Whether you love 'em or hate 'em, you've probably taken a tour or two around your gym's cardio section. Not because cardio machines are the only way to raise your heart rate and enhance cardiovascular conditioning, but because they're straightforward, effective, and don't require much thought after a long day at work.
But which machine is the best? As far as I'm concerned, the best cardio machine is the one that doesn't make you want to beat your head against its console from sheer boredom. That said, there are a few technical reasons (and possibly a personal diatribe or two) that make some machines better than others. Which is best? Here's the DEFINITIVE ranking of cardio machines at the gym.
12. Stair stepper
Don't get me wrong -- back in the early 2000s, I spent my fair share of time on these awkward and, frankly, idiotic stepping machines. But really, as an exercise physiologist, all I can think now is: Why? The movement pattern isn't functional or natural, range of motion is limited, and aside from the fact that, yes, your heart rate does increase while doing the exercise, there's really no obvious benefit or reason to select the stair stepper over any other machine at the gym.
11. Upright bike
If you have the core strength and inclination to sit upright on a bike, the group exercise-style spin bike is the more functional option available (stay tuned for that). It's not that upright bikes themselves are bad -- they'll certainly help improve your cardiovascular endurance while strengthening your lower body -- it's just that their redeeming qualities are outweighed by the redeeming qualities of many, many other pieces of cardio equipment.
10. Arm ergometer
Arm ergometers are like upper-body bicycles -- you sit or stand in front of the machine, hold on to the handles, and crank your arms in a circle, just like pedalling a bike with your hands. They're an excellent option for people with lower-body injuries, or for anyone who wants to improve upper-body muscular endurance.
However, you'll burn fewer calories using an arm ergometer than practically any other piece of equipment on this list because you're focusing solely on the smaller muscle groups of your upper body. The more muscles you engage during exercise, and the larger those muscle groups are, the more calories you'll burn during a workout. If one of the primary goals of your cardio routine is calorie burn, then the arm ergometer just doesn't measure up.
You can point to all the studies you want that show ellipticals are "just as good" as treadmills when it comes to cardiovascular and calorie-burning benefits, but they just don't do a good job of preserving natural, functional stride patterns. Their fixed stride length also makes them torture for tall or short individuals who are forced to change their natural stride to fit the pattern provided.
And if watching the people at my gym is any indication of the rest of society (and years of gym-going indicates it is), almost no one pushes themselves while on an elliptical. People seem to choose it not because they're concerned about the impact of walking or jogging, but because they want an easier workout. I know there are those who legitimately push themselves while on the elliptical, but if you're someone who chooses the elliptical for ease rather than challenge, then you might want to ask yourself if you're continuing to see results.
Recumbent bikes' reputation as a glorified couch workout is not only unfair, it's just plain wrong. While there are certainly advantages and disadvantages to consider when choosing between a recumbent and an upright bike, the lower-body kinematics are actually almost identical, and the recumbent bike provides less load to the anterior cruciate ligament than the upright bike. This makes it a great option for people with knee pain, and an effective choice for anyone who wants to ease their way into a workout program. Plus, if you're willing to amp up the resistance and actually put yourself to work, the change in body position is actually more effective at engaging the glutes than the upright bike.
On the downside, your upper body and core are pretty much dormant while using a recumbent bike, so unless you're willing to increase the resistance substantially, you're going to experience a less intense cardiovascular workout that burns fewer calories overall.
7. Arc Trainer
The Arc Trainer is a somewhat better low-impact running option than a traditional elliptical machine, and one study actually indicates that the Arc Trainer offers a better cardio workout than the elliptical. Likewise, one study found that the Arc Trainer is a safer option than the elliptical for people at risk for lower-body injury.
That said, while leg movement on an Arc Trainer is somewhat more functional, following an upward sweeping arc, than on a traditional elliptical, and stride length is somewhat more suited for taller individuals, stride pattern is still fixed and can be awkward for users, especially those not used to the equipment.
I have a bit of a love affair with the AMT (that's an Adaptive Motion Trainer for the uninitiated), so I'm a bit sad it's landing in the middle of the pack at number six. You see, the AMT is like a better version of an elliptical trainer, offering a nice low-impact alternative to jogging on a treadmill. Unfortunately, elliptical trainers as a whole aren't very functional.
What sets the AMT apart from traditional ellipticals is that it actually offers two degrees of freedom, allowing the user to adjust stride length and height, which more closely follows a standard step.
Is it perfect? No. A typical stride length on an AMT is only about 70% of that during jogging, while stride height ballooned to 150% of a typical jogging step. These numbers aren't ideal, but they beat the crap out of the numbers seen on a traditional elliptical, which only offered a stride length of about 60% of a typical jogging stride, with no ability to change stride length based on speed. Functionally, ellipticals suck.
The major downside to the odd-looking, total-body climbing machine is that it just isn't widely available. But as Rise Nation -- a new studio workout based entirely around the VersaClimber -- gains popularity, more gyms are bound to follow suit and introduce VersaClimbers onto their cardio room floors. Also, Matt Damon uses one.
The benefit of the VersaClimber lies in the large range of motion offered at the pedals and arm handles, allowing simulated "climbing" as you independently move each arm or leg up to 20in in height. The self-directed, independent movement requires muscle activation throughout your body in an incredibly inefficient manner. This sounds like a bad thing, but when it comes to cardiovascular health and physiological change, inefficiency actually leads to greater gains as your body has to work harder to overcome its awkwardness.
That said, people who are new to exercise may not feel comfortable performing awkward, inefficient movements at high intensities without instruction from a trainer. If you're just getting into exercise, it's a good idea to start with something a little more intuitive.
Walking on an endless set of rotating stairs may not be your idea of a good time, but stair climbing offers an incredible cardiovascular workout that also takes your glutes and calves to task. The one downside is that it really is prudent to hold on to the stairs' support bars while climbing -- you wouldn't want to explain that injury anyway -- which takes away the more natural arm swing and added calorie burn you enjoy when engaging your entire body.
You may start to notice a trend here -- any exercise equipment that preserves a natural range of motion while closely mimicking a workout you can do away from the gym earns it bonus points. These forms of cardio are functional, helping to develop strength and stamina that translate to everyday life.
The group exercise bike -- commonly known as a spin bike -- is no exception. Unlike this bike's cousins, the upright bike and recumbent bike, the spin bike is functionally similar to riding a bike outside, and is actually designed to mimic hill-climbing and race conditions that allow you to make changes to your body position -- standing, crouching, and adjusting arm position -- as you might while riding a bike. Also, you have the option to "clip into" the bike's pedals, which ultimately engages your hamstrings and quads more fully as you push and pull the pedals in a circular motion.
The rowing machine went out of style in the early 2000s with the advent of the elliptical trainer, but it's come roaring back over the last few years, and with good reason. This full-body machine closely mimics the natural movement of rowing a boat, and it engages your entire body, leading to improvements in coordination, speed, power, and maximal strength. It's a low-impact form of cardio that's easy on the joints and is often a safe option for individuals with joint pain.
There are just a few things to keep in mind: 1) rowing is tough work, and rarely comes with a TV attached to the machine, so you have little choice but to concentrate on your suffering. I highly recommend a killer playlist to help get you through a workout. And 2) it's extremely important to get the form right -- you don't want to look like you're having a seizure as you jerk and pull your way toward an invisible shoreline.
Personally, I'm not a big treadmill person -- I'd much rather walk or run outside -- but it's hard to argue with the results of this tried-and-true gym staple. Because you're in charge of your body's mechanics while moving atop the treadmill's rotating belt, you enjoy a natural range of motion as you walk, jog, lunge, or backpedal your way to a happy heart. Treadmills are also easy to use, readily available, and offer roughly the same energy expenditure, muscle activation, and kinematics as you'd get from walking or running outside (and that's according to science).
Who it's not for? Children, and anyone who's clumsy or easily distracted. We've all seen the horrible videos of people flying off the back of treadmills. What you don't see is the aftermath -- more than 20,000 people head to the emergency room each year to get treated for treadmill-related injuries.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.