How Garmin is addressing the needs of women with its new HRM-Fit

The American company have launched its new heart rate monitor, purpose-built for women

There are currently 8.1 billion people in the world – half of those women. But still, many things adopt a "default male" design. Phones are too big for women's hands; crash dummies are based on male physiology, putting women at greater risk of injury during a car crash; safety goggles are too big for women's faces; and even the office environment can be biased towards men. 

This male-first approach is also evident within the sports and performance industry, with only three per cent of research into sport and exercise being about women. This then trickles down into other aspects of sports and performance, such as wearable technology, training programmes, and even sports equipment. Thinking, such as, “It works for men, so it’ll work for women” has been applied to several things – sports and beyond – however, over the past decade, people have started to understand that this is not the case. 

FemTech, a term coined in 2016 to designate technologies developed to improve women’s conditions in fitness and wellness, healthcare, fertility and reproductive help, and pregnancy and family care, has been a driver behind this change. In the sports industry, for example, steps have been taken in an attempt to bridge the gap between men and women. Sportswear brand Lululemon in 2022 launched its Blissful shoe, a women’s specific running shoe designed after scanning over 1,000 women’s feet and analysing the biomechanics of female runners; Nike launched soccer cleats specifically designed for women’s feet anatomy and style of play; and Wild.AI launched its online training platform that syncs a women’s life stages and symptoms to deliver a tailored training, recovery and nutrition plans. 

Garmin has also been catering to the needs of its female demographic with its wearables and activity trackers. For example, Garmin’s smartwatches now feature menstrual cycle tracking, pregnancy tracking, sleep score, body battery, stress score, and enhanced safety features to help women better understand and protect their bodies. The American company also has its range of smartwatches that are more tailored to women, tracking all the same elements its sports-specific watches would, but in a smaller, more lightweight design. 

Going one step further in bridging the tech gap between men and women, Garmin has launched its HRM-Fit, a chest-based heart rate monitor that is purpose-built for women. Its previous heart rate monitors, such as the HRM-Pro Plus, have had chest straps which go around the chest under the sternum. They are favoured by those who enjoy sports or are high-performing athletes because they provide superior heart rate monitoring compared to vests or watches, as the electrodes which measure the data are secure against the skin and can be adjusted to different chest circumferences. However, for women who also need to wear a secure-fitting sports bra for any sport or exercise, having a chest strap and a tight sports bra can lead to discomfort, with chafing and tightness impacting their performance. 

Devices such as heart rate monitors are providing people with detailed information about their bodies and training, but women are suffering and even missing out on this because previous heart rate monitors have not been simple or comfortable for them to use. This was an issue female athletes were experiencing at Garmin, too, and the opportunity to solve this problem arose. 

“As a female athlete, there is a fine balance between finding products that are comfortable, fit properly, and give you all the data. I think often one of those elements is missing,” Julie Henne, product architect at Garmin, said. This sacrifice has been evident in other brands that have attempted to create a heart rate monitor specifically for women, either missing the mark on fit for a range of women or lacking the breast support women need for sports and exercise activities. Even Garmin’s full chest HRM-Pro Plus provides the data and can be adjusted to fit, but is not always comfortable. 

“Chest straps work well for many people – but some athletes find it uncomfortable to wear the two materials [sports bra and HRM] layered together,” added Henne, emphasising the uniqueness of each person, no matter their gender. It’s not just heart rate monitors that are unique – sports bras are also picked on personal preference, and with so many on the market, with different fits, levels of impact, and styles, one sports bra cannot cater to every need. This was something Henne and her team at Garmin were keen to keep in mind throughout the development of the HRM-Fit. 

“When we were trying to explain sports bra fit to men, we’d use the analogy of running shoes. Running shoes are very specific. There’s a reason why there are hundreds, if not thousands, of them out there to choose from,” she stated. “I am a runner and I am very particular about the brands, styles, sizes, and shapes. I think sports bra products are very much the same. The HRM-Fit allows you to use the sports bra you prefer and are already invested in, so you don’t have to change your athletic apparel just to use the heart rate monitor.” 

For Garmin’s female-specific heart rate monitor to be inclusive to as many women as possible, the strap on which the electrodes sit does not go fully around the body, instead, it just sits at the front, under the band of your sports bra and is secured in place with clips. This means there is no issue with bust or chest size for women wanting to wear the heart rate monitor to track their performance. However, it does state on the Garmin website that the HRM-Fit is only compatible with medium or high-support sports bras that have a band width between ¾” to 2” and no front zipper or embellishments. 

Despite being a more inclusive design, women with larger chest sizes still suspect that a sports tech product could work for them, Henne said. “We have had a wide variety of people testing from very small to very large chest circumferences and then bust sizes. We wanted to capture the full range,” Henne reinforced. 

Testing was an important part of the development of the HRM-Fit. From the early prototypes, which Henne said was “taking the current chest straps, cutting them up and gluing different clips or attachments on”, to the more refined prototypes that they sent out to Garmin users and employees who take part in a wide range of sports and activities. The development process sounds reminiscent of the Jogbra, the first ever sports bra to be made, which started as two jockstraps sewn together and has paved the way for better breast health in women’s sports. Hopefully, with Garmin launching this product, we will also see other sports tech brands follow suit, adopting a female-specific approach to some of its products.

“We wore all of our prototypes to see whether they were comfortable and worked as expected,” she added. “Then we started problem-solving and asking questions to make each version better. It came down to needing something with good retention that wasn’t going to damage clothing. We had to find this balance of being easy to use but also meeting our requirements. We had a wide variety of disciplines including mechanical engineers and designers. We would build a prototype and then we would go and run with it.” 

It wasn’t just the fit and comfort that Garmin wanted to achieve with this product, the data it provided also needed to match the data its other heart rate monitors tracked too. “We didn’t want to make a female product and sacrifice any of the data,” Henne said. “It’s a top-of-the-line heart rate monitor, fully featured.” 

With more and more women getting into sport, amateur or professional, it is time that a product like this was brought to the market, giving women of all shapes and sizes the option to track their data, including real-time heart rate, running dynamics, calories, intensity minutes, VO2 max and a breadth of other stats. Henne noted that the popularity of other Garmin products, such as the Lily smartwatch range and features such as menstrual and pregnancy tracking, has demonstrated to the American company that women-specific products are needed and wanted. 

Thankfully, Garmin has women working behind the scenes who want to champion this demographic, pushing for products that are more inclusive to a variety of women, reflecting the growing diverse nature of sport and exercise. But there is still plenty to be done, even with Garmin’s HRM-Fit, the product is £20 more expensive, at £139.99, than the HRM-Pro Plus. This price increase according to Henne is down to a “few factors, but they need to be kept internally”. It can only be assumed that additional materials are one of the reasons as to why the women's heart rate monitor is more expensive, with elements such as the clips adding to the cost of production. However, it does demonstrate that a price disparity between products targeted towards men and women still exists, with women paying up to 32 per cent more than men for the same things

Nevertheless, in driving forward the innovation of women-centric fitness tech, Garmin has not only narrowed the gender gap but also exemplified its commitment to inclusivity in sports performance. While the HRM-Fit represents a significant step, there remains a continuous journey towards refining and expanding these advancements across the industry, as well as looking at how products for all women are priced and marketed. As women increasingly participate in sports and exercise, Garmin's aim to meet their diverse needs underscores a pivotal shift towards a more equitable future in fitness technology, with no need to sacrifice. 

HRM-Fit Review

I was very excited to try Garmin’s new heart rate monitor for women as I always wear my full-strap HRM-Pro Plus on rides, runs and at the gym, but I find it awkward to wear under my sports bra. I don’t experience any chafing with my current heart rate monitor, but the two tight bands layered on top of one another does cause me discomfort.

Upon opening the box, the HRM-Fit looked like a sleek piece of kit in comparison to Garmin’s original monitors, with the band and three clips making up the heart rate monitor. It was simple to put on with the clips securing easily to my sports bra, as long as the band was the correct width. Although Garmin does state on its website that the HRM-Fit is only compatible with specific sports bras, I did try it with one of my sports bras where the band is slightly smaller, and the American company was correct – it did not work. It came off multiple times when I wore it, and I ended up taking it off completely. If you stick to what the brand suggests, the HRM-Fit does firmly stay in place, no matter how intense the workout.

Throughout my time testing the device, I grew to love it, grabbing the HRM-Fit over my HRM-Pro Plus on multiple occasions. I had no tightness or chafing, and I often found that I completely forgot I was wearing a heart rate monitor at all. There was also no missing out on any date, and the HRM-Fit tracked all the stats, from max heart rate to cadence and heart rate zones.

I am a size small in my sports bras, and the HRM-Fit did fit comfortably. But with the heart rate monitor’s design, I can see how chest size does not matter and that it would work with all women looking for a heart rate monitor to track their performance. The battery life for the HRM-Fit is said to be a year, and while the price is slightly more than the full-strap HRM-Pro Plus, I can’t fault Garmin’s new heart rate monitor and will be wearing it for the foreseeable future.

Learn more about the HRM-Fit on Garmin's website

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