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Which Cardio Machine is Best

Which Cardio Machine is Best?
By Kelli Calabrese MS, CSCS, ACE

After "How do I get a flat stomach?" the second most popular question I'm asked is "Which Cardio Machine is Best?" The menu of aerobic choices to pick from is vast and equipment manufacturers are constantly coming up with new ways for us to torture ourselves.

If you walk into the cardio area at the gym, you could break a sweat trying to decide which equipment to use. Some choices include the Life Cycle, Precor EFX Elliptical, Stairmaster Crossrobics, Nautilus Arc Trainer, Versa Climber, Concept II Rower, Treadmills galore and one of my favorites, the Step Mill. You can choose lower body only, upper body only or both. You can ski, skate, climb, step or row.

The definition of cardiovascular fitness is the ability to perform large muscle movement over a sustained period. It's related to the capacity of the heart-lung system to deliver oxygen for sustained energy. It's also called cardiorespiratory endurance or aerobic endurance. So, with so many machine choices available to improve our cardio fitness, which one is best?

When someone asks me "Which is best?" they usually mean, "Which is going to burn the most fat in the least amount of time and make me look great?" Let's take a look at some of the popular choices and what the pros and cons are.


Pros -- These are still the most popular, by far. Walking is a relatively easy activity that you're already used to doing, so there isn't much of a learning curve. Walking is a lower impact activity, so it's gentler to the body. Treadmills help you keep pace and most have a variety of programs that can keep you challenged. You can monitor your progress and see improvements in time, distance and speed.

Cons -- Walking can cause shin splints if done excessively, and it's not the best calorie burner. Many people find indoor walking boring. Running is a great calorie burner, but at a higher cost to your joints. If you do progress to running, take several months to safely evolve to it. To compensate for the belt propelling your stride, add a 2 percent incline to the treadmill which more closely simulates outdoor walking. To make this challenging, try different pre-set programs which vary your speed and incline, then strive to beat your own record.

Stationary Bikes:

Pros -- There are both upright and recumbent bikes to choose from, as well as bikes with upper body levers. Bikes are less stressful on the joints and once you get accustomed to spending time in the saddle, they are relatively comfortable. Recumbent bikes are a good place to start for beginners and those with back pain.

Cons -- It's more challenging to get your heart rate up on a bike since the weight of your legs helps to propel the pedals, therefore needing less effort. To make this challenging, deliberately focus on keeping your cadence up or add resistance. Otherwise this can be a low calorie burner. Think Lance Armstrong as you ride.

Stair Climbers:

Pros -- It's a great calorie burner when done properly. Even though you may be accustomed to going up and down stairs, this machine takes stair stepping and your body to a whole new level. You are completely supporting your body weight on the pedals; therefore, it takes a lot of energy (calories) to sustain this exercise.

Cons -- It's easy to cheat by locking your arms out on the equipment. Stair climbers may not be comfortable for anyone with knee pain. It takes some time to build up the endurance to sustain this exercise for 20+ minutes. To make this more challenging, focus on posture. You can ultimately do this exercise without holding on and by pumping your arms.


Pros -- This family of equipment is relatively low impact and therefore is less stressful to the joints. They are excellent for rehabilitating injuries or for beginners. Arm work will help to elevate the heart rate and increase the work (calories burned).

Cons -- Again, unless you are choosing a high level of intensity, it's just easy to stride alone without breaking a sweat. To make this more challenging, attempt to increase your levels, pump your arms and change programs often.

Step Mills:

Pros -- You will recognize this one as being the tallest piece of equipment on the floor. It most closely represents stair climbing, which could be called functional training for those needing to climb lots of stairs. Also this is a very challenging exercise, because you have to support your body weight. This one will get your heart rate up for sure.

Cons -- Takes a while to build up speed. The tendency is to want to look down because you feel as if you're going to trip. You feel like you're moving slowly, but your heart rate is really racing. It's also easy to cheat on this one by leaning on the hand rails. To make this more challenging, lightly place your hands on the rails and eventually try to swing your arms by your side naturally as you climb.


Pros -- It's a great total body cardio exercise. Helps to improve the endurance of the postural muscles (abs and upper and lower back). This exercise is low impact and is easy to get into your target heart rate due to the arm and leg involvement.

Cons -- It may not be comfortable for anyone with knee or hip problems. If you don't keep good form, you can encourage poor posture and overstretch the muscles of the upper back and shoulders. To make this more challenging, focus on your posture and perfecting your stroke. Try to beat your personal score of strokes per minute or meters traveled over time.

When it comes to cardio, several factors go into the answer of "which is best." As you can see, there are pros and cons to any exercise you may choose. Whatever choice you make, you must do it consistently, correctly and intensely.

Consistency -- Here's your key. When you find a piece of equipment that you enjoy, you must do it often. "Often" means three times a week to improve your health and up to five times a week to improve your fitness, optimize calorie burn and improve your cardiovascular efficiency.

Correct form -- Never sacrifice form for speed or performance. If exercise is to be a lifetime commitment, you want to keep your body healthy, injury free and feeling as good as possible at all times. Think about keeping your entire body relaxed when you do cardio and you will find that you can become more efficient on whichever equipment you choose.

Intensity -- Your heart rate is usually a good indicator of your intensity. Healthy adults should strive for 60'90 percent of their maximal heart rate. Click here to determine your target heart rate. If you aren't working hard enough, you aren't going to see the benefits. If you're working too hard, you're setting yourself up for injury.

The bottom line is to choose something that you will do often, is convenient and feels good (when it's over). The best suggestion I can give is to use a variety of equipment. Some burn more calories, some are more physically challenging and some feel better than others. Your body may need different things on different days.

If you had a tough workout, you may want to do an easy walk or bike ride. If you are rested and feeling energized, you may want to tackle the Stairmaster. What's important is that you do it. The benefits are priceless.

Kelli Calabrese MS, CSCS, 2004 Personal Trainer of the Year - Online Training. Kelli is a 20 year fitness industry leader. She has 3 fitness related degrees and 24 Fitness, Nutrition and Lifestyle related certifications. Kelli is the former Lead Fitness Expert for eDiets and eFitness and remains a regular contributor. Kelli is the author of Feminine, Firm & Fit - Building A Lean Strong Body in 12 Weeks She has transformed thousands of bodies just like yours. She is available for phone coaching, online training, grocery shopping tours, seminars, and media opportunities. For more information go to
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