If you are a runner, cyclist, or anyone else looking to get fit, odds are that you’ve encountered heart rate monitors at a certain point of your training. While they are highly functional and help athletes monitor their bodies at all times, they can also be misleading and inaccurate. In the discussion of chest strap vs wristband heart rate monitors people are pretty divided mainly for a few reasons, which I will go through in this article.
Let’s start with the chest straps and see what are their pros as well as their cons as opposed to smartwatches and wrist trackers…
Chest strap benefits
To get a good understanding of your heart rate and the different HR zones you need an accurate tool to measure that. And what better way to measure your beating heart than to put a sensor right above it, right? Well, that is still mostly true but with the advancement of optical sensors, wrist-worn trackers are getting really close to the accuracy of the electrode-based chest straps.
Don’t get me wrong, chest strap HR monitors are still king when it comes to accurate data. Their biggest advantage is that they aren’t that affected by sweat (like wrist ones) and are also very consistent with their results. While wrist trackers often give deviations that can make your hair curl, chest ones are consistently accurate in their readings mainly due to their positioning over the heart and the difference in measuring methods.
While that is great for the chest straps, wristband sensors aren’t slacking and are actively trying to catch up, mainly with the implementation of the same technologies chest straps use but applied to your wrist. Some people say that won’t bring significant improvements but only time will tell, as the newest models still haven’t been put to the test.
The last advantage chest straps have is that they require you to have a smartwatch or a wrist tracker with you. If you are used to bringing your smartphone along on your workouts, you can simply pair it with a Bluetooth-enabled chest strap and get all the data in there on any of the fitness apps such as Strava, NRC, MyFitness, and others.
The most obvious disadvantage with chest strap HR monitors is that they can be uncomfortable to the person wearing them. While most new models come with a wide silicone strap that is pretty low-profile and very gentle on the skin, some cheaper models still come with a traditional cloth/composite strap which rubs against the skin and can cause itches over long workouts. The head unit can also be somewhat bulky in certain models, which can protrude through your clothes and look weird.
The second (and last) advantage these straps have is that they are an extra investment for your gear. While wrist-worn trackers are a single purchase (and often come with chest straps of their own), if you want to get only a chest strap and pair it to your phone you will have to pay for it and the good models are often quite expensive, especially if they are waterproof.
Wrist HR monitors benefits
Wristbands are gaining incredible amounts of popularity as of late. With the improvements in smart technologies and the price drop due to vast competition, they’ve become easily accessible to almost everyone. It is hard to go out nowadays and see a person without a health tracker even if he isn’t workout out at the moment.
All this is because of their major advantage over any other type of tracker – convenience. Nothing beats having a slim, well-designed, lightweight fitness tracker on your wrist that gives you all sorts of information at any given moment. From its most basic function as simply a day clock, these trackers also measure steps, distance travelled, speed, heart rate (most models), and other interesting metrics.
Not to mention that there are some great fitness trackers like the Xiaomi Mi Band 4 that have optical sensors and all the other bells and whistles for a fraction of the cost of a waterproof Garmin chest strap, for instance.
Wristbands are also easier to take on or off and are mostly waterproof, meaning you can take them literally anywhere with you. Chest straps, on the other hand, aren’t really waterproof with the exception of a few models from the big brands like Suunto and Garmin. They are also easier to sleep with if you want to track various metrics of your sleep stages.
Is it all good, though? Well, there are also a few downsides that can put you off and make you stick to the chest strap smartphone combo.
The major disadvantage of these trackers is mainly in their accuracy. While most of them handle resting heart rates fairly well, they start struggling once your heart rate goes up during your workout. Some models give vastly different results the more you sweat and the more you move, which make them practically useless for runners. Those wild inconsistencies are what make people opt for chest strap options.
They also struggle in the battery life department. Some wristbands and smartwatches last no more than 20-30 hours when in full-tracking mode, while chest straps usually have batteries for days, if not weeks worth of workouts.
If you want a few tips on using these devices, head over to my article on how to get the most out of fitness tracker.
Why not both?
Personally, I enjoy having a smartwatch with a chest strap accessory to it. For my more serious workouts and runs, I bring along the strap which gives me accurate readings of my heart rate zones and other metrics, while for simple jogs or recovery runs, I primarily stick to my wrist HR tracker which is often good enough for the job.
So, where do you land on the chest straps vs wristband heart rate monitors debate? Are you a wrist tracker kind of person or you prefer your chest strap, even if can sometimes be a little uncomfortable to wear? Hopefully, by now you will have an idea whether to get a good waterproof fitness tracker for your wrist or just opt for a chest strap and get all the data through your phone or your smartwatch. While both things can exist at once there are some clear pros and cons of owning each of them…