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There is an ongoing debate about what type of cardio machine is the best, so we are going to take a look at the various types of fitness equipment currently on the market to see which ones are worth the money and which, if any, are simply a waste of time.

The types discussed in this article are treadmills, ellipticals, exercise bikes, and rowing machines (and briefly a couple of other less popular types of machines).

In order to effectively answer the question of which is the best cardio machine, we should first take a look at four factors to consider when using cardio machines.

What is the Best Cardio Machine?

1. What is Your Goal?

First you should look at what you are hoping to achieve by using a cardio machine:

  • Do you want to lose fat?
  • Do you want to improve your muscle tone?
  • Do you want to increase your cardiovascular or aerobic endurance?
  • Are you working on speed?
  • Are you training for a specific sport?

2. What is Your Current Level of Fitness?

Certain types of cardio machines lend themselves more effectively to specific forms of cardiovascular exercise.

We will go into this in more detail below but a simple example is that walking on a treadmill with a slight incline is ideal for low-intensity, fasted cardio; however, the same level of intensity (or lack thereof) would be slightly more difficult to achieve on an elliptical.

This of course ties into your goals and preferences as well, but individuals who are only just starting out on the road to a fitter body may need to be slightly more diligent in their selection of cardio equipment.

3. At Home or At the Gym?

If you are looking for the best cardio machine for home use then the answer may be different than if you were trying to decide which machine to use at your local gym.

The best commercial gyms have high-end equipment that simply wouldn’t be financially viable for most people to purchase, so $300 may, for example, buy you a better stationary bike than a treadmill for the same amount of money.

Furthermore, if you are going to be using your cardio machine at home then running on a treadmill might not be ideal for those who have neighbors to consider, especially those of us who are slightly more heavy-footed!

4. Do You Have Any Prior Injuries?

The last factor to consider is whether or not you have suffered any prior injuries. Even minor complaints such as low-level inflammation in a joint may become severely aggravated after repetitive use on a machine.

Those of us with shoulder or elbow injuries may find that an elliptical is simply out of the question, while people who suffer from hip, knee, or ankle complaints may find a treadmill or even a stationary bike to be a no go.

If you do currently have a gym membership then it might be wise to try a few sessions on each type of machine so that you can better gauge how your joints and general bodily proportions work in line with the mechanics of each movement.

Now that you are familiar with the considerations that need to be made, let’s go through the different types of equipment and try to find the best machine for cardio.

Treadmill

For most people, the word ‘cardio’ conjures up images of people running on treadmills, and to this day it is probably the most popular, or at least the most commonly available form of fitness equipment in gyms and people’s homes.

LifeSpan TR3000i Folding Treadmill

Pros

  • Highly versatile
  • Suitable for low-intensity, fasted walking
  • Suitable for high-intensity sprint-type training
  • Adjustable to an incline to prevent repetitive motion-related injuries or wear and tear
  • Works a greater volume of muscles and joints than a stationary bike or rowing machine

Cons

  • Impactful on the joints
  • Louder than a stationary bike or rowing machine
  • Potentially higher risk of injury
  • Running is generally a more technical movement requiring greater overall coordination and balance
  • Cheaper models may not have suitable programming options for interval-based training such as HIIT

Elliptical

The elliptical, also known as the cross trainer, is arguably as popular as the treadmill, and for very good reason.

As we will see below, elliptical machines are suitable for a wider range of users than treadmills, while also offering a lower overall risk of injury. They are, however, subject to greater wear and tear so heavier individuals may need to opt for a stationary bike or rowing machine to begin with.

Sole Fitness E95 Elliptical

Pros

  • Non-impactful on the joints
  • Works a greater volume of muscles and joints than a stationary bike or rowing machine
  • Balance and coordination are less of an issue than on a treadmill
  • Suitable for high-intensity sprint-type training
  • Lower potential risk of injury compared to a treadmill

Cons

  • Most models are not adjustable leading to potential strain on joints due to repetitive movements with the same angles
  • Cheaper models are subject to greater wear and tear due to the design of the machine as a whole
  • Cheaper models will not be suitable for heavier individuals, so be sure to check the maximum allotted user weight before making your purchase
  • Some models can be as loud, if not louder than a treadmill

Exercise Bike

This type of cardio machine comes into versions, upright (also known as stationary) and recumbent.

Upright exercise bikes are typically more true to the experience riding an actual bicycle, while recumbent bikes allow the user to sit back slightly more.

Recumbent bikes often also allow the user to adjust the seat back and forth, which makes them arguably more suitable for individuals with either very long or very short legs. Upright bikes do of course provide the option for the seat to be adjusted up and down, so those with non-average limbs should definitely not rule them out.

Keiser M3 Exercise Bike

GymSanta’s exercise bike of choice is the upright version because it allows the user to lean forward and pedal with greater ferocity, while sitting back in a recumbent bike lends itself to a slower overall pace with less overall muscle recruitment.

Pros

  • Non-impactful on the joints
  • Relatively quiet compared to a treadmill
  • Lower potential risk of injury compared to a treadmill
  • Balance and coordination are less of an issue than on a treadmill
  • Suitable for low-intensity, steady-state forms of cardio
  • Upright exercise bikes are well suited to interval-based, sprint-type training, allowing the user to lean forward and pedal with a great deal of intensity

Cons

  • Works a lower volume of muscles and joints than a treadmill or elliptical
  • Recumbent exercise bikes tend to encourage laziness (in my humble opinion)

Rowing Machine

The rowing machine is a slightly less common piece of cardio equipment, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any less effective than some of its more popular counterparts.

Although the level of adjustability is relatively low on rowing machines, the seat typically slides back and forth in sync with the rowing of the hands and arms, so this may make it an ideal choice depending on your bodily proportions. Even if you have never used a rowing machine before, the proper rowing technique is not hard to learn.

Concept2 Model D Indoor Rowing Machine

Pros

  • Non-impactful on the joints
  • Relatively quiet compared to a treadmill
  • Well suited to individuals with lower body injuries or unhealthy joints
  • Well suited to high-intensity sprint-type training
  • Lower potential risk of injury compared to a treadmill
  • Balance and coordination are less of an issue than on a treadmill

Cons

  • Works a lower volume of muscles and joints than a treadmill or elliptical

If you think indoor rowing machines are the best option for you, I strongly recommend that you start off by reading this article:

>>> What is the Best Rowing Machine? Click to Find Out! <<<

Other Cardio Machines

Machines such as steppers and “arm bikes” are worth mentioning in the interest of thoroughness.

Stepping machines may be well suited to females who enjoy a relatively lower level of body fat and are looking for a way of isolating more of the glutes and hamstring muscles to essentially “shape” the buttocks and thighs.

There is some degree of technicality involved in isolating these muscles so it is important to focus on the body parts you are attempting to isolate while at the same time not neglecting the cardiovascular component of the exercise.

In other words, if you’re breathing normally then you’re probably not working hard enough!

The “arm bike” on the other hand seems to have little relevance in the context of improving cardiovascular health and enhancing weight loss. These types of machines work an embarrassingly small proportion of muscles and joints, providing a minimal metabolic stimulus at best. With that said, they do have some positive effects on your health.

For the general population it would be advisable to steer clear of these two machines, with the latter being a fairly obvious gimmick.

And the Winner is…

As always, the answer is “it depends”!

The best cardio machine for one person may not be suitable for the someone else, and the best cardio machine for home use might not necessarily be as effective as what you have access to at your local gym.

Having said that, the elliptical definitely comes out on top in our opinion.

There are so many factors to consider when determining the best cardio machine for weight loss, but the elliptical is safer on the joints while still enabling the user to access a fairly wide spectrum of intensity levels.

While you may not be able to enjoy gentle strolls as you would with a treadmill, an elliptical offers the chance to dip down to an almost comparable level of intensity while enabling you to go all out and kick butt with high-intensity interval training (or HIIT).

If you suffer from issues with your lower body then you might want to opt for a rowing machine, but other than that the elliptical appears to be a superior piece of fitness equipment in just about every way, with a reasonable degree of quality available at a relatively affordable price.

So, what is the best cardio machine? According to the guru of gurus, a.k.a. GymSanta, the clear winner is the elliptical!