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Which Cardio Machine is Best?

Thirty years ago, there were primarily three types of cardio machines in gyms. You could get on a stationary bike, run on a treadmill, or if it was a really well-equipped place, they might offer a rowing machine.

Today two more have joined the standard three. Many gyms now also offer stair-climbers and elliptical trainers. With so many choices, I wanted to know; which is the best to use?

It's simple. Any machine that you enjoy and you're willing to use is the best one. You can't get the benefits of cardio if you avoid exercising, so if you've got a particular machine that you like well enough that you'll actually use it, that's going to be the best one for you.

If you're good about doing your cardio exercises, and choosing between the different machines isn't a big concern, then the best machine for you is the one you're NOT using.

Yes, you read that right. The best machine to use if you do cardio regularly is the one you're NOT using.

When you workout in the gym, ideally, you should change your workouts every 4-8 weeks. That's done to keep your muscles from adapting to a routine. Muscles grow by being stressed, so if they're faced with the same type of stress week after week, there's not as much chance for them to grow.

If all you do is ride a bicycle, your body becomes acclimated to that exercise and it doesn't grow as well. But, if you ride a bicycle for four weeks, then switch to an elliptical for four more weeks, then jog for the next four weeks on a treadmill, your body doesn't have time to get used to any particular routine. A side benefit is that it's more interesting when you keep switching things around.

When you're really up for a challenge, combine machines. Each day you do cardio, choose two machines you'll be working out on. You might start on the treadmill for the first half and then finish up on the stair climber. By mixing it up with different combinations during each workout, you get the advantages of different types of cardio workouts and your routine stays more interesting.

Below are the pluses and minuses of each piece of cardio equipment. We've given them a numerical rating starting at 0 (something a machine doesn't do) up to 3 (functions that the equipment does very well).

0 = Neutral or No Benefit
1 = Performs the Function
2 = Good at Performing the Function
3 = Excellent at Performing the Function

The things we evaluated on all the equipment include the following:

Calorie and Fat Burning - How well does the machine boost calories or raise heart rate?
Ability to Increase Muscle Strength, Mass & Endurance - How effectively does the machine put stress on the muscles to build strength and muscle mass?
Less Stress on Joints - Are your joints protected from repetitive jarring or undue strain?
Ability to Improve Bone Density - Does it promote bone growth or breakdown?
Enjoyment - This is a subjective measurement, so we've left it blank for you to fill in based on your preferences.

Calorie and Fat Burning
Increase Muscle Strength, Mass & Endurance
Less Stress on Joints
Improve Bone Density
Elliptical Trainer

Rowing Machine


Stationary Bike


All the ratings assume someone who's working out in their target heart range and not just walking or using them leisurely.

The Bottom Line:

Treadmill - This machine helps you burn calories and fat faster than any other because there's a moment in each stride when both feet leave the ground. It takes a lot of energy to get airborne, something you don't get with any other equipment we reviewed. Your bones also benefit the most because of the shock they receive when you land. That stress helps make them stronger. The downside is how it treats your joints. While most modern treadmills have platforms designed to reduce stress on the knees, for people with knee problems, even that small amount may be too much.

Elliptical - It's not quite as good as a treadmill for calorie and fat burning, but since you don't get airborne at any point, it's much easier on the knees, hips and back.

Stair-Climber - This can provide a really good workout, but you have to avoid cheating. Make sure to take larger steps, working through a full range of motion and don't hang onto the rails.

Rowing Machine - For a total body workout, the rowing machine is your best option. It's also the only one we reviewed that can be configured for someone without lower body mobility.

Stationary Bike - The least effective machine overall is the stationary bike because of the way it isolates the thigh muscles. That isolation makes it more challenging to train as intensely as on other equipment. Stationary bikes also aren't "weight-bearing" machines. All your weight rests on your butt while you're sitting. With very little stress on the leg bones, neither mass nor density grow as much doing this exercise.

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