn how to use your fitness tracker or other fitness wearables to burn calories, make sure you read this article!
Battery & Internal Memory
The battery is one of the most essential features of a chest-strapped heart rate monitor. Most monitors come with a standard removable flat battery that can hold a charge for a few good months of workouts. Other more advanced models have rechargeable batteries (via micro-USB or USB-C for the newer ones). These are the best choice as they will save you a few bucks for batteries in the long run. They are also more reliable and have low-battery indicators or notifications on your connected device. Either way, with batteries the golden rule is that the longer the life, the better, so look for monitors that can last as much as possible on a single charge.
Internal memory is only present in models that can store and process data on their own. These are only the highest-end monitors from Garmin, Wahoo, and Polar. Most models will have anywhere around 1 GB of memory, although some other models can have up to 4GB and store information from a ton of workouts spread across weeks or even months.
Last but not least is the price of the HRM. Most monitors will be in the 50-100 dollar range, although some will push the price closer to 150 dollars which is quite a lot. Still, these will offer great amounts of comfort, a ton of features, and will be as accurate as possible while also having superb connectivity and a range of devices they pair easily with. Most chest-strapped heart rate monitors work for years without a hiccup, so any amount of money you spend on them will be quite the long-term investment in your fitness gear.
How To Wear A Chest-Strapped HR Sensor
Even though it might sound simple at first, putting your HR strap has a lot of peculiarities that take a few times to remember. The first and most important part of your HR sensor is the location where you will put it. Every chest-strapped monitor should lay exactly beneath your chest muscles. This ensures it is directly above the heart and will have the most accurate readings possible.
Next, make sure that the electrodes are moistened. If they are plastic, you can simply put a little bit of water on top of them before placing them against the skin. The electrodes are always on the inside of your HR strap. If there are textile electrodes, moisten them by putting them under running water. The moisture will ensure good conductivity between the skin and the electrodes.
Wrap the sensor around your chest and tighten it until it fits snugly. It shouldn’t cause any discomfort or prevent you from breathing or moving normally. Once you are done with that, attach the second part of the sensor if there is one (most sensors have a detachable transmitter).
As with everything else, mistakes are possible. Still, we live we learn, so let’s make sure you don’t repeat some of the mistakes most beginners make. Those are:
- Wearing your HR monitor upside down – most HR monitors won’t perform to the best of their abilities if you wear them upside down
- Not having a snug fit – Just like with wearing them upside down, not having a proper snug fit on the chest-strapped monitor will cause it to read your heart rate falsely.
- Putting the HR monitor at a different location – Those sensors work only if you place them directly below your pectoral (chest) muscles. If you put the sensor on your hand, belly, or another body part, it will most likely not read any pulse at all. There are some sensors that are specialized in reading a pulse from different parts of your body. Forearm band monitors are exactly that.
- Not washing the strap – Forget about not washing it often enough, most people completely forget to wash their straps altogether. Not only can that affect your skin’s health but it can also decrease the strap’s performance and elasticity over time making it more brittle and less flexible.
- Not having a wet contact skin patch – Even if you’re going to sweat during your workout, not putting some water or any other type of liquid between the electrodes of the sensor and your skin before putting it on your chest can cause it to misread your heart rate.
- Not understanding heart rate zones – In order for a chest-strapped monitor to be helpful at all, you need to know what all the data means. This primarily means understanding your HR zones and how to use all 5 of them to your own advantage.
If you want to learn more about heart rate zones and in which to work in order to achieve different results, make sure you check my article on that topic! Now, let’s answer some questions related to the topic…
Frequently Asked Questions
How can you measure your heart rate without a tracker?
Measuring your heart rate without a tracker is actually quite simple and only requires you to have a watch, otherwise, you risk the measuring being inaccurate. Simply place your index and middle fingers at either side of your trachea and feel out your left or right carotid arteries. Alternatively, you can place your fingers at the bottom outside part of your wrist and feel out your pulse until you feel it perfectly. Now, count all the heartbeats for 6 seconds and multiply them by 10. For more accuracy, you can count the heartbeats for 10 seconds and multiply them by 6. The idea is to get the approximate amount of heartbeats for a whole minute (which is the definition of heart rate = beats/min).
What is the difference between Polar H9 and H10?
One of the main reasons between these two high-end trackers is that the H9 doesn’t have any internal memory and cannot store your previous workouts, while the H10 doesn’t rely entirely on a device to store your training data. In simpler terms, this allows you to go out without your phone and not worry about losing any data from your workout.
Can you wear a chest-strapped heart rate monitor all day?
One of the main disadvantages of a chest-strapped HR sensor is that you take it off as soon as you’re done with your workout. This is where wristbands and other similar HR sensors are far more beneficial since you are far more likely to keep them on throughout the whole day (and even the night). Still, most people prefer to endure the slight discomfort of a chest-strap during the day in order to get an accurate reading of their resting HR or other patterns that they want to analyze.
In order to find the best chest-strapped heart rate monitors on today’s market, you will need to take quite a lot of features into account. Primarily, pay attention to the accuracy and type of sensors used in the tracker. Some of the best brands you can go with are Polar, Garmin, and Wahoo. They specialize in building quality trackers that last for years and while they aren’t on the cheap side of the price spectrum, they do deliver quite a lot of performance and accuracy, as well as some great additional features and easy connectivity to a variety of devices!