Are there benefits for choosing an elliptical over a treadmill if you’re getting your cardio at the gym?
When you’re working toward getting in the 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you might make a beeline for the cardio equipment at the gym.
And you might also be wondering, with all the options — treadmill, exercise bike, elliptical, stair climber, rower, and sometimes more — if you’re choosing the right one.
“Each piece of cardio equipment has its pros and cons,” says Greg Summerville, MD, a sports medicine physician at the UNC School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. These pros and cons are, however, different for everyone.
Dr. Summerville works with patients to create exercise prescriptions for his patients, and takes a range of factors into account, such as age, function, and mobility, as well as existing health conditions or injuries. Those things all make a difference when it comes to which machine is best for you — as do your specific fitness goals.
All of these aforementioned cardio machines are designed to improve cardiovascular health, meaning it increases your heart and respiratory rate to strengthen your heart muscle and build endurance. But some also build strength, Summerville says. So, think about what you want out of your workout. Are you there for a strict cardio workout or one that combines cardio and strength, for instance?
Answering questions like that will help you pick the appropriate machine for you. Also, if you have any disability, injuries, or other health issues that could interfere with your ability to safely exercise — or use one of these machines — talk to your doctor or healthcare provider before starting a new exercise routine.
And finally, if you’re going to get your cardio in at the gym using one of these machines, pick one that you like using (so long as you can safely do so). Finding a workout you enjoy doing makes it that much easier to come back to and stick with. After all, the movement you do (whatever that looks like) is better than some “perfect” workout you don’t do.
Here’s a rundown of some common cardio machines and their specific pros and cons:
What It Is A machine with an endless moving belt for walking or running. “I’d call this the bread-and-butter of cardio machines,” says Araceli De Leon, an ACE-certified personal trainer and health coach.
Muscles Targeted The treadmill primarily helps build your cardiovascular endurance, says De Leon, but walking or running will also work the lower body muscles, including the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves, according to ACSM. It’s not the most effective way to build these muscles, but using the treadmill will help to maintain them, Summerville adds.
Perks You can adjust the speed and incline to increase intensity or perform an interval or HIIT workout, says De Leon. Compared with the elliptical and rower, a treadmill has been found to burn more fat, according to a study published in 2021 in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. (It’s worth noting that that study only included nine men and no women.)
Considerations Being on your phone and looking down or looking up at a TV in the gym can strain your neck, says De Leon. Also, walking too close to the console or holding onto the rails can affect your body’s walking cycle. Try to stay in the middle of the belt and avoid holding on, she says. (If you can’t safely use a treadmill without holding on, then another machine may be a better option. See below.) The treadmill can also be a higher impact activity. Though running or walking on a treadmill is not as hard on the joints as running on concrete, says Summerville, exercising on a track or turf outside will be a more joint-friendly form of exercise.
What It Is Indoor or stationary exercise bikes come in a variety of styles, such as an air bike (where pedaling pushes air through the wheel, providing resistance), a spin or indoor bike (where you can manually adjust resistance), and a recumbent bike (where you sit in an reclined position), among others.
Muscles Targeted Your quads and hamstrings are the workhorses while cycling. Using a stationary bike can also build lower-body muscle. “By increasing the resistance, you can also get a significant strength-building workout with your cardio,” says Summerville.
Perks On certain styles of bike, you can increase the resistance and stand up to pedal, which simulates climbing a hill, Summerville says. He also recommends indoor bicycling to those who are recovering from lower-extremity injuries. If you have balance problems, a stationary bike is a good option for you, since your feet are in one fixed position (as opposed to a treadmill or stair machine).
Considerations While it’s low-impact and easy on the joints, if you have anterior knee pain (pain in the front of the knee), Summerville recommends moving to the elliptical, as the pedaling motion on the bike may put too much force on the knee.
What It Is An elliptical is a stationary machine with two large pedals that move in a circular motion through space, as well as handlebars that move back and forth. You use the elliptical standing up.
Muscles Targeted Quads, hamstrings, and calves are all worked during this type of exercise, particularly if the resistance is increased. Without using a challenging resistance, this is mostly a cardio workout, says Summerville.
Perks As a low-impact workout, the elliptical is ideal for beginners, as well as people recovering from injury or in physical therapy, says De Carlo. “There is no pounding; your feet never leave the pedals that they’re on,” she says. An elliptical (as well as rower, below) can also be an option for those with physical disabilities, such as cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis, the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine study notes.
Considerations Avoid hunching, lifting your heels, or leaning too far back, all common mistakes De Leon sees on the elliptical. “Maintain the proper center of gravity on the machine,” she says.
What It Is A stair climber, much like the name implies, is a machine that simulates walking up steps. There are many types of stair climbers, such as a step mill (revolving, escalator-like stairs), stair stepper (which has one pedal for each foot that you step on), or vertical climbers (ladder-like steppers).
Muscles Targeted “The stair stepper really activates the glutes, quads, and calves,” says Summerville. A step mill–style climber will be more of a cardio-based workout (you adjust the speed), while a stair stepper allows you to adjust the resistance, which will be more muscle strengthening, he says.
Perks Stair climbing is usually a high-intensity workout. As such, the stair stepper offers one of the highest calorie-burning cardio machines, Summerville notes.
Considerations Because it’s a higher-intensity exercise, you may not be able to do this type of workout for as long a duration as a less intense workout.
If you have knee or hip problems, a stair machine may aggravate that pain, and Summerville recommends using an elliptical instead. On a step mill, it can be common to use the handrails to support your weight and take some work off your legs, but this can put too much pressure on shoulders and wrists, De Leon points out. If you’re struggling to keep up with the machine, decrease the speed.
What It Is A rowing machine is one where you sit on a sliding seat and use both hands to pull a handle to move you back and forth, mimicking a rowing motion.
Muscles Targeted Muscles of the upper back and shoulders, quads, calves, and glutes get worked during the pushback and pull phase.
Perks The rower can be a one-stop shop. “It’s a total-body conditioning machine. You get cardio, as well as upper and lower body strengthening,” says Summerville. You can also adjust it to get the workout you’re looking for. For instance, by turning down the resistance, the workout becomes mostly cardio; increasing the resistance will provide more muscle activation, he says. Rowing is also a low-impact activity, meaning it’s easy on joints.
Considerations It may seem intimidating if you’ve never used one, but once you get the hang of the push-pull rowing motion, you’ll feel more confident. Start at the lowest resistance first and increase it as you become more comfortable on the machine (and as your stamina improves).
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