If you’re trying to get fit, lose weight or improve performance at your favourite sport, it’s well worth adding a heart rate monitor to your gym kit.

Tracking your BPM before, during and after training provides fantastic insights that can make your workouts better targeted, more effective and even more fun. Yes, we did say fun.

Elite athletes have been using heart rate tracking for decades and with chest straps, watches and arm straps with wrist-based optical sensors, headphones and even heart rate monitors you can wear on your head, these days there are plenty of ways to bring heart rate smarts into your workout sessions too.

By strapping on a heart rate monitor and pairing it with the latest apps you can access a whole range of training benefits. There’s real-time, coached heart rate zone training, where you work your body at the right intensity to achieve your goals.

You can track resting heart rate stats to assess your fitness progression – a lower resting heart rate is a sign of improved fitness – and spot fatigue or an incoming cold, you can also identify when to rest and learn how long your body takes to recover. 

Heart rate monitors also power other really useful fitness insights such as supporting more accurate calorie burn stats, offering up information on the training load from your most recent session, helping you know how long your body needs to recover and even enabling estimates of VO2 Max levels – another indication of fitness that used to require complicated lab tests.

And of course you can use it to guide your performance come race day.

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Optical vs ECG

There are different types of technology used to measure heart rate, with the two most popular options being an optical sensor and a electrocardiogram or ECG.

Optical heart rate uses photoplethysmography (PPG), a system where light is fired into the skin and the amount of light scattered by blood flow is then measured.

Changes in the way the light behaves is used to assess heart rate. ECG-based sensors work by detecting electrical signals sent through the heart each time it contracts.

The majority of the time the choice between optical and ECG boils down to where you wear your sensor, this usually means a wrist-based devices or a chest strap.

However, more recently we’re seeing optical sensors being put into products you wear on other parts of the body too, for example in headphones, arm straps and even headbands.

ECG chest straps still offer the most reliable, consistent and accurate way to monitor heart rate thanks to higher sampling rates and the position closer to your heart. However, many people prefer the comfort and convenience of optical sensors built into watches.

Here, we’ve concentrated on straps and bands rather than the huge array of watches. Head over to our list of the best running watches if you’re in the market for one of those.

Compatibility and connectivity

It’s important to consider how your heart monitor connects to the other services and devices you might use in your training, for example whether it will pair with your running watch, cycling computer or the treadmill and stationary bike at your gym.  

The main things to look out for are whether the device carries Bluetooth and/or ANT+ connectivity. When it comes to Bluetooth, look out for Bluetooth Smart, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and Bluetooth 5.0 as these represent the most efficient and up-to-date connection technology.

And don’t forget to check if your monitor is compatible with your favourite fitness tracking apps too. Not all apps play nicely with all sensors and you can usually find compatible device lists displayed in the app settings or on the app websites.  

How we tested

We strapped on our various sensors for a range of fitness activities that included running, swimming, cycling and HIIT workouts. We varied the intensity and the movement to see how they coped with extreme efforts and the more rigorous sessions as well as the slow and steady workouts.

Then we judged them based on comfort, accuracy, convenience and their additional features. And, of course, price.

Polar H10: £76.50, Polar

  • ANT+® heart rate: No
  • Bluetooth: Bluetooth 4.0
  • Weight: 60g
  • Waterproof: 30 metres
  • Swim-tracking: Yes
  • Battery life: 400 hours
  • Built-in memory: 1 session up to 65 hours

If you want to monitor your heart rate with accuracy, the Polar H10 is about as good as it gets. This ECG chest strap has been around for a while now but it’s still the gold standard in BPM tracking. 

Fast and reliable pairing and connection means no wasted time pre-workout and once you’re on the move the H10 is excellent at picking up subtle changes in intensity, and very rapid to respond in real time, something many wrist-based monitors struggle with.

When it comes to comfort, the Polar Pro strap is softer than some and the relatively small sensor doesn’t protrude over the edges of the strap which helps.

It’s easy to put on and adjust thanks to simple fastening clip while silicone dots on the underside of the band also help keep it securely in place, particularly useful in the pool.

There’s enough built-in memory to store the data from a single training session of up to 65 hours, so you can track a session without a phone or a watch and sync your stats later. Another vital feature for swimming. Though you will need your phone to start and end the session, as there’s sadly no automatic workout detection.

The H10 works with all Polar watches and cycle computers along with other products that use Bluetooth. There’s a dedicated Polar Beat smartphone app that features a range of guided workouts with audio updates or you can use the H10 with a broad selection of popular fitness apps such as Strava, RunKeeper and Endomondo. 

Over-the air updates via the partner Polar Flow or Polar Beat app also means the H10 can continue to improve with age and for anyone who likes to video their runs, rides and hikes, the H10 also syncs with some GoPro cameras, to overlay your HR data on those epic shots.

The H10 comes in two sizes covering extra small to small and medium to extra large and in orange, grey, black and turquoise so you can match it to your gym kit.

Buy now 

Polar OH1: £69.50, Polar

  • ANT+® heart rate: No
  • Bluetooth: Bluetooth Smart
  • Weight: 17g
  • Waterproof: 30 metres
  • Swim-tracking: Yes
  • Battery life: 12 hours
  • Built-in memory: Up to 200 hours of training time

One of the new selection of sensors worn around the forearm or bicep, the Polar OH1 is a 6-LED optical heart rate monitor that streams real time heart rate data to any Bluetooth compatible device or gym machine, as well as the Polar Beat app and a range of popular iOS and Android fitness apps. 

The OH1 has an internal memory that can store up to 200 hours of training data, can be updated over the air for future proofing and boasts enough battery life for up to 12 hours of training on a single charge. We’re not huge fans of the small easy-to-lose USB adaptor that’s used to recharge it but that’s the price you pay for going optical rather than ECG. 

The circular sensor – about the size of a fruit pastel – is much smaller than the Wahoo TICKR Fit and the Scosche Rhythm but at 9.5mm thick it protrudes much more.

As result it has a tendency to press into the skin which makes for a good contact (essential for optical sensors) but does leave lasting indents that aren’t great if you’re going sleeveless after your sweat session. Unlike these other arm straps, the sensor can be moved along the strap for more control over the positioning. 

In terms of accuracy while it’s not a match for the Polar H10, where it’s worn and the snug fit means it outperforms wrist-based optical heart rate watches that have a tendency to move around more, particularly during more explosive activities such as sprinting or the dreaded burpees.

So it’s good compromise for those who can’t get on with chest straps but want to monitor heart rate during more active gym sessions. The adjustable band comes in just one size, is machine washable and you can choose from three colours: black, grey and orange. 

Buy now

Garmin HRM-Run: £79.99, Garmin 

  • ANT+® heart rate: Yes
  • Bluetooth: No
  • Weight: 59g
  • Waterproof: 50 metres
  • Swim-tracking: Yes
  • Battery life: Up to 1 year
  • Built-in memory: No

If your sport of choice is running and you want a BPM monitor that tracks more than just your heart rate, the the Garmin HRM-Run is a very solid option.

Part of a series of chest-worn devices that includes the HRM-Swim and the HRM-Tri, in addition to its ECG heart rare skills, the Run’s on board accelerometer also keeps tabs on your torso movement, firing a range of advanced insights on your running form and efficiency to a range of compatible Garmin watches that includes the Fenix and Forerunners. 

The impressive list of six running dynamics includes: cadence, vertical oscillation, ground contact time, ground contact balance, stride length and vertical ratio, all of which can be viewed on a watch like our top pick running watch, the Garmin Forerunner 645, in real time. 

It offers excellent levels of heart rate accuracy at exercise intensities and, depending on which running watch you pair it with, you get access to a powerful selection of BPM-based training insights that includes heart rate zone training with audio and vibrating alerts, calorie burn, fitness age, recovery times and training load.   

As with the Polar H10, the module fits entirely within the width of the strap which helps reduce the chafe risk you get when there’s overhang. The strap is as comfortable as they come but unlike the Polar OH1 you can’t stick it in the wash. 

If you’re a serious swimmer or a triathlete then the Run-Swim and Run-Tri will suit you better but for runners who occasionally take a dip in the pool or swap two feet for two wheels, the HRM-Run is waterproof and will also send heart rate data to Quatix and Tactix watches, as well as VIRB cycle computers. 

Buy now

Wahoo TICKR Fit: £64.99, Wahoo Fitness

  • ANT+® heart rate: Yes
  • Bluetooth: Bluetooth Smart
  • Weight: 59g
  • Waterproof: 1.5 metres
  • Swim-tracking: No
  • Battery life: Up to 30 hours
  • Built-in memory: No

Another optical arm strap that’s slightly cheaper than the Polar OH1, the TICKR Fit offers Bluetooth and ANT+ connectivity. So unlike the OH1 and the Garmin HRM chest straps, it’ll play nicely with a wider range of smartphones, apps, watches and cycle computers.

It’s compatible with Strava, RunKeeper, Nike+ Running, MapMyFitness to name a few and works well with virtual training services such as Zwift. Wahoo also has its own fairly basic dedicated fitness app. 

As with the Polar OH1, the TICKR Fit can be worn on the forearm or upper arm and while the lower position – which is the one recommended by Wahoo – feels a bit strange at first but you soon forget it’s there. In fact, of the armband monitors we tested, this was the most comfortable. 

That’s helped in part because there are two Velcro adjustable bands in the box that cater for pretty much any arm size but the bands are also one-piece material straps, with no clips or clasps to dig or chafe. The module is also rectangular and thin with the sensor only slightly protruding and that makes for a secure fit. 

The TICKR Fit works for running cycling and general fitness classes but it stops short at the edge of the pool. It’s only water resistant up to 1.5 metres so it can cope with rain, sweat and a shower but it’s not a heart rate monitor for those who spend time in the pool as part of their fitness regime. 

One big bonus against the chest straps where you can only tell if it’s working by looking at your phone or watch, the TICKR Fit has useful flashing lights to show it’s powered, connected, tracking and transmitting. 

The battery life is exceptional delivering 30 hours of training time on a single charge. Thankfully that means you only need to carry the small, lightweight charging dock with you on longer trips away from home rather than everyday to the office.

On the downside, there’s no built-in storage so you have to have a phone or watch nearby to capture your workout data.

Buy now

MyZone MZ-3: £129.99, MyZone

  • ANT+® heart rate: Yes
  • Bluetooth: Bluetooth 4.0
  • Waterproof: 10 metres
  • Swim-tracking: Yes but accuracy not guaranteed
  • Battery life: Up to 300 hours
  • Built-in memory: Up to 16 hours of training time

If you’re the kind of person who needs a little extra motivation to work out, the MyZone MZ-3 is it. While other heart rate monitors track your performance and give you readouts, the MZ-3 goes one step further and turns the dreaded burn into a brilliant social game. 

By sharing your data in real-time on screens at participating gyms or with your friends in the partner app, the MZ-3 adds a healthy dose of friendly competition to your regular workouts.

Instead of rewarding speed, distance or your current fitness level, it gives credit for effort by converting your heart rate performance into a points system called MEPs. So whether you’re just starting out on your fitness journey or you’ve already got the cardio engine of a thoroughbred racehorse, everyone competes on a level playing field, and everyone has a chance to show they worked harder. 

And if you don’t fancy challenging the rest of your gym or your friends there are also heart-rate based challenges in the partner smartphone app that you can do in your own time, competing only with yourself.

You can also pair it with compatible Bluetooth and ANT+ watches, apps and devices and just have it power your heart rate stats as you would any other monitor.

The accuracy of the heart rate tracking is up there with the other chest straps on this list though it’s worth noting that the hand-washable MZ-3 strap isn’t as comfortable as the Garmin or the Polar.

However, we can forgive that based on the fact that this unique gamification is something no other heart rate monitor offers. 

Buy now

Scosche Rhythm24: £75.50, Scosche

  • ANT+® heart rate: Yes
  • Bluetooth: Bluetooth Smart
  • Waterproof: 3 metres
  • Swim-tracking: Yes
  • Battery life: Up to 24 hours
  • Built-in memory: Up to 13 hours training time

The Scosche Rhythm+ HRM band was hugely popular thanks to some incredible accuracy that you rarely see away from a chest strap and its successor, the Rhythm24 builds on that heritage with a host of improvements and new features that make this one of the most compelling monitors out there. 

The accuracy is still great and compares favourably to the other arm straps on test and the inclusion of green and yellow optical sensors aim to provide more accurate tracking for a wider range of skin tones, though we didn’t get to test this. 

When it comes to design and comfort, it’s chunkier than its predecessor and the Polar OH1 and the Wahoo TICKR Fit, though that doesn’t make any significant difference to the overall comfort which is good. The band itself is soft, easy to adjust and there’s no Velcro to snag on long sleeve work out gear.

The slightly bigger module is a trade off for the inclusion of NFC, on-board memory and a set of LED lights that conveniently show you the battery life status and cunningly tell you at a glance what heart rate zone you’re working out in, great if you haven’t got a watch or a phone handy to provide that information. 

In terms of compatibility, the Rhythm24 has ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart and works with more than 200 fitness apps, including all the usual suspects. There’s on-board storage we mentioned allows you to record 13 hours of training data phone or watch free and there’s a solid 24 hours of battery life on a single charge.

Sport-wise it’ll handle running, cycling and swimming, making it a really good option for triathletes and Iron Man competitors. 

Buy now

The Verdict: Heart rate monitors

Whether you’re a runner, swimmer, cyclist or triathlete, if you’re happy to put performance and accuracy over comfort, the Polar H10 sets the standard thanks to reliable connectivity, brilliant battery life and a competitive price tag. 

However, Garmin running watch owners who like the idea of the two-for-one improved heart rate accuracy and useful insights to help them improve their running form, should definitely consider the Garmin HRM-Run

And those who hate chest straps but still want a good level of accuracy on two feet, two wheels and in the pool, along with a wide range of compatibility, the Scosche Rhythm24 is the way to go. 

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