Even though today’s technologies have advanced to a point where they can measure your heartbeat rate at any moment, you still need to know how to measure your heart rate without a tracker for those moments you want to get a quick read without needing your phone or smartwatch. That can be immediately after you wake up to measure your resting HR, or during an intensive workout during which you want to see if the tracker’s data is accurate.
Before we go through some of the best methods to get a precise read on your heart’s state, let’s see which are the most important metrics you need to pay attention to.
Heart Rate Metrics
Even if you aren’t an active athlete, knowing the difference between a resting heart rate, maximum heart rate, and heart rate reserve can be of importance for your overall health.
Resting Heart Rate
Whenever you are staying still without moving too much, your heart beats fast enough just to keep your body running and to fulfil the basic fuel needs. This is called the resting rate of the heart. While it can be measured at any point, it is advisable to not move around at least 30 minutes before taking it. Even better, taking your resting heart rate first things in the morning before you get out of bed is proven to be the most accurate way to track this metric.
Maximum Heart Rate
The maximum heart rate (HRMax), as the name suggests, is the maximum amount of beats per minute your heart can safely do. There are a few ways to calculate it, the simplest method is to take 220 and subtract your age. For example, if you are 30 years old, your maximum heart rate is 190. This means that you should try not going above it during workouts. That maximum HR will also later determine your heart rate reserve and the various heart rate zones.
Heart Rate Reserve
The difference between your HRMax and your resting HR is called heart rate reserve. It is primarily used to determine your ideal training zone.
If you want to learn more about your heart rate and the different HR zones you can train in, head over to my full article on that topic.
Methods to measure your HR
While there are a few places around your body where you can detect a pulse and, therefore, measure the heart rate, you need to first understand the principles of calculating it. Your heart rate is the beats your heart does per minute. So, if you catch a pulse somewhere on your body you have a few options.
- Count the heartbeats for 6 seconds and multiply by 10
- Count the heartbeats for 10 seconds and multiply that by 6
- Count the heartbeats for 15 seconds and multiply by 4
- Count your heartbeats for 30 seconds and multiply by 2
- Count your heartbeats throughout a full minute
The longer you count the more accurate your readings will be but also the broader they will be. For instance, if you count 1 full minute, you will get an accurate reading on the heart rate but over that 1-minute duration. So, if you want to know exactly how fast your heart is beating during an exercise or immediately after it, you can use the 6-second method, since your body will slowly recover in the following 1 minute and that will effectively lower your results.
Now, let’s see which are the places where you can get a reliable pulse. Those are usually arteries around your body since arteries are far better than veins at giving you a reading on your pulse when you gently press them. If you gently press a vein you will most likely fully close it and it won’t pulse at all.
The carotid artery is fairly easy to find. Even better, there are two of them on both sides of your trachea. To check the pulse of that artery, gently press your index and middle fingers on either of the sides of your windpipe right below the jaw. Move your fingers around until you feel a clear pulse and start counting using one of the formulas I gave you above.
This is the method most commonly used by physicians mainly due to the accessibility of the radial artery. Again, press gently with your index and middle finger on the opposite hand right beneath the thumb. Move around, feel the pulse and start counting.
When measuring your pulse with your fingers, make sure you don’t use the thumb as it has an artery of its own and that might confuse your readings.
The brachial method is rarely used in adults but is common in children and younger teenagers. Bend your arm slightly and point to the ceiling with it. Put your fingers between the sharp part of your elbow bone and the crook of the elbow. Then, move an inch closer to your armpit and feel around until you find the artery. You might have to press harder with this method but you will eventually feel the pulse.
The pedal pulse can be measured by placing your fingers on top of your foot around its highest point. Move the fingers along the bone or either of its sides until you feel the pulsing of the artery.
If having a tracker is something you’ve always had your mind set on, then I suggest checking out my buyer’s guide on some of the best waterproof fitness trackers on today’s market.
There are other accessible arteries around your body but these are usually the four main ones athletes and physicians use to determine one’s HR.
Knowing how to measure your heart rate without a tracker is a vital skill which will not only prove helpful when you are working out but can help you in an emergency. There are a few different arteries around your body which are easily accessible for you to gently press and get a reading on your heart’s pulse but the one that is used most often is the carotid artery as it is the easiest to reach and also the most powerful.