The wrist-worn fitness tracker, as a category, is well past its zenith.
Even in 2017, fitness trackers are still little more than overwrought pedometers for disinterested users who’ll probably ditch them after a few months. Many of these devices, which don’t run apps or have most of the capabilities of a smartwatch, have proved capable of basic activity monitoring among casual exercisers and, sure, they may have even helped save a few lives, but on the whole the insights are typically obvious and don’t have much to tell the average user after a week or two.
For high-level athletes, the bands are particularly useless. I’ve already aired my grievances about the current state of fitness trackers, but there’s an important subcategory of the segment that deserves a closer look: Devices that cater unashamedly to performance athletes — those who train for specific goals and sports rather than their overall fitness.
Whoop is probably the most prominent of these juiced-up, hyper-focused wearables. Priced at a luxury-level $500, the minimalist strap has pro-sports bonafides that other brands can only dream of: It’s the first wrist-worn tracker allowed on the field by Major League Baseball, and it’s the official recovery wearable of the NFL Player’s Association. NBA players have even been caught sneaking the bands onto the court, too, proving that its popularity isn’t just due to some well-placed PR and endorsements.
The continuously monitoring wristband measures heart rate and heart-rate variability as well as fatigue levels, and tracks sleep in order to give users calculated “Strain” and “Recovery” scores via its app and online dashboard. The scores determine how close users are to their peak physical condition, and how much they’ve recovered from the previous day’s workouts, which can be used to prevent injury and predict optimal performance.
Whoop is about hacking your performance, not putting something pretty on your wrist.
I’m a glutton for punishment (and a good workout), so when I had a shot at giving Whoop a try, I jumped to take it to learn more about myself. I’ve ramped up my training to a six day-a-week schedule, with Muay Thai sessions, weight room days, and running. This wasn’t just another fitness tracker review — this would be an opportunity to put my own regimen under the microscope.
The bare necessities
Whoop is clearly different than other fitness trackers right out of the box. The minimalist waterproof strap has no screen or display, and the basic nylon band, which is made of what the company calls “nanostretch material,” is stretchy and less sturdy than silicone offerings from the likes of Fitbit and Garmin.
That’s not to say that the design is a problem. The company offers a few other bands that promise more study support, and I appreciated the minimalist approach for a device meant to be worn around the clock. Whoop is about hacking your performance, not putting something pretty on your wrist.
Setup through the Whoop app was more involved than some other wearables I’ve tested, which should come as no surprise since it tracks more data than most. Users enter demographic data like age, height, and weight, along with more abstract info pertaining to how they sleep, their fitness level, and their training goals. The first three days of wear determine a baseline Strain score, which changes as you live with the device.
As sleek as the band is, Whoop’s software is the true star of the show. The app is far and away the best fitness dashboard I’ve used with a wearable, and its online portal offers even more in-depth information. There are separate sections for sleep, strain, and recovery, with readouts tracking progress by the week.
That’s why the Whoop has found so much success at professional levels, as it allows trainers to track performance of groups of athletes in team dashboards. The setup is just as effective for individual training plans, though, especially with its personally tailored sleep-tracking feature.
The strap’s makers developed a useful workaround to allow users to keep the wearable on their wrist 24/7, which is essential to have a complete picture of recovery data. The band’s charging unit slides on top of the strap, so you never have to take off the whole band to juice up. The battery lasts for about two days in my experience, which is somewhat disappointing for a passive device with no outward display.
Tracking activities with Whoop is simple, and the app offers an expansive group of choices that should cover just about every training scenario. Just look at how many are on the list:
You can set up the tracker before you begin training, like I did in the screencap above, or retroactively add an activity once you’ve finished — you can probably review the data to see exactly when your vitals responded to set the exact range of time you were moving around.
I barely noticed the strap on my wrist during workouts, and it fit perfectly underneath my hand wraps and boxing gloves during Muay Thai training sessions. High contact sports might be a bit more challenging with the stretchy band, but I didn’t have a chance to try any out.
Whoop doesn’t just depend on the data it collects to give you feedback about your fitness. The app also prompts users to answer questions about how they feel immediately after an activity is recorded and when they wake up in the morning, which factor into the algorithm that creates the Strain and Recovery scores.
This extra layer of personalization adds a layer to the insights provided by the app, making them more valuable than any generic tips I’ve gotten from other wearables. Whoop tells users exactly how much sleep is needed for the next morning, when a hard workout might be too much for the day, and when you’re at your peak. No other tracker I’ve used gives close to that level of insight.
Putting Whoop to work
Once Whoop got used to my vitals and activity level, it was almost frightening at how accurate it gave me feedback about how I truly felt. When I woke up and had high and strain recovery scores, I had good days; the few times I felt under the weather (or ate and drank too much around Thanksgiving), the app provided affirmation in the form of low scores.
The screenshot below came from a day that I was too sick to go to work. The data backed up how crappy I felt, and the scores stayed low until I felt better.
When I analyzed my whole dataset of after about a month, I was able to track my improvement throughout the period easily through the detailed figures. Narrowing in on a particular week was simple, and even though I might have missed a manual input on a few activities, spikes in my vitals weren’t hard to identify.
Whoop is perfect for people who do activities like CrossFit or Iron Man competitions, where peak performance is essential. I can imagine the straps becoming the next big thing there, where dedication to training is paramount.
Pouring through the numbers showed me exactly how much it would take to really benefit from using Whoop, however. The app gives plenty of useful feedback on a daily basis — but on the larger level, I’d need to consider the set as a whole to tweak my workouts to accelerate gains. That means adjusting my daily routines to dedicate more time to training and the like, and I really don’t have the time or mental energy to do so. There’s a reason I don’t train like I did when I was a pro athlete anymore: I have a day job.
Whoop’s price is also a major deterrent for people who will use the wearable as an extension of their hobbies, rather than an integral tool for their livelihoods. The band costs $500, well beyond any Fitbit and even many versions of the Apple Watch, and it doesn’t actually do anything on your wrist.
I enjoyed my time with Whoop and I know it can do wonders for my training regimen, but I can live without it. My life doesn’t revolve around my workouts like a pro athlete. If you are one, though, stop playing in the bush leagues with trinkets from Fitbit and Polar. This is the tracker you want.
High level biometric tracking • Sleek design • Actionable insights and great app layout
Too many details for casual users • Expensive • No display and iffy battery life
The Bottom Line
Whoop might be the future of high-level training plans, but it’s probably too much to handle for everyday workout warriors. Check it out if you’re willing to put the work in to hack your performance — but leave it to the pros if you can’t commit.