Last Updated: 02/17/2020
Which heart-rate monitor should you choose if you’re not an elite runner, cyclist or triathlete and you want to drop some body fat? In this post I’ll give some suggestions based on my opinions and current monitor availability.
I’ve been training my own body for 38 years and until about July of 2014 I focused 90% of it on strength training and bodybuilding. Since then I started doing Crossfit once a week and the demands of that training modality are such that I have to give aerobic conditioning three days a week of direct attention or I simply won’t perform well. Even so? I’m not a cardio junkie. Two of my three sessions per week are 30 minutes and one is 40 minutes. That’s it. But let me tell you – I make my sessions count and I use a heart-rate monitor for nearly every session.
Since July of 2014 my aerobic fitness has improved, according to well-established standards, from the upper end of “Poor” to the lower end of “Excellent.” I attribute my improvements thus far to goal setting, ass-busting work, a willingness to endure periods of training at 95% of maximum heart rate, and the feedback I get by training with a heart-rate monitor.
My cardio sessions typically involve an elliptical or step mill, or air bike or rower. These are all low impact and don’t tear up my back or knees.
WHY USE A HEART-RATE MONITOR AS AN AMATEUR?
There are literally books written on this subject. One book I can recommend is Total Heart Rate Training by elite endurance Coach Joe Friel. Friel is highly respected in the field of endurance training. In this one of many books he’s written you’ll learn all the nooks and crannies of why using a heart-rate monitor makes sense and how best to use it. Friel has a blog of course and you can read to your heart’s content about endurance training HERE.
In my opinion the amateur “urban athlete” who wants to improve fitness and strip body fat can use a heart-rate monitor to receive objective feedback about their workouts of all kinds. Just as strength athletes often times keep meticulous records of their training sessions for the purpose of incrementally improving, the cardio trainer and strength trainer can use a heart-rate monitor to determine where they are currently, what their norms are and whether they are really working as hard as they think they are.
A lot of people who walk, jog, swim, bike, elliptical or take group classes to improve fitness and lose body fat do so only with their perceived exertion to guide them. In exercise science there is something called Ratings of Perceived Exertion. (RPE)
The RPE scale is used to measure the intensity of your exercise. The RPE scale runs from 0 – 10. The numbers below relate to phrases used to rate how easy or difficult you find an activity. For example, 0 (nothing at all) would be how you feel when sitting in a chair; 10 (very, very heavy) is how you feel at the end of an exercise stress test or after a very difficult activity.
0 – Nothing at all
0.5 – Just noticeable
1 – Very light
2 – Light
3 – Moderate
4 – Somewhat heavy
5 – Heavy
7 – Very heavy
10 – Very, very heavy
The RPE can work well for some – not so well for others – not unlike just about anything in fitness. Regardless of whether someone uses the RPE as their guide it’s very very difficult to exclusively use RPE to make those all-important incremental improvements that eventually turn into really significant improvements over time. If you’re only using RPE can you easily tell if you are pushing yourself just a little bit more? Sometimes yes, often times no. This is where a heart-rate monitor comes in.
By using a heart-rate monitor you’ll be able to tell if you pushed a cardio session a little harder than in prior sessions. Maybe your average heart rate was a little higher. Maybe your max heart rate achieved was a little higher. You’ll be able to tell if your cardiovascular system is truly strengthening. How? You’ll be able to do more work, cover more ground, faster without your heart rate going up as high as it did when you began in a deconditioned state. By using a heart-rate monitor you’ll receive the data and know instead of guessing.
I’m not training for some particular athletic event. I’m just training to improve cardiovascular fitness and burn calories. Every cardio session isn’t an attempt to push harder than the last. That’s just not smart training. But when it’s time to push I have heart-rate data and more to guide my during-the-workout decisions about how hard to really push. I really use the data DURING the workout. I can also use the heart-rate data to make sure a cardio session is more of a true recovery workout rather than a get-stronger workout. By having the heart rate data I can make sure I don’t push too hard too often.
Because I have very specific data involving heart rate since July 2014 I am able to see that I’m improving. Regardless of the cardio method when I can do more work in less time, maintain watts (power output) that are higher at a lower heart rate than years ago etc this is motivating! And that really is a primary reason for a heart-rate monitor – data can be motivating! It can help you, during your workout, to push a little harder or back things off. It helps you to know what is really going on rather than always training by the seat of your pants – by feel.
There’s a lot more to what you can do with monitoring heart rate, distance, speed, power, calories burned and more. Many heart-rate monitors are mini-computers and provide a LOT more data than just heart rate. But at a minimum, to stay on point for the purpose of this article,
having data relating to your heart rate can turn less effective “seat of pants” training into a more objective, effective and motivating experience.
You are likely to get more bang for your exercise buck if you utilize a heart-rate monitor.
Polar and Garmin are the leaders in the field of heart-rate monitors.
If you don’t want to pay off the national debt, then Polar is usually the lower-cost, well-respected leader. Garmin is usually more expensive, for the most part, across the board but is usually more feature rich.
Important! If you are wanting to use indoor cardio equipment that provides a display of your heart rate then Polar is the preferred product because nearly all indoor cardio equipment will sync with your Polar chest strap but the same cannot be said about Garmin. Many indoor cardio pieces do not sync with Garmin.
Depending on whether you will always train with your phone on your body or at least in the same room as your training then the Polar H10 that syncs with your smart phone is probably the very best solution. The advantage of that unit is there is no watch to wear – just use your phone for all the data display and reporting etc. It will sync with Facebook and Twitter as well. Because it’s using your phone for display you also get the GPS features of your phone so your speed, distance and course you traveled are tracked. That’s very cool and for about $100 bucks? It’s a heck of a bargain.
A potential disadvantage of the H10, depending on your training modality, is whether it’s easy for you to look at your phone during the workout and whether all of your training is with your phone on your person or if you leave the room where your phone is – you’ll lose the connection.
For the most-accurate heart rate and calories burned the units WITH a chest strap are generally recognized as better. The H10, of course, has a chest strap because the H10 is ONLY a chest strap (because it connects to your phone for display).
If you buy the H10 you can, at some point if you want, buy a Polar watch (without a strap) and the H10 will sync with the watch (Apple Watch too) as well. Sometimes you just want to be able to see your watch while you’re doing your cardio but you might also like the graphic representation that the APP on your phone will provide. With the H10 strap it’ll sync to both your phone and your watch for the very best of both worlds.
I welcome your feedback. What heart-rate monitor do you use? Why do you like it?
Until next time,