The Best and Worst Cardio Machines at the Gym

The Best and Worst Cardio Machines at the Gym

Love it or hate it, you know cardio can be good for you — research suggests doing four to five cardio workouts per week is ideal for maintaining your heart health.

There are plenty of ways to get the cardio you need — like doing a HIIT workout or heading out for a trail run — but sometimes, your only option is to hit the cardio machines at the gym.

When that happens, how can you maximize your time in the gym so you can, you know, get on with more exciting parts of your day? What is the best cardio machine to use — and which ones should you avoid? Here’s what you need to know.


The Best Cardio Machines

Whether you’re trying to make the most of your time at the gym or you’re shopping for the best cardio machine to have at home, here’s the equipment you can count on for an effective cardio workout.

1. StairMill

Not to be confused with old-school StairMasters, which have oscillating pedals and a small range of motion, the StairMill actually replicates the motion of climbing a flight of stairs — so you’ll get a serious lower-body workout in addition to the cardiovascular benefits.

“This machine has revolving stairs that require you to push yourself to new levels of cardio, strength, and balance,” says Jason Raynor, CSCS, Nike Master Trainer and movement and performance specialist at JW Marriott Chicago. And it’s more versatile than you might expect, Raynor adds, because you can ramp up the difficulty by taking your hands off the rails.

If you want an even tougher leg workout, try Raynor’s challenge: Take steps two at a time for a few minutes, and then turn sideways to hit your outer legs and hips on both sides. Finish by turning around and walking backward up the stairs.

2. Treadmill

The tried-and-true treadmill is a staple in even the most barebones gyms, and for good reason — it’s easy to use and it’s an effective fat-loss tool.

Running on the treadmill doesn’t have to be mind-numbingly boring — if you’re running for weight loss, for example, you can use the treadmill for interval training. And this humble machine has come a long way in the last few years: “High-performance treadmills are taking the market by storm,” says Raynor. From better shock absorption to Bluetooth connectivity to negative inclines, many treadmills come with some crazy-cool features.

3. Spin Bike

A spin bike differs slightly from your average stationary bike — it’s designed to let you stand up comfortably while pedaling, and a smooth flywheel allows for faster speeds and greater resistance.

A spinning workout can burn 500 or more calories per hour, depending on your weight, age, and body composition. And the core-strengthening benefits of spinning are often overlooked, Raynor says — you’ll use your core to balance, and your ab muscles aid in pulling your knees up while pedaling.

4. VersaClimber

The VersaClimber had its original heyday in the ’80s and ’90s. At the time, a small study of collegiate athletes found that the VersaClimber elicited a higher VO2 max than the treadmill or rowing machine — which could explain why it’s been making a comeback.

Sure, you might look like Spider-Man scaling a building while you’re using this cardio machine, but it’s worth it for the total-body workout. You’ll work your upper body using the climbing handles while your legs keep the pace on the pedals. “You need to put it all out there to make it through a workout on this,” Raynor says.

5. Ergometers

When it comes to lower-body workouts that can improve your cardio health, the row ergometer — aka rowing machine — is “the gold standard,” Raynor says. This cardio machine burns mega calories and works your upper back, hamstrings, glutes, and quads.

Another type of ergometer, the ski ergometer, is also gaining popularity. The ski ergometer focuses on the upper body and uses a wheel-and-pulley system to help you tone your arms while getting your heart pumping. “This machine seriously trains your core and arms while hammering your cardiovascular system,” Raynor says.


The Worst Cardio Machines

Any cardio is better than no cardio — but if you want the most effective cardio workout, here are a few machines to avoid.

1. Elliptical

You’ll probably notice a lot of people on the elliptical machines, effortlessly logging miles while they read a magazine, check their phones, or watch TV. That’s part of the appeal of the elliptical, but it doesn’t always translate into noticeable results. “It takes the longest time to burn body fat and is very low intensity,” says Raynor.

And while the elliptical is low-impact, the movement pattern isn’t natural. Raynor cautions that it’s not uncommon to see elliptical users flexing their spine forward or pushing their pelvis backward while pedaling, which can lead to muscle imbalances and injury.

2. Arc Trainer

The movement of the arc trainer is similar to the elliptical, but with suspended pedals instead of a track. Raynor says this cardio machine is also similar to the elliptical in terms of results: “This is another machine to stay away from if you’re looking to increase fitness [efficiently],” he says. “It’s more of a machine to recover on if all others are taken.”

3. Basic Stationary Bike

If you’re new to the gym, the upright bike can be one of the easiest cardio entry points — it’s a familiar movement, and you can adjust your workout to your fitness level.

But it’s important to use the best exercise cycle available to you. Lower-quality stationary bikes “can be bulky and cumbersome, and they don’t adjust to each individual’s body type, which creates an inefficient and sometimes painful workout,” Raynor says.

4. Recumbent Bike

The recumbent bike should be a first choice only for someone who is in pain, recovering from an injury or surgery, or just getting into fitness with a significant amount of weight to lose, says Raynor. Even in that case, he says, a long walk on a treadmill is generally preferable to a ride on a recumbent bike, as you’ll engage more muscles.