Here you are, standing in a sea of cardiovascular equipment at the gym – rows upon rows of treadmills, elliptical machines, stair steppers, rowing machines, stationary bikes, and more.
So which one do you choose: The machine that is supposed to get you the most fit; the one that burns the most calories; or the device that has least impact on your joints?
These are all valid concerns -- but none of these is the most important question you should be asking yourself, says exercise physiologist Bryant A. Stamford. That question is: Which machine do you really want to use?
"When it comes to exercise and weight management, a good assumption is that if someone needs to exercise for weight management, they’re probably pretty easily turned off by exercise," says Stamford, professor and chairman of the department of exercise science at Hanover College in Hanover, Ind. "The worst thing to do is to mold someone into something because people say it is the best."
So instead of choosing the treadmill for the calorie-burning factor, or the elliptical trainer your friend recommended, figure out which machine feels best to you, he suggests. "What is it going to take to get you compliant?" he asks. "Everything else is secondary."
Nashville exercise physiologist Kathy Alexander agrees: "The best aerobic piece of equipment is the one you’re most willing to use," she says.
But how do you know which machine is likely to feel right to you? Here's what you can expect from the most popular cardio machines out there, along with some tips on getting the most out of your workout.
Choosing a Machine
Here's the lowdown on what you can expect from some of the machines you're likely to find at your local gym.
1. The Treadmill
The treadmill burns the most calories of any of the cardiovascular machines available at most gyms, says Alexander. You can expect to burn about 100 calories per mile, walking briskly.
Stamford notes that a treadmill can be adapted to many different fitness levels by increasing the speed from walking to running or by adjusting the incline.
Every time your foot hits the ground, says Alexander, "the impact forces are 3.7 times your weight just walking on the planet."
Since a treadmill is moving under you, the impact may be slightly less than that. But if it doesn’t feel right -- particularly on your knees or lower back -- choose another machine.
One more thing to keep in mind: Treadmills can pose a real balance challenge for new exercisers or those who haven't worked out in a while, says Matthew Vukovich, exercise physiologist and associate professor at South Dakota State University.
2. Elliptical Machines and Stair Steppers
These machines pack a little less punch on the joints, and either can be a good alternative to the treadmill, says Vukovich.
Because you use them in a standing position, you're using lots of muscle mass, so the calorie burn rate is still pretty high.
Elliptical machines with arm components can further increase the numbers of calories you burn, says Stamford. But if you're a beginner, he doesn’t recommend using your arms at first.
3. Stationary Bikes
All our experts agree that the stationary bike offers the workout with the least impact on the joints. People with knee pain are often steered toward these bikes, since the impact of body weight is not a concern as it is on a treadmill, elliptical trainer, or stair stepper.
But to avoid knee strain, you must make sure the bike is adjusted to fit your body, Vukovich says.
"Nine times out of 10, people get on a bike and are not fitted to the bike," he says.
When adjusting the seat height, he says, make sure that when you’re sitting on the seat with the ball of your foot on the pedal, there is a very slight (5- to 10-degree) bend in your knee.
Most people sit too low, meaning their knees flex too much as they pedal. This can put too much pressure on the knee and result in soreness, warn Vukovich.
In addition, "if you’re too low, you’re not allowing the leg to go through a full range of motion," meaning you'll use fewer calories, he says.
The stationary bike is a less intense calorie-burner than some of the other machines. You'll need to pedal four miles to burn 100 calories, says Alexander.
4. Rowing Machines
Don’t be fooled into thinking this machine gives you only an upper-body workout. Rowers are more advanced cardiovascular machines.
Because you must push with the legs while you pull with the arms, rowers require coordination. They also you require you to engage your core abdominal muscles to support and protect your back.
Because they use so many muscle groups, rowers burn lots of calories. But this machine has several red flags for a beginning or unfit exerciser.
"It is thought by most unfit people to be fairly uncomfortable," says Stamford.
Extra weight often comes with back pain, and this is not a machine you want to use if you have back issues, he says.
Working out Smart
Our experts offered the following tips to help you make the most of any machine workout:
Choose a machine that feels right. If impact is a problem, the stationary bicycle may be a better choice than the treadmill. If you have low back limitations, it’s probably not a good idea to get on a multi-muscle machine like the rowing machine at first.
"It’s not so much about the machine as the relationship between the body and the machine," says Alexander. "If anything hurts and you can’t modify the equipment or yourself so that it doesn’t hurt, then, at least for that day, that’s not the right piece of equipment for you."
More muscle use equals more calorie burn. The basic rule of thumb is that the machine that exercises the greatest muscle mass burns the most calories. There's a flip side of that coin, too: If you're a beginner, using more muscles means getting fatigued sooner -- which will result in burning fewer calories.
"As someone who hasn’t been exercising, it’s better initially to work less muscle groups so you don’t get tired as quickly," says Alexander.
Vary the routine. You’ve discovered you like the elliptical machine and it keeps you coming back? Great. But don’t let yourself get bored.
Experiment, recommends Stamford: Try using a pre-programmed workout that includes variations in speed and intensity. Or vary those factors yourself during your workout.
"Why set it at 3.5 and a 1% incline for 40 minutes? That’s boring," he says. "Play with it, vary it, change it. There are so many things you can do to make it more interesting."
Work out for time. Instead of forcing yourself to stay on one piece of equipment when you're bored or uncomfortable, just give yourself a time goal at the gym, says Stamford.
For example, give yourself 30 minutes to get your workout in. Then break it up any way you want – say, 10 minutes each on the treadmill and bike, followed by 10 on the elliptical machines. If you're still feeling chipper, go for 5 or 10 more minutes on the machine of your chice.
"There’s no reason you have to follow the rules of fitness to get you to weight management," says Stamford. "The more agony you impose on yourself, the more likely you are to quit."
Mix it up. Even if you love one particular machine, you don't have to use it every time. "The key is changing to avoid boredom, and adapting," adds Vukovich. "Don’t do the same one every time; try them all. That way, you’re not bored, you have variety, and you’re always challenging the body in a different way."
Ignore the readouts. At the end of your workout, it’s nice to see that you’ve burned X number of calories or traversed X number of miles, but don’t put too much credence into these numbers, says Stamford.
Because these results are based on averages, he explains, they "are about as accurate as rolling the dice and multiplying eye color times shoe size."
Better, he advises, to cue in on how you feel, how you’re breathing, and what your perceived exertion is.
"All this quantification is sort of American, it’s sort of the way we do things," he says. "I always encourage people to just do it and the outcomes will take care of themselves."
Be a creature of habit. We brush our teeth every morning and every night, Vukovich tells his students. It's a habit, a routine, something we do every day. It’s not something we have to think much about, or come up with an excuse for avoiding. Exercise should be that way too, he says.
"It doesn’t mean you can’t take a day off," from exercising, he says, "but it’s easier to do if it’s something that’s ingrained in you, like brushing your teeth."
Set realistic goals. The bottom line is that if you don’t like your exercise program, you won’t stick with it. So instead of setting yourself up for failure with all sorts of requirements, set less lofty goals at first, if it means you can meet them, says Alexander.
Maybe tell yourself you’ll start out coming to the gym three times a week. If you manage a fourth time, that’s awesome. But if you say you’ll come six days a week and end up only coming three, you’ll feel negative instead of positive about what you did.
Get medical clearance. Never begin a new exercise regimen without getting the approval of your doctor. If you don’t even have an internist or family practitioner, says Alexander, "it is a great time to hunt one down."