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What is the most effective cardio machine in the gym?

Ask yourself these questions every time you enter the gym to determine the best way to get your heart rate up.

by Brianna Steinhilber /
The treadmill is the best option if you're training for a race or trying to lose weight.Harold Lee Miller / Getty Images
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As if getting yourself to the gym didn’t take enough mental power, once you get there you’re faced with a building full of equipment to navigate. You narrow down your workout plan to cardio, which helps, but then find yourself staring down a handful of machines that will all get the job done.

Should you hop on the treadmill? Maybe the elliptical or stationary bike is a better option. You have heard the StairMaster is a real calorie burner. Which workout is your best bet?

It turns out they all are — but for different reasons.

“The first step in identifying the best cardio machine is to get clear on your goals,” says Rachel Southard, Director of Personal Training Operations for Anytime Fitness. “Are you training for performance; want to run a marathon or compete in a fitness competition? Are you training for health benefits; do you need to lower your blood pressure or get your diabetes under control? Are your goals more aesthetic; do you just want to feel confident in your two piece at the pool this summer? How you answer those questions would determine the best cardio machine for you.”

Once you’ve narrowed down your specific goals, certain machines will rise to the top as the most effective for getting you there.

Treadmill

The best option if:

  • you’re training for a race
  • you're trying to lose weight

“If you're training for a running event such as a 5k or a marathon, you should be spending the majority of your time on the treadmill,” says Southard. “A runner should run to improve performance, this is known as the Specificity of Training Principle. To increase your endurance, you should slowly increase your distance each week, not increasing more than 10 percent each week to avoid any overuse injuries. To increase your speed, you should add intervals into your training plan. For example, warm-up with a jog for 5 minutes. Then start your intervals; Sprint as fast as you can for 20 seconds, walk for 60 seconds. Repeat 8 rounds. Cool-down with a walk for 5 minutes. This type of interval training is also known as HIIT, High Intensity Interval Training, and it's the most efficient way to burn fat.”

If you are trying to lose weight the treadmill is also a smart option: “Walking and running are weight-bearing exercises that burn more calories than non-weight bearing exercises such as the stationary bike,” adds Southard.

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Elliptical

Best option if:

  • you want a full-body, low-impact workout
  • you struggle with balance

“If done correctly, there is minimal impact on the hip, knee and ankle joints as compared to other high impact exercises such as running,” says Southard. “Unlike most other cardio machines, the elliptical can also give you a full-body workout if you use the handles. The most effective way to take full advantage of this machine is to push and pull the handles while engaging your core, using your upper legs to drive the movement. The elliptical is a great choice for clients that may struggle with balance as it may be a bit safer than the treadmill since your feet never leave the pedals.”

StairMaster

Best option if:

  • you're looking to build lower-body strength
  • you're trying to lose weight

“The StairMaster is a great alternative to walking on the treadmill if you're looking to lose weight,” says Southard. “When you compare low-intensity treadmill exercises, such as walking, to the same intensity of walking on the StairMaster, you burn much more calories on the StairMaster. Walking on the treadmill is much more efficient than climbing stairs, which means your body doesn't have to burn as many calories to get the work done.”

One caveat: If you typically run on the treadmill, and are trying to lose weight, then that is still the best option. “When you compare high intensity treadmill exercise, such as running, to higher intensity StairMaster, the treadmill wins out,” says Southard. “The StairMaster is a cardio and strength exercise for your legs, whereas running on the treadmill is mostly cardio. Therefore, your body burns more calories running on the treadmill versus higher intensity on the StairMaster."

But if you’re looking to tone your lower body, it’s worthwhile to add the StairMaster to your routine. “Keep in mind that because the StairMaster engages resistance training in your lower extremities, it's a great choice if you're looking to build strength and endurance in your legs while also getting in some cardio,” says Southard.

Stationary Bike

Best option if:

  • you have back or lower-body injuries
  • your upper body is sore

“Again, if you're training for an event that involves cycling, your training regimen should include a heavy dose of the bike,” says Southard. “Just like on the treadmill, you should alternate your workouts with distance rides and sprint intervals to increase overall performance. “

What if you aren’t training for a bike race? "The bike isn't just for performance athletes,” says Southard. “The bike is a great piece of equipment for folks that have spine or lower extremity issues. The bike is also a great choice following an intense upper body strength day when your arms may be fatigued. If you're looking for fat loss or overall weight loss, crank up the intervals and fall in love with HIIT to get the most bang for your buck.”

Rowing machine

Best option if:

  • you’re sore from yesterday’s workout
  • you're looking to increase your endurance with low-impact on your joints

Often overlooked in the corner of the gym, Caley Crawford, Director of Education for Row House, says that the rowing machine — or ergometer (erg, for short) — is actually one of the most effective, and underutilized, cardio machines.

Related

“The erg is an all-encompassing machine, offering the caliber of endurance and stamina that the treadmill gives you, as well as providing a low-impact experience for your joints,” she says. “The amount of muscular activation (85 percent) in rowing is higher than other activities using machines like the treadmill or elliptical, making it the most effective machine in the gym.”

It’s also a great option for people looking for a low impact exercise, or who may be sore or recovering from a tough workout the day before. “You can use the erg daily, without hindering your physical progress,” says Crawford. “Rowing is a low-impact movement, reducing the risk of injury. You can use the machine for aerobic training, anaerobic training or muscular recovery, depending on what your body needs that day.”

If you’re pressed for time, it may also be a good day to hop on a rower. “You can get a solid workout in just 20 minutes with the erg,” says Crawford. “Throw in a blend of timed intervals and power strokes (start with a series of 10 powerful strokes) and you’ll be smoked in 20 minutes.”

One important note: You’ll need to know how to row correctly in order to gain the maximum benefits the machine can offer, says Crawford. So be sure to ask a trainer in the gym for a quick primer before hopping on — or check out a rowing class to learn the basics before incorporating it into workouts on your own.

The Takeaway: Mix it Up

The moral of the story? No one machine is better than the rest. Each one offers up specific benefits that will better serve you at different points in your fitness journey as your goals evolve and change. Instead of defaulting to the same machine when it's time to log some cardio, take advantage of what each has to offer and incorporate them into your routine accordingly.

“One thing to remember, our bodies adapt quickly. What gives you the most bang for your buck at the beginning, will quickly start to disappoint your results if you don't change up either the modality or intensity of the exercise,” says Southard. “So don't fall in love with one machine. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable and mix it up!”

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