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How to Choose a Heart Rate Monitor

By Marc Perry / July 1, 2017

It can be very challenging finding a heart rate monitor that fits your budget and your needs because there are thousands to choose from. I created a 7 step checklist you can follow to make the process MUCH easier. I also give you my top pick for a great heart rate monitor that doesn’t break your wallet.

1) Heart Rate Reading Should Be Easily Visible

Believe it or not, most heart rate monitors don’t make the heart rate reading easily visible on the display. I know, it’s crazy. Polar heart rate monitors, which are considered “best of breed” are notorious for making the heart rate reading extremely small and even worse, hard to find!

2) Heart Rate Monitor Should Be Easy to Use

I’ve never come across a monitor that was “user friendly”, just some that were less difficult to use, or not impossible to use. I don’t want to keep on bashing Polar, but you need to be a rocket scientist to figure out how to use most of their models. They have too many features and it’s difficult to figure out how to set your target heart rate, which is what’s really important.

3) Target Heart Rate Zone Functionality

I think other than seeing your heart rate, setting your heart rate target zone is the only feature you really need (unless you’re a triathlete, or serious runner/cyclist). In other words, you want to be able to set the monitor so that if your heart rate goes below a certain level, it beeps, and above a certain level it beeps. That’s really all most people need.

If you’re looking for more advanced features like tracking workouts, or runs with GPS, I would say go for a Garmin (such as Garmin 305), or a Polar which are expensive, but can be very useful.

4) Heart Rate Monitor Must Be Responsive

Some heart rate monitors will have a long delay in reporting the reading as you are working out. For example, if you start to increase the pace while you’re running, one minute you see your heart rate at 140 bpm, and the next thing you know it jumps from 140bpm to 180bpm. Ideally, the monitor should be able to continuously track your heart rate, so you don’t have these massive jumps up and down.

5) Heart Rate Monitor Must Be Accurate

Many of the heart rate monitors you get that don’t have a chest strap may not be accurate. Instead, they take your pulse under your wrist, or on your finger, and some you have to stop working out and put your thumb on a metal button. While I think these heart rate monitors are pretty accurate (despite what salespeople at the store might tell you), you should go with a chest strap for best accuracy and responsiveness. In addition, heart rate monitors with accompanying chest straps can be used seamlessly with most cardio equipment so the treadmill, elliptical, or stationary bike picks up your heart rate perfectly.

One issue with some heart rate monitors is that they can pick up signals from other heart rate monitors, which makes the heart rate reading go haywire. I’ve never had an issue before, but more expensive models $100+ use a coded transmission to ensure this problem doesn’t happen.

6) Comfortable Chest Strap

While I haven’t been so nice to Polar, they have very comfortable chest straps. Given that you have to wear your heart rate monitor against your bare skin and sweat with it, comfort is pretty important. An uncomfortable chest strep should not be a consideration. Expensive monitors ($100+) come with a soft, easily flexible chest strap, while most sub $100 monitors come with a plastic, inflexible shield.

7) Aesthetically Pleasing (Looks Cool)

I’m guessing you don’t want a heart rate monitor that looks like your grandma gave it to you, but a lot of monitors are plain ugly. On the other hand, some heart rate monitors are almost fashion items like the PUMA Unisex Monitor and MioPINK Motiva Monitor. Of course, appearance is a personal preference, so that’s up to you.

BuiltLean Top Pick: Timex T5G971 Heart Rate Monitortarget="_blank">

Quick Review:
My take is you don’t need the bells and whistles in most high priced heart rate monitors. This Timex monitor probably has more features than you even need, and it’s easy to use, reliable, and it’s under $50. The one downside is that the chest strap is not as comfortable as a Polar, but I’ve never had a problem with it.

Primary Features
-Easily readable display
-Target zones and time in zone
-Activity time and average/peak heart rates
-Waterproof up to 50m
-Up to 2 year battery life

For now, I’m standing by my recommendation, but if you have a better heart rate monitor that’s a good value to recommend, leave a comment!


  • Liz says:

    Polar F4 is great! User friendly- big HR numbers to read- a back light that is especially useful while in a dark studio like a spinning studio, and tracks everything in a simple manner. Basic. I'd rather work out than work on a programming a watch. The watch isn't as cute as me...but whatever, I wear it to the gym, not Le Cirque. The MioPINK Motiva Monitor you mention was purchased by my best friend for the aesthetic element and it's a pain to set and not nearly as user friendly. HR monitors have drastically changed the way I work out. I strongly urge people to invest in them.

  • Marc Perry says:

    Thanks Liz for the thorough comment. I am aware of the Polar F4, but haven't checked it out in a while. I think it's still $100, but may be worth the price. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • Dara Mazzie says:

    I am wondering if heart rate monitors truly give an accurate measure of calories burned? Some of my clients show numbers that just don't make sense!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Dara Mazzie - That's a great question, Dara! The short answer is that I would not trust a heart rate monitor to measure calorie burn at all. There are couple primary reasons:

      1) If you get excited, or nervous, your heart rate increases. Doesn't mean you are burning many calories though, right?

      2) Calorie burn calculators based on heart rate do not take into account your lean body mass. They are usually based on the Harris Benedict method of body weight, age, and sex, not body fat percentage.

      I wrote an article on how to calculate calorie burn that goes into detail about some of the intricacies of calculating calorie burn, along with my preferred method, which is using the Katch & Mccardle method. I've personally never been concerned with how many calories I was burning during a workout, because I don't think it makes much of a difference whether I burn 300, or 500 calories over the long term. The nutrition side, as I'm sure you know, is what makes more of an impact in creating a calorie deficit.

      • Dara Mazzie says:

        Thanks for the thoughtful response Marc!

  • bianca says:

    I am pregnant and when I work out my heart rate shouldn't go higher than 120bpm. It is distracting to keep having to stop and check my rate by looking at a watch or measuring it on a device. Please help me find a watch that i can program to beep to notify me that I have gone past 120bpm. Thank you

    • Kristin Rooke, CPT says:

      Hi Bianca - first and foremost, congratulations! Ok, on to your question about heart rate monitors - I recommend getting a polar heart rate monitor and watch. Their watches have multiple settings, including a beep function that lets you know when you're outside of your target heart rate zone. If, at some point, you no longer want the beep function, you can also turn it off. Check out that heart rate monitor, and let us know what you think! If you have more questions, feel free to ask.

      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor