To improve cardiovascular fitness, you need to challenge your cardiovascular system. Simply put, that means moving your body in a way that increases your heart rate and makes you breath harder. Of course, you can get fit without a gym membership, but the variety of cardio machines under one roof can make your cardio workout a little more enticing. Make sure you get the best cardio workout by picking the machine that will work best for you. That mean safe and keeping you pain free, effective, and maybe even enjoyable!
Stair Climber / Stair Stepper
The rundown: The stair stepper (or stair climber) is exactly what it sounds like. Generally the “stairs” take two forms: A treadmill-type “staircase”, or a set of foot plates that moves up and down.
- The stairs are tough! Prolonged stair climbing will quickly elevate your heart rate, especially with a faster speed. But “tough” is all relative – you have control over speed or resistance to make the workout somewhat easier or harder. And don’t feel bad about giving yourself plenty of breaks throughout the workout. It will make it easier to get through the session and you’ll lose little or no benefit from it.
- The stair stepper can be good for keeping your joints healthy. You need use a bigger range of motion, as each step will require more bend in the hips, knees, and ankles to lift your leg and take the “step”. This greater range of motion can help keep joints well lubricated and mobile.
- Provides a nice added strength boost for the lower body. Because you have to take bigger steps, the muscles in your lower body will work harder. This means you’ll develop more strength in the major muscle groups in your legs (your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves).
- The stair stepper may not be the best choice if you have existing knee pain, though that doesn’t automatically rule it out, either. Use a foam roller or trigger point ball on your quads (front of thigh) and glutes (butt and sides of hips) prior to taking your first step up. Loosening tension through these areas will take a lot of pressure off of the knees.
- Getting tired? DON’T lean on the arm railings – this takes away much of the “work” and can put your body in an awkward position, which can lead to physical stress through the joints of your spine and upper body, and can long-term set you up for injury. If you feel the need to lean, take a 1-2 minute break instead, either by slowing the machine way down, or by hopping off and walking around.
The Verdict: The stair stepper is one of the most effective cardio machines at the gym, because the movement is inherently high demand. Plus you get the added bonus of strength building through the lower body and large ranges of movement.
The rundown: This machine guides you through low-impact movement that’s a cross between running and cross-country skiing.
- Many machine have optional arm bars. Use them! Adding in upper body movement will lead to a larger increase in heart rate than just using the stationary handles. More muscles moving = higher heart rate and more calories burned.
- This is generally the closest you get to running and still keep in low-impact (actually, no impact). If your elliptical machine has an incline setting, give yourself a boost here for a greater range of motion, which can help joint health.
- Because you generally keep your feet connected to the foot plates, the gliding motion can sometimes lead to discomfort through the joints, especially if you’re already holding tension through the muscles of the hip and thigh (muscle tension can sometimes create more twist and torque through joints).
The Verdict: Excellent if you like to run but don’t feel comfortable with the impact any longer. If you choose an elliptical workout, get your upper body involved to maximize your results.
Stationary cycle / Spin bike
The rundown: Another low-impact cardio machine, stationary cycles and spin bikes can give you a great workout with minimal joint stress, provide you set the bike up to suit your body. Because you can set the resistance, you can somewhat turn your cycle workout into a strength builder as well.
- These bikes can still lead to joint stress and strain, even without the impact. To prevent joint pain, make sure the bike settings are adjusted correctly for your body. Seat height should be set so that your knees are slightly bent when straight out, and the distance between the front of the seat and the “handlebars” is about the same as the distance from your elbow to your fingertips. This will minimize your risk of knee pain or lower back pain, though again, the risks are small!
- Increase the resistance to simulate riding up a hill. This can be an excellent way to build strength in your quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
- Variable resistance and the smooth motion of the pedal stroke means that stationary cycles and spin bikes are great in almost every situation, from knee surgery rehab to cross training for high level sports.
- Leaning too heavily on the handlebars/arm bars can result in a lot on tension buildup through the neck and shoulders. During your ride, sit up straight frequently and shake out your shoulders and arms to keep everything loose.
The verdict: Great for use in almost every situation, as the speed and resistance can guide smooth movements with minimal physical stress. Make sure you know how to set the bike up for your arm and leg length to keep yourself comfortable and pain free.
The rundown: This machine is one of the most frequently mis-used, which is a shame. It can offer a really phenomenal workout!
- Out of all the standard cardio equipment you find in a gym, this piece has the highest potential for a high intensity workout. Good rowing technique requires a powerful push with the legs, and a pull with the torso and arms, meaning that almost every muscle in the body is working hard.
- This machine also allows you to set your own speed and resistance, so the workout doesn’t have to be crazy challenging. An important note though: make sure you have enough resistance to work against, especially with the leg push part of the movement – without this, there is a greater risk of losing control of the movement, which can lead to physical stress and injury.
- One of the most common complaints with using the rowing machine is a sore lower back, and/or neck and shoulders. This happens when you lean too far back as you pull the handle, and when you pull the handle too high. At the end of the pull, you should be leaning back only slightly, and definitely not more than about 45 degrees, and the handle should be pulled in towards your bellybutton.
- You might want to start small with this machine. Because there is a lot more upper body involvement, many people tire quite quickly. Interval training is a great option on the rower, or just start with 5 minutes’ work and combine it with another type of cardio.
The verdict: Once you’re comfortable with the technique, this is a really excellent option for a big workout in a short amount of time – big being relative, of course!
Treadmill (Walking, Jogging, or Running)
The rundown: The most well-known of the cardio equipment, you can walk, jog, or run in a controlled environment.
- The tread can be a little bit more joint friendly than concrete, as it provides some cushion to help decrease the impact of each step. But that and the movement of the tread make it less work than walking or running outside. Get all of the benefits: Use a little incline to cancel out the “give” of the tread. A 1% incline is roughly equal to the work of walking on the ground, without the loss of cushion.
- Don’t lean on the hand supports or arm railings. If you aren’t using your arms, your missing out on natural body movement and extra calories burned. This is especially true if you’re walking at a high incline, holding the handles and leaning backwards – you’re missing out on a lot of the benefits, and it’s not particularly safe on the off chance that your phone rings and you absentmindedly let go. THE ONE EXCEPTION: If you need some help with balance, by all means, hang on. Help maintain good body mechanics by keeping your hands somewhat in front of your torso, and away you go.
- One of the benefits of using a treadmill is that you get your workout without going anywhere, so if you get tired, you get to just stop and get off. BUT. Please let the tread come to a complete stop before stepping off. Those videos you see off people flying off the back of the treadmill? I’ve seen that happen in real life and it’s not fun.
You’ll find most of these cardio machines in most gyms, but this isn’t a complete list of the equipment you might have available, nor is it a complete list of pros and cons. Always chat to a personal trainer or exercise physiologist about which cardio workout will be right for you and your specific situation.
Have questions about what exercise physiology can help you with? Get in touch!
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