Cardio machines at a gym

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Best Cardio Machine: What Science Says After 4-Weeks of Testing

In 1996, 13 men and women were tested over 4-weeks to see what cardio machine kicked their butts the most, here are the results.

Close up of somebody running on a treadmill

1. Treadmill
2. Rowing Machine
3. Ski Machine
4. Stair Steppers
5. Airdyne Bikes
6. Upright Bikes
7. Ellipticals
8. Recumbent Bikes

The study compared six cardio machines: treadmill, Airdyne bike, upright bike, rowing machine, cross-country skiing simulator, and stair stepper.

It took place over 4-weeks with 13 men and women, and compared three metrics: exerted energy, heart rate, and lactic acid build-up.

1. Treadmills

Close up of somebody running on a treadmill

The treadmill was rated the best overall exercise machine. It exerted the most amount of energy across all 13 participants (8 men, 5 women) and produced the highest heart rate (on average).

2. Stair Steppers

Woman exercising on stair stepper at gym

The stair stepper was a close second. It was responsible for some of the highest heart rates and most amount of lactic acid build up.

3. Ski Machines

Man using cross country skiing simulator

The cross-country skiing simulator required more energy than both the Airdyne bike and regular upright bike. It’s a complete workout and engages virtually all of the muscles in your body. Great for anyone looking to lose weight and burn belly fat. The only downside is the machine is pretty big, expensive, and hard to find.

4. Rowing Machines

Woman exercising on rowing machine at gym

The rowing machine fell into the same category as the skiing simulator, it required more energy than both exercise bikes (upright and Airdyne) and was responsible for producing the most amount of lactic acid. In other words, this thing can and will kick your butt if you let it!

5. Airdyne Bikes

Man and woman each riding airdyne spin bike inside gym

The Airdyne spin bike performed among the lowest of all cardio machines but that’s not to say it’s a bad workout — it’s just not the best comparatively. Airdyne bikes are a fairly complete workout since they engage most muscle groups. As you pedal with your feet you can simultaneously push/pull with your arms and back muscles which can get exhausting.

6. Upright Bikes

Man riding upright exercise bike in home

Upright bikes are one step below Airdyne bikes as they don’t have the same dual-action capabilities. You’re not targeting your upper body whatsoever. They’re still effective but you have to focus on using them properly. Spin bikes can be a great way to lose weight because you can use them for HIIT training (high-intensity interval training).

7. Ellipticals

Row of ellipticals in the gym

Ellipticals weren’t included in the study — which is pretty indicative of their intensity level — but they’re included here to round out the list. They’re more of a complete workout than recumbents bikes because they engage your entire body (if you’re not cheating). It’s not impossible to lose weight on these things, it’s just easier doing it on the machines higher on this list.

8. Recumbent Bikes

Close up of woman riding recumbent bike

Recumbent bikes are the least challenging cardio machine of all. They completely isolate your legs and hardly engage any other part of your body. Weight loss is tough on these things unless you have a lot of weight to lose. They’re normally used for things like increasing mobility if you live a relatively inactive lifestyle, physical therapy if you’re injured, building leg strength for better balance (elderly people), and for anyone with back problems.

Things to Consider Before Buying a Cardio Machine

People running on treadmills

Must-have features: Do you multitask while you exercise (e.g. watch TV/read)? Do you need built-in workout programs to follow or are you self-sufficient? Will other people be using the equipment? Do you prefer headphones or speakers? These are the kinds of questions to ask before shopping because it’s easy to get distracted by shiny objects.

Noise-level: Can you imagine arguing with roommates/neighbors every time you want to exercise? Noisy cardio machines can be pretty bothersome for you and the people around you. Make sure to do your research because returning a 100+ pound piece of equipment is NOT fun.

Storage: Cardio machines can be huge (especially ellipticals and treadmills) so before you make a purchase it’s important to figure out where you’ll be using/storing it. Ideally, you have a large open space where it’s away from guests and doesn’t need to be moved. If you have limited space you might look at getting a foldable cardio machine for easy storage.

Dust: Cardio equipment often never gets used so make sure you – or whoever the equipment is for – is committed to using it. Wasting money is bad enough but the guilt of walking by unused equipment every day is even worse. If you’re new to exercise, you might want to consider visiting the gym first and testing out a bunch of different machines. That way there are no surprises when you actually buy something.

Should I Buy New or Used?

New Used
Warranty and returns Cheaper
Delivery and assembly No customer service
Easier to resell No guarantees (e.g. warranty/returns)
More expensive Harder to resell
Shipping delays Takes more time and effort

What’s your budget? Figure out what you’re willing to spend then check out Craigslist, Walmart, and Amazon for new and used products that fall within your price range and compare the overall value.

How often will you (or anyone) be using it? If you anticipate heavy usage it makes more sense to buy new. You’ll be covered under warranty and returns are much easier if/when something goes wrong. On the flip side, if you just want something to have at home for the odd time you feel like exercising, you won’t have to worry about wear and tear.

How much time do you have? Buying used equipment usually takes more time and effort because you have to constantly monitor listings and coordinate viewing times. Not to mention transporting the equipment back to your house/apartment. If you want a new cardio machine like yesterday, you’re better off buying new.

Craigslist: If you decide to buy used equipment, make sure to set up email notifications so you get notified whenever there’s a new listing that matches your search criteria. Try expanding your search to neighboring cities, particularly large ones that are within driving distance, to increase your chances of finding a good deal.

eBay: More reliable than Craigslist — sellers have to protect their reputations which means better communication and service. Plus, you can pay with Paypal or credit card (CL is usually cash). You can setup email notifications on eBay as well.

Top Brands & Machines

Here’s a quick overview of some of the most reputable brands that manufacture and distribute cardio equipment:

  • Schwinn
  • Nordic
  • Track
  • Nautilus
  • ProForm
  • Stamina
  • Sunny Health & Fitness
  • Marcy
  • Goplus
  • Exerpeutic

There is no ‘best’ piece of equipment because it depends what you want. But there are several pieces of cardio equipment that are amongst the most popular. Here’s a quick overview, let me know in the comments below if there’s a piece of equipment missing from this list that you think should be included.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q: Best machine for bad knees?

A: For bad knees you want low impact exercises like walking on a treadmill (not running), riding an exercise bike (recumbent bikes put less strain on your knees than upright bikes), and anything on an elliptical or rowing machine. It depends ow intense you want your workout to be and how bad your knees are. Another option is to ditch the equipment altogether and jump in the pool — swimming is a great low impact aerobic exercise.

Q: Best machine for seniors?

Exercise helps with a lot of things as you get older: balance, mobility, energy, disease prevention, and weight loss. Low impact machines like rowers, ellipticals, and exercise bikes are best suited for seniors (here are the best exercise bikes for seniors). Make sure to get a proper warm up and cool down, eat properly, and stretch daily to avoid stiffness. Alternative cardio workouts for seniors include swimming, light weights, or walking outside.

Q: Best machine for home or small apartment?

A: The best cardio machine for a small space is going to be something that is lightweight, compact, and folds. For exercise bikes, you could try the Marcy Foldable Exercise Bike or Exerpeutic Folding Magnetic Upright Bike with Pulse. For treadmills, you could try the ‘Weslo Cadence G 5.9 Treadmill’ or the ‘Confidence Power Plus Motorized Electric Treadmill’. It’s tough to find rowing machines, ellipticals, and stair steppers that will fold.

Q: Best machine for glutes?

A: There are two pieces of cardio equipment that are great for your booty: stationary bikes and step machines. The best stationary bikes for your backside are going to be spin bikes, or any upright bike that allows you to sprint (e.g. stand up and pedal). Step machines (the ones with revolving stairs) are just like running stairs and really target your glutes. You could also try running sprints on an incline on a treadmill. Other butt workouts that don’t require a cardio machine include ‘squat jumps’ and ‘lunge jumps’. For more information, check out the best cardio machines (and workouts) for your butt.

2 Types of Step Machines

The revolving stairs (left) are way more intense.

Q: Best machine for fat loss?

A: Muscle burns fat and our biggest muscles are on our legs. Any equipment that targets your legs is going to be great for fat loss (treadmills, exercise bikes, stair steppers). Don’t get glued to any one machine because you may plateau (e.g. stop seeing progress). Instead, switch up your exercise routine as often as you can and remember that the intensity of your workout matters just as much as the equipment you’re using.

Q: Is cardio better on an empty stomach?

A: Fasted cardio believers say it’s easier to burn fat on an empty stomach. Why? Because blood sugar and glucose levels drop when you fast, which means insulin levels decrease, which means you should be able to burn more fat since insulin suppresses fat metabolism. Unfortunately, not all studies support this logic. For every study that says fasted cardio is better, there’s one that says otherwise. Most studies say listen to your body and do what works best for you.

Q: Will cardio kill muscle gains?

A: Yes, too much cardio can indirectly affect your gains. Studies show that doing aerobic training and resistance training in the same sessions — also known as concurrent training —  can limit your ability to build muscle due to fatigue. But how much is too much? According to several studies, more than three 20-50-minute cardio sessions per week, depending on intensity levels, is too much.

Tom Venuton, 14-year personal training vet, and best-selling author said it best: “The key to smart training is not being scared of cardio, but simply knowing your priorities.” As long as outline your goals and structure your workouts accordingly it is possible to build muscle and endurance simultaneously. One example would be lifting weights before setting foot on the treadmill however that may hinder your endurance training. Either way, there’s a tradeoff when combining the two.

If you’re like me and alternate your cardio and weight days, just make sure you’re not overdoing the cardio if strength building is the priority.

Q: Cardio workouts without equipment?

A: Dancing: there are two places you can find dance classes: the gym or YouTube. Go there and start dancing — seriously, it’s a great workout. How else did Shaun T sell  $350-million of  ‘Hip Hop Ab’ DVDs?

Boxing: if you have access to a punching bag, try beating the crap out of that for a few minutes. Make up your own workout or follow this one by MensHealth.

Rec sports: ask your friends, check the local gym or classifieds, and find a team to join if you want to seamlessly work cardio into your life. Basketball, soccer, volleyball, or flag football are great places to start.

Stairs: taking the stairs when the elevator is broken is one thing but doing an entire workout on stairs is another. It sucks big time but it works. It’s pretty easy to make up your own stair workouts (e.g. 10 sets of sprints up and down) but if you want some inspiration here are a few you can try: Ultimate Stair Workout, Fat Sizzling Stair Workout, 15-minute Stair Workout

Hill: great for your glutes, here’s some inspiration to get you started: 3 Hill Workouts for Strength, Speed, and Injury Prevention, Hill Training by Runnersworld7 Hill Running Workouts That Increase Power.

Beach: if you have a beach nearby, try running in the sand but wear shoes. Last time I ran barefoot in the sand I nearly tore my Achilles tendon.

A: What should I eat before and after cardio?

A: Eat 1-2 hours before your workout (or however long you need to digest your meal). The last thing you want to do is exercise when your stomach is full. If you workout in the morning, a quick snack on your way to the gym is fine. Your body will continue to burn calories for up to 45-minutes after exercise and your muscles best absorb nutrients within that window. If you wait too long to eat after exercising, you may end up slowing your metabolism and dropping your blood sugar levels.

Some ideas:

  • Whole wheat toast + peanut butter + banana
  • Whole wheat toast + avocado + pepper
  • Bagel + cream cheese
  • Greek yogurt + dried fruit
  • Apple slices + goat cheese
  • Spinach salad + grilled chicken
  • Smoothie: bananas, berries, almond milk or coconut water
  • Oatmeal with raisins/nuts
  • Fruit + granola bar
  • Rice cake + almond butter
  • Banana pancakes + nuts
  • Hard boiled egg with avocado + berries
  • Snacks: carrot sticks, slice of cheese, granola bar,
  • Tuna sandwich

Make sure to eat carbs, protein, and healthy fats — carbs will quickly turn into sugar without protein/fat and may cause you to crash (especially simple carbs like white bread).

Focus on eating real food rather than supplements (how can supplements be better than the real thing?). However, if you must, try something natural like caffeine instead of those supplements that have a million ingredients — none of which resemble an English word.

Other Resources

Here are some additional resources on cardio equipment that you might be interested in:

Pop Sugar — Cardio Workouts

11 ways to build your best cardio workout

Fitness Magazine — Cardio Workouts

Aerobic Capacity — Chris Hinshaw, The Endurance Training Authority

From Head to Toe: The Benefits of a Cardio Workout [INFOGRAPHIC]


Information from the following websites and studies were used when putting together this cardio machine guide:

Energy expenditure with indoor exercise machines

How to exercise with bad knees and knee braces

The Best Exercise Machines for Bad Knees

5 Best Exercise Equipment For Seniors: Use It Or Lose It

Which Cardio Machine Burns the Most Calories?

What to Eat Before and After Every Kind of Workout

Should I Eat Before a Cardio Workout?

Exercising On an Empty Stomach: The Surprising Benefits

Concurrent Training: A Meta-Analysis Examining Interference of Aerobic and Resistance Exercises

Will Cardio Kill Your Muscle Gains? Here’s What Science Says

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