The 10 best cardio machines at the gym
Hear the word “cardio” and immediately groan? TBH, same. And that's because I can't seem to break up with the image of college-aged me counting the remaining milliseconds while wildly running (á la Phoebe Buffay) on the treadmill. Sure, it might take me years of therapy to conquer my cardio-related challenges, but knowledge, as they say, is power. Knowing how key cardio truly is for overall wellbeing is enough to kick my tush into gear. Still not sold? Take it from the pros.
"When people think of 'cardio,' they usually only think of the heart and the cardiovascular components of it. However, it also strengthens the respiratory and muscular systems," says Lauren Kanski, a NASM-certified personal trainer based in New York City. "So, we have to fit cardio into our fitness routines to connect the dots between all three systems to deliver oxygen and other critical nutrients efficiently throughout the body." Plus, cardio excels at burning excess calories and, thus, fat.
You should generally aim to do a cardio workout three to four times at week, each time for 30 minutes to an hour, says Kanski. "Our bodies are extremely adaptive and can lose progress very quickly, so it’s important to stay consistent. The more we are over time, the better the results and improved endurance."
Easier said than done, especially if your only form of cardio at the gym is running on the treadmill or spinning your wheels on a stationary bike—both of which can get boring AF after a while. So, consider opting for new cardio machines that make feeling the burn a whole lot less, well, blah. These are the best cardio machines at the gym to start adding into your mix, stat.
1 Rowing Machine
Why trainers love it: You don't have to be a Winklevoss twin to row your way to winning shape—something that's nearly guaranteed if you keep up with indoor rowing. That's because it's a true total-body workout that, in Kanski's words, "torches cals."
"When done right, you are working everything from head to toe, with an emphasis on your back side," says Renee Peel, NSCA-certified personal trainer based in New York City. "Essentially, it is the deadlift of cardio machines, because you drive off your legs, support with your core and grip and pull."
Where to start: Form is especially essential when it comes to using the indoor rower so head to YouTube to watch some tutorials. Then, Kanski recommends starting with 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off; or a slow 1,000 to 2,000-meter row.
If you want to level up: Go for 10 sets of 500-meter rows with a one-minute rest interval between each, per Kanski who's "sending prayers now!"
Why trainers love it: "Like the rower, you can't cheat," Kanski says. "On ellipticals, arc trainers, spin bikes, etc., you can let go of the handles and the machine will still go with your legs. That's not the case here."
What is the case? A heart-pounding workout that not only calls upon your legs but also the upper body and core, both of which really feel the burn with this machine. And unlike your tried-and-true treadmill (read: running), this cardio machine is light on your joints.
Where to start: For newbies (*raises hand*), begin by learning form, so you can use the correct breathing techniques to keep up with with the movement mechanics of each rep, Kanski says. Then go for 20 to 30 minutes of 250 to 500-meter at light intensity with two- to three-minute rest intervals.
If you want to level up: For a total of 20 to 30 minutes, alternate between three minutes all out, one minute off. "Time yourself and try to beat the distance covered in three minutes every time," Kanski recommends.
Why trainers love it: "It's so functional! It can be made more challenging but also works for beginners as well with little skill required," Peel says.
That being said, it still totally gets your heart pumping as it works your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and core. "It directly targets the concentric part of our walking/running gait and immediately spikes heart rate," Kanski says.
Where to start: When just beginning, stick to tangible goals such as aiming to climb 50 floors, Peel suggests.
If you want to level up: Then with every workout session that follows, add 20 floors until you hit 110 floors, per Peel. "Make note of the time it takes you to complete each (50, 70, 90, and 110 floors), then repeat this the following week from 50 floors with the goal of beating each time from the previous week."
Why trainers love it: Because it's challenging AF—so much so that Kanski calls it the "Devil’s bike." Like other bikes, it's low-impact on the joints but this one goes even further by keeping the core engaged and entire body connected as a unit. It also helps with posture as it calls upon the upper- and middle-back muscles, per Kanski.
Easy to use and very accessible, consider this bike your "go-to when you are looking to get a solid calorie burn and test your heart capacity and mental fortitude!" Peel says.
Where to start: Keep it simple. Bike for about 20 minutes at a moderate intensity.
If you want to level up: Both Peel and Kanski recommend going for 30s: bouncing between 30 seconds going all out and 30 seconds to recover for anywhere between 10 to 20 minutes.
Why trainers love it: When it comes to versatility, no other machine holds a candle to the treadmill, especially this one from Woodway which is made of shock-absorbing slats designed to reduce shock to joints, muscles, and tissues. Dreadmill, this guy is not!
Plus, you can walk, jog, sprint, and even raise the incline to be "hilly," making it a super effective and efficient machine for all types of cardio conditioning, Kanski says. "I personally like it because 90 percent of the population sits at a desk all day, so it gets people on their feet and the whole body contributes to the movement."
Where to start: Thirty minutes of walking or jogging at a 2 percent incline—or at the very least a 1 percent incline, which, mimics the "walking gradient outside," Kanski explains.
If you want to level up: Play around with the incline and speed. To make the time go by faster, change something every minute for 30 to 45 minutes. For Kanski, this sometimes means alternating between one minute of sprinting and one minute of walking, both at a 2 percent incline. Other times, she'll put the treadmill up to 10 percent incline and alternate between jogging and walking every minute.
6 Indoor Cycling Bike
Why trainers love it: Legs. For. Days. "Due to its low joint impact, spinning can be used for extremely long duration endurance training," Kanski says. "This can help build up stamina for events such as triathlons, marathons, etc."
Where to start: For a lower intensity, starter-level sweat sesh, Kanski suggests trying to keep the same pace for 30 minutes or 10 miles, pedaling faster if your resistance is low and slower if your resistance is higher. The goal is to be steady and consistent.
If you want to level up: Head for the hill...climbs. (Eh? eh?) For 40 to 50 minutes, do five sets of eight-minute climbs with a two-minute rest interval. Just be sure to watch the wattage on the bike and try to stay above 180 to 200+ watts during your climb.
Watts are a measure of power output. Monitoring your watts on a ride is a great way to get faster and measure progress—180 to 200 is a higher standard range but it can totally vary. You can try for a higher average watt over time, or you can do intervals at different watts if you aren’t on a steady climb.
Why trainers love it: Because it's a treadmill without (I repeat: without) a motor, so you do all of the work. "It challenges not only your cardiovascular ability but your muscular coordination with power, agility, speed, and stamina," Kanski explains. It also targets your glutes and hamstrings more than a regular treadmill while still giving your core a workout of its own. Another difference from the plain ole treadmill?
The SkillMill is sans-screen, meaning you set the intensity without knowing any numbers like speed, incline, etc. All together, Kanski finds the SkillMill to provide an even more efficient cardio sesh (think: higher heart rate, more cals burned) compared to when she goes the same distance on the regular treadmill.
Where to start: Since this cardio machine's a little different than your usual cardio equipment, Kanski recommends starting off slowly. Walk, jog, or run for 20 to 30 minutes to get familiar with it.
If you want to level up: Sprints, sprints, sprints! For a total of 15 to 30 minutes, you want to do 15 seconds on (sprinting), 30 to 45 seconds off.
8 Spin Bike
Why trainers love it: Not only will this bike get your heart pumping—especially with all those energizing classes!—but it will also give your quads, glutes, calves, and hamstrings a winning workout. "Spinning is light on the joints which helps with recovery but one of the best ways to condition," Kanski says.
Where to start: Try a few beginner's workouts and slowly build from there. Kanski and Peels both recommend aiming for 30-minute options at least. "Peloton classes are great for people who love the liveliness and extra push of group fitness classes but don’t want to leave their own home," adds Kanski. "The teachers are all highly certified and well-known, which allows a virtual community to develop. It becomes another social platform to help hold you accountable towards your goals."
If you want to level up: Start taking intermediate or advanced classes that are longer and more intense. Pro tip: "You can also pause rides and make your metrics disappear, if you want to ride at your own pace on your time, which is great option for when you're getting used to the flow of a new class," Kanski says.
9 Arc Trainer
Why trainers love it: If you sit all day (and, tbh, who doesn't?), this easy-to-use machine will get you upright and off your butt—key elements of a good cardio sesh.
Similar to a few other machines like the StairMill, the ArcTrainer mimics hiking and targets the lower body (think: glutes, quads). But, wait, that's not all! This machine also blasts the upper body as much as the lower, thereby burning more cals and keeping more muscles engaged.
Where to start: Turn the resistance up to 25 to 30, the incline to 15 percent, and maintain a steady pace for 20 to 30 minutes. Feel like focusing more on the upper body? Stop moving your legs and just use your arms, Kanski says. And the opposite is true if you want your bottom to have more of the burn.
If you want to level up: Bring on the intervals! Kanski suggests amping up the incline to 20 percent and then alternating between one minute at a resistance of 30 and one minute at 80, for a total of 20 to 30 minutes.
Why trainers love it: Because you can't cheat—once you strap your feet in and hold the handles, you have to get to work, Peel says. While this cardio machine might look a bit Machiavellian, it's actually totally trusted by trainers and celebs alike. I don't want to drop names but...word on the street is Jennifer Aniston is quite the pro VersaClimbe-r herself. Which makes sense given the machine works your whole body with a especially strong focus on legs and core.
Where to start: Peel suggests 10 short power intervals at 20 seconds each with a 20- to 30-second rest in between. Then, after a quick two to three minute rest, jump back in for another eight to 10 intervals.
If you want to level up: The easiest way to amp up the difficulty, per Peel, is simply increase the resistance.