Walking into a modern health club it's hard not to feel overwhelmed by the choices. The floor is full of cardio equipment designed to burn calories, improve fitness, and tone muscles. While most fitness equipment will accomplish one or all of these goals to varying degrees, trying to decide which cardio machine is best for you can be a daunting experience even for the most knowledgeable fitness enthusiast.
When choosing home exercise equipment, remember that there is no one best” machine for cardio. Everyone’s needs are different. Each piece of fitness equipment has its positive attributes and the best choice for you will depend on several factors:
- Your age and fitness level
- Whether or not you have or are predisposed to injuries
- Your fitness goals
- Your personal preference
There are several reasons why the elliptical trainer is continues to be the favorite fitness equipment category in both health clubs and home workout settings. First, while elliptical exercise is weight-bearing, it is also low impact, making it an ideal choice for those you are overweight or who wants a joint-friendly alternative to higher-impact cardio exercises such as running. Second, ellipticals offer variety; including adjustable ramps, variable resistance, and reverse motion. Some, such as the Precor® Elliptical Fitness Crosstrainers® (EFX®), offer variable stride motion and upper body levers for a total-body workout. Combined, these features allow you to customize your elliptical workout, from the intensity to the specific muscles used, while at the same time minimizing risk of injuries that are common with other cardio workouts such as treadmill running and stair climbing.
So how do elliptical trainers stack up to other cardio exercise options? Compared to running and stair climbing, research shows that elliptical training is at least, and possibly more, effective for improving cardiovascular fitness. Moreover, a recent study involving subjects with coronary artery disease showed that the Precor EFX elicited greater cardiopulmonary responses than walking on a treadmill at similar levels of perceived exertion. But the elliptical machine benefits don't stop there. Not only has the EFX elliptical been used during rehabilitation to increase aerobic power and anaerobic threshold when high impact training may not be appropriate, but because it closely simulates running motion, it is also an excellent way to cross-train and improve running mechanics. In fact, the elliptical is effective for improving cardiovascular fitness even in elite-level runners.
The elliptical is one of the best cardio machines for weight loss and one of the best low-impact cardio machines. How does it compare to other home gym machines? Let’s take a look.
Treadmills are standard in nearly all fitness settings, and for good reason. The treadmill is an extremely versatile piece of exercise equipment because it requires limited physical ability, is effective for improving overall health, and offers the advantage of being a weight-bearing exercise.
When walking or running on a treadmill, you are primarily using your legs and gluteal muscles. Because these muscles are relatively large, they require more energy. Therefore, you can raise your heartbeat and keep it in its target range, without significant local fatigue. Treadmills also let you vary the intensity by increasing the speed or by increasing the incline. If you are a walker, you can still achieve an effective and calorie rich workout simply by increasing the grade. The treadmill, however, is not without limitations. Because treadmill exercises are weight bearing, it may not be appropriate for individuals who are excessively overweight or who have or are predisposed to injury. For these individuals, a more joint-friendly or non-weight bearing cardio exercise such as an elliptical trainer or stationary bicycle may be a better option.
If you use a treadmill to supplement your workouts or during inclement weather, it is important to realize that running on a home treadmill requires less energy than running at the same speed outdoors. To make up for the discrepancy, a good rule of thumb is to increase the treadmill incline anywhere between 1 to 4 percent if you normally run on flat surfaces. If you run on hilly terrain, however, you may want to increase the incline, even more, using your heart rate as a guide.
The stair climber, or stair stepper, is also a weight-bearing exercise that targets the calves, thighs, and gluteal muscles. Stair climbers have an intuitive motion and are functional and easy to learn for exercisers of all ages and abilities, making them one of best cardio machine for beginners and a great choice for many home gyms.
Compared to running, the stair climber is lower impact and therefore, may be less strenuous on the joints. That said, stair climbing is still a repetitive motion activity and as a result, be careful if you have limited range of motion in your lower extremities or are pre-disposed to injury. Regarding energy expenditure, stair climbing generally requires greater power output than walking or cycling, resulting in higher caloric expenditure for the same amount of time exercising. However, poor posture can quickly diminish this advantage. The most common mistake is to support your body weight with your arms. This decreases the efficiency of your workout by up to 25 percent, not to mention stressing the wrists and elbows.
Stationary exercise bikes have been a mainstay in health clubs for years, and with the advent of group exercise classes focused on cycling, their popularity continues to grow. Because cycling is non-weight bearing, it is an ideal cardio exercise for individuals who cannot participate in a weight-bearing exercise.
While cycling isolates the legs and gluteal muscles, it can also cause local fatigue. As a result, it can be difficult to raise your heart rate to a target range and maintain it there for any length of time. But compared to riding on the streets, riding a stationary bicycle provides many benefits: a smoother ride, more aerobic efficiency, more options for varying the workout intensity, and no traffic to dodge.
Recumbent bikes are getting increasingly popular in many health clubs because they offer many advantages:
- Increased back support, making them amenable to special populations.
- Increased safety because of the wide base and ease of mounting and dismounting.
- The seats tend to be more comfortable than traditional seats.
- They are low impact and non-weight bearing.
The one disadvantage of a recumbent bike is that it can be even more difficult than an upright cycle to reach your target heart rate due to the reclined position. Nonetheless, because the recumbent bike works the gluteal and hamstring muscles more than an upright, it offers a change of pace for cyclists or anyone who simply wants to add variety to their home cardio workouts.
In contrast to the rows of treadmills, stair climbers, and elliptical trainers that are often present in health clubs, rowing machines typically take up only a couple spots, if any at all. The reason has nothing to do with effectiveness, but rather their unfamiliarity to the majority of users. Rowing machines require more skill to use and as a result, are often perceived as difficult to learn. They have also had a reputation as being bad for your back. You can avoid this by correctly initiating the movement from your legs and buttocks.
Rowing machines engage the large muscles of the upper and lower body, making it an effective cardio exercise for raising and sustaining your target heart rate. Rowing is also a non-weight bearing and non-impact exercise making it an excellent alternative for individuals both with and without limitations. While a rowing machine may not be the first choice for most individuals, it is an excellent way to achieve an intermediate to an advanced total-body aerobic workout.
Although all cardio machines offer great health benefits, there may be a cardio machine for your home gym that is better suited to helping you achieve your personal fitness goals. Keep in mind that if you are trying to improve cardiovascular fitness, the intensity you choose will be more important than the specific home exercise equipment. However, if you are training for a specific event, the fitness equipment will also play an important role. For overall health maintenance or weight loss, choosing a cardio machine exercise that you can sustain for forty-five minutes to an hour is your best option. For individuals interested in maintaining or improving bone density, weight-bearing, but not necessarily high impact, exercise is critical. This may include elliptical training, walking or running on a treadmill, or stair climbing, but not rowing or stationary cycling. The bottom line is that regardless of what home exercise equipment you choose, it should be pain-free, and the motions should feel smooth and comfortable.
you are training for a specific event, the modality will also play an important role. For overall health maintenance or weight loss, choosing a modality that you can sustain for forty-five minutes to an hour is your best option. For individuals, particularly women, interested in maintaining or improving bone density, weight-bearing, but not necessarily high impact, exercise is critical. This may include elliptical training, walking or running on a treadmill, or stair climbing, but not rowing or stationary cycling. The bottom line is that regardless of what modality you choose, it should be pain-free and the motions should feel smooth and comfortable.
About Jessica Smith
Jessica Smith Jessica Smith, Fitness Consultant. Jessica has a Master's degree in Bioengineering with an emphasis in biomechanics. She presently has her own consulting business and provides expertise in the areas of health and fitness, exercise physiology, and biomechanics, among others. Jessica has been involved in a number of projects including the development of health and fitness related website content, fitness equipment design, and program development for group exercise classes. She has also authored several articles for fitness magazines. Jessica was a member of the 1990 NCAA championship gymnastics team and is now an avid recreational athlete. She currently holds certifications through the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America and the American College of Sports Medicine.