Can Fitness Trackers Help Weightlifters and Powerlifters?

Fitbit Charge and Surge

Fitbit Charge and Surge

Fitness trackers – Fitbit, Jawbone UP, Misfit, Garmin, Base Peak, the Apple Watch and many others – have become something of a phenomenon in the fitness industry. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of years, these wearable bands and dongles that track steps, floors climbed, calories burned, heart rate and more, can hardly have passed you by.

You’ll probably also be aware that these fitness bands mainly cater for people focused on cardio – especially walking, running and to a lesser extent cycling – and weight loss rather than those of us training for weightlifting and powerlifting. Your Fitbit or Jawbone will happily tell you how many steps you’ve taken, how many floors you’ve climbed, what distance you’ve covered and how many calories you’ve burned but it doesn’t have any features that directly appeal to someone who spends their time in the gym lifting weights.

So can fitness trackers be of benefit to weightlifters, powerlifters and people trying to get big and strong?

Fitness trackers and lifting

As it happens, I’ve been a regular Fitbit user for the last three years or so. During this time I’ve used it to help manage my weight and more recently, since I got the newer Fitbit Charge HR model, to keep an eye on my heartrate and track my sleep. I’ve been lifting throughout that time so I’ve built up a pretty good idea on how using a fitness tracker can fit in with a weightlifting, powerlifting or general strength training regime. It’s only really since I picked up up a tracker with heart rate monitoring (HRM) that I’ve really found there’s been much crossover to lifting.

More accurate calorie burn

Older fitness trackers rely primarily on steps taken and distance covered to calculate how many calories your body burns. Lifters who are familiar with calculating their total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) and who actively monitor their bodyweight will immediately see a disparity between their tracker’s estimate and the actual number of calories your body consumes. The reason for this is that older trackers don’t take into account that muscles require more energy to recover after resistance training, resulting in a prolonged calorie burn.

Newer fitness bands equipped with HRM technology do a much better job of working out your actual total calories burned. This is because the same recovery process that causes your muscles to repair after lifting means they need more blood to be delivered to them than usual – which requires the heart to beat more often as demonstrated by elevated heart rate. Newer trackers add these changes in heart rate to the equation used to work out calories burned and the result, while not 100% perfect, considerably more accurate.

Get a feel for training stress

HRM enabled fitness bands can also help you get a sense for how much your training is stressing your body. When under stress – such as a heavy bar on your back when squatting, your heart will beat faster to supply blood to the muscles involved in supporting and moving the weight. The more stress, the higher your heart rate, simple. By reviewing your heart rate data, you’ll be able to get a sense of how tough a workout really was, which can give you a feel for how much you had left in the tank or even act as some consolation when you’re simply having a bad day.

It’s worth noting that unless you splash out on a high end, more specialised band like the Base Peak, your fitness tracker probably won’t show realtime information, either on its display or through its app. Especially when looking retrospectively at your data, you won’t be able to see minute-to-minute how your body responded so it’s better to look at the effect of each exercise together or even of a training session as a whole.

Monitor recovery

As we’ve seen, your heart rate can be a good indicator of what’s going on inside your body and keeping an eye on your recovery from training is yet another application for personal fitness trackers. If you find that your heart rate is significantly raised on days when you aren’t training or that it takes a long time to return to normal after training, it might indicate that your recovery isn’t up to par and that you need to look into improving your diet or sleep. It might also be a red flat for other stresses in your life impinging on your recovery.

Most fitness bands also come with sleep tracking functionality, so you can get a better idea of how much sleep you are actually getting and if its of good quality. I avoided sleep tracking for a long time but was pretty astonished by what I found out when I started doing it. I always thought that I got around 7.5-8 hours of sleep per night. Turns out that I actually get more like 6 and a half hours a night – apparently I read for longer before sleep and take longer to fall asleep that I thought I do.

Final thoughts

It’s probably worth mentioning that wearing a fitness band may not be practical, depending on your sport. For weightlifting, I found that a band like the Fitbit Flex interfered with the range of motion of my wrist in the Snatch and Clean & Jerk so I stopped wearing one. Newer models like the Charge are probably better suited because they can be worn further down the wrist but may still get in the way due to the ballistic nature of the lifts. For powerlifting, I’ve had no problem at all wearing a band when squatting, bench pressing and deadlifting; often I forget it’s even there. That said, you might find that you need to take it off when using pulling straps or wrist wraps.

Has anybody else used wearable fitness trackers alongside their weightlifting, powerlifting or strength training? If so, please feel free to share your experience in the comments below.

  • Sam (@TipsOfTheScale)

    Discovered exactly what you described in More Accurate Calorie Burn.

    The 2400-2500 maintenance calorie level that IIFYM and most other calculators determined for my stats – was way off.

    After a week, my new Charge HR tells me I’m closer to 3,000. This is good news, and explains some past plateaus when I *thought* I was eating at a small surplus.