Love it or hate it, cardio is hailed for its heart-elevating, endurance-testing, and calorie-burning benefits that will leave you dabbing down a sweaty dew. If that isn’t enough, it also helps condition and strengthen the body, as multiple muscles are put to work.
A major draw of cardio is the diverse array of mix-and-match workout options that you can slot in almost anywhere, whether it’s a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout from the comfort of your home, a jump rope sesh in the backyard, or soaking up nature with a jog around the park.
In a gym setting, however, there are even more options to get the blood pumping. It’s likely your local fitness haunt is brimming with cardio equipment. Some apparatuses are more recognizable than others, but each is designed to target different muscle groups and to help you track your goals via flashy monitors.
Although no one machine is superior to another, each has its pluses and minuses. For the purpose of this guide, we hone in on six popular cardio machines as our fitness experts, Latoya Julce and Dani Schenone, break down the pros and cons of each one. Keep reading for the full rundown on the most popular cardio machines.
The treadmill is a popular running apparatus that allows you to monitor your speed, distance, incline, and heart rate, as well as alternate between speeds for both endurance and high-intensity training. Many machines have a built-in TV and internet access to keep you engrossed as you settle into a steady stride.
Predominant muscles worked: Quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and yes, even the core.
- A safe and sturdy surface that is easier on joints (especially the knees) than running outdoors.
- Inclines can further reduce joint stress while increasing intensity.
- Ease of altering speed and incline to engage different body parts.
- The cushioned surface can still impact the back or stress the hip, knee, and ankle joints.
- Running in place may feel unmotivating.
- The treadmill is different from running outdoors as the belt moves under you, making it a challenge to switch from indoor to outdoor running.
How long to spend on the treadmill: “The length of time you spend on a cardio machine (such as the treadmill) depends on your goals,” says Julce. For the warmup, she recommends around five to seven minutes of activity and around 20-minute spells for steady-state cardio. “For a HIIT workout, try focusing on reaching a designated heart rate rather than a set time.”
Introduced in the 1980s as the StairMaster, much as the name suggests, the stair climber mimics the motion of ascending stairs. It’s similar to walking up an escalator in motion, which is killer for the glutes and will have you working up a sweat in no time.
Predominant muscles worked: Quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.
- Works your cardiovascular system.
- Effective for toning and sculpting your lower body.
- Directly targets the glutes while increasing your heart rate.
- Can encourage a slouching posture, which may cause back pain or injuries.
- Mainly targets the lower body.
- Lack of variety.
How long to spend on the stair climber: If using it as part of a warmup, a quick five-minute session will suffice. “Increase this to 20 minutes for a cardio workout, and for a HIIT workout focus on working toward a target heart rate,” outlines Julce.
The elliptical machine fires up the cardiovascular system as your body moves in a gliding motion. Both your upper and lower body are involved in the exercise, as opposed to other cardio machines that target mainly the lower extremities. By changing the speed and incline, you can alternate between endurance and high-intensity training.
Predominant muscles worked: Pretty much the entire body. Your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, back, chest, shoulders, and abs will feel it. The calves and glutes are more isolated when gliding backward.
- Reduces stress on joints.
- Variety of ways to use a machine (e.g., forward, backward, incline, speed).
- Good for rehabilitation due to its low-impact nature and gliding motion across a flat plane.
- Can become boring and monotonous.
- Easy to plateau if you’re not changing the intensity throughout your workouts.
How long to spend on the elliptical: According to Julce, a good rule of thumb for cardio equipment is to spend 20-minute intervals for a more intense workout, and 30-45 minutes for endurance.
The stationary bike has a wide seat and backrest to provide added support during your ride, and also removes added stress from the joints. Many bikes come with a TV and internet to keep you entertained during your ride.
Predominant muscles worked: Hamstrings, calves, quads, glutes, and hip flexors.
- Low-impact workout (ideal for anyone with joint mobility concerns).
- Excellent to increase cardiovascular health.
- Low risk for injury.
- Mainly works the lower body.
- Uses less energy than other cardio machines such as the treadmill.
- Limited in workout variety.
How long to spend on the stationary bike: The stationary bike is a useful addition to incorporate steady-state exercise into your workout repertoire. In this case, Schenone suggests aiming for 30 minutes to one hour, maintaining an average heart rate throughout.
Spin bikes are popular in class settings for high-intensity interval training. Their adjustable resistance provides full control of your speed and output effort and allows you to cycle in a similar position as you would on the road. The main feature of a spin bike is its ability to generate serious speed in a safe environment, allowing you to improve your stamina without having to face the outdoor elements.
Predominant muscles worked: Hamstrings, calves, quads, glutes, hip flexors, shoulders, back, and core.
- Works the entire body with both cardio and strength benefits.
- Excellent for competition training.
- Variety of workout options.
- Higher risk of injury than the stationary bike given reduced support.
- Recruits the upper body only to an extent.
- The seat can become uncomfortable over long cycling durations.
How long to spend on the spin bike: Generally speaking, steady-state workouts should last around 45 minutes to one hour, with more intense bursts of exercise around the 20-minute mark. For strength-building purposes, the spin bike is also an excellent addition to your workout. Schenone says: “Perform this workout two to three times per week for a duration of 30–45 minutes.”
This powerful equipment replicates the motion of rowing in the water to work the entire body from top to bottom. Superb for building on your speed, power, and cardio output, the rowing machine can work you harder than some other cardio apparatuses.
Predominant muscles worked: This machine targets just about every major muscle group in the body, including the quads, hamstrings, calves, hips, glutes, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, and core.
- A full-body workout targeting all main muscle groups.
- Low-impact with a low risk of injury.
- Track your speed, heart rate, distance, time, and stroke rate at once.
- Can strain the lower back.
- Very strenuous for beginner exercisers.
- Noisy equipment.
How long to spend on the rowing machine: “For HIIT training purposes, it’s best to start with one intense rowing routine per week, and to keep all other workouts at a steady-state,” Schenone outlines. Its taxing nature and fast and efficient intervals, such as two- to three-minute speed rounds with a one-minute recovery, will ensure you reap the maximum benefits of this workout.