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What is the most effective cardio machine in the gym?

Ask yourself these questions every time you enter the gym to determine the best way to get your heart rate up.
Side view of beautiful muscular woman running on treadmill.
The treadmill is the best option if you’re training for a race or trying to lose weight.nortonrsx / Getty Images / iStockphoto

As if getting yourself to the gym didn’t take enough mental power, once you get there you’re faced with a building full of equipment to navigate. You narrow down your workout plan to cardio, which helps, but then find yourself staring down a handful of machines that will all get the job done.

Should you hop on the treadmill? Maybe the elliptical or stationary bike is a better option. You have heard the StairMaster is a real calorie burner. Which workout is your best bet?

It turns out they all are — but for different reasons.

One piece of cardio equipment is not better than another, Amanda Katz, personal trainer and Equinox group fitness coach, told TODAY. “It depends on the individual’s goals and what they enjoy doing,” she said. “The best option is the one you can stick to over time and sustain.”

So ask yourself: Why I am exercising? Are you trying to improve your endurance? Do you want to work up a sweat or burn off stress? Do you want to lose weight?

Once you’ve narrowed down your specific goals, certain machines will rise to the top as the most effective for getting you there.


The best option if:

  • You’re training for a race
  • You’re trying to lose weight
  • You need to de-stress

Running is a total-body cardio workout,” said Katz. “I would recommend a treadmill workout as a great indoor option for those who enjoy both running and walking.”

How you use the treadmill will determine the type of workout you get. “A treadmill can be low impact or high impact. It’s low impact if you walk; it’s high impact and harsher on the joints, knees, hips and ankles when you run,” said personal trainer and TODAY fitness contributor Stephanie Mansour. For this reason, she only recommends running on a treadmill for those without joint issues who are close to their goal weight (so that they don’t have extra weight pounding on the joints with each step).

Both running and walking are calorie-burning exercises that can help you lose weight. If you’re looking to exercise for your mental health, Mansour encourages keeping a walking pace. “As a weight- loss coach, I incorporate cardio as a stress-relieving activity,” she said. “I encourage people to go on walks to clear their heads, reduce stress and feel more relaxed.”


Best option if:

  • You want a full-body workout
  • You have joint issues
  • You want to offset running or HIIT with a lower-impact workout

“I recommend this as a cross-trainer for runners, as well as anyone who wants a lower-impact option for a great cardio workout,” said Katz.

If you want to work up a sweat or do some interval training, but aren’t able to run due to joint issues or other injuries, the elliptical is a great low-impact option. 

“This is a good cardio workout for someone who wants to go fast, but can’t run on the treadmill,” said Mansour. “It’s a low-impact way to go fast and you can do intervals — going fast or hard for a minute and then slowing it down for a minute.”

Mansour said that while “the elliptical is a form of low-impact exercise, you’re still standing up so there is some pressure on the knees.” She also cautions that it can be a bit awkward at first for those who have not used the machine before, as it’s not a natural movement we use in our daily lives.


Best option if:

  • You’re looking to build lower-body strength
  • You’re trying to lose weight
  • You want to challenge your core

The endless loop of stairs makes for a challenging workout. “It is both a great cardio and strength option, especially when you use your arms as opposed to holding on to the handlebars or leaning,” said Katz.

Not only does the StairMaster serve as a cardio workout that will get your heart rate up, but it tones the lower body. “A StairMaster is good for someone who wants to focus on building the butt. As you climb the stairs, you have to activate your quads and your glutes because you’re moving up and therefore engaging the back of the leg and glutes,” said Mansour. When you don't lean on the handlebars, the machine also works your core.

Mansour does not recommend the StairMaster for those with joint issues or someone who already has a hard time going up the stairs.

Stationary bike

Best option if:

  • You have back or lower-body injuries
  • Your upper body is sore
  • You're looking to do some active recovery on a rest day

The “indoor bike is going to be lower-body centric in a seated position,” said Katz. “I definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys outdoor biking and who wants a cardio workout without pounding on the joints. It also serves as a cross-training option for runners."

“For anyone who is rehabbing or wants very, very low impact on the joints, the stationary bike is the way to go,” agreed Mansour. “You can literally sit like you would in a chair and pedal your feet. This is great for people who need to improve mobility and move more.” 

Katz warns that “if being in the sedentary position is painful for extended periods, it may be taxing on the low back.”

Rowing machine

Best option if:

  • You’re sore from yesterday’s workout
  • You want a full-body workout, minus the impact of a treadmill
  • You’re looking to increase your endurance

The rowing machine — or ergometer (erg, for short) — “is an all-encompassing machine, offering the caliber of endurance and stamina that the treadmill gives you, as well as providing a low-impact experience for your joints,” says Caley Crawford, personal trainer and Director of Education for Row House. “The amount of muscular activation (85 percent) in rowing is higher than other activities using machines like the treadmill or elliptical.”

It’s also a great option for people who may be sore or recovering from a tough workout the day before. “You can use the erg daily, without hindering your physical progress,” says Crawford. “Rowing is a low-impact movement, reducing the risk of injury. You can use the machine for aerobic training, anaerobic training or muscular recovery, depending on what your body needs that day.”

One important note: You’ll need to know how to row correctly in order to gain the maximum benefits the machine can offer, says Crawford. So be sure to ask a trainer in the gym for a quick primer before hopping on — or check out a rowing class to learn the basics before incorporating it into workouts on your own. 


Best option if:

  • You want a cardio workout that also works the upper body
  • You're looking to work up a serious sweat 
  • You want to maximize your calorie burn

Vertical climbing machines — like the VersaClimber — are designed to mimic a natural climbing motion. “This is another great ‘uphill’ or hiking style cardio and strength workout that engages your total body, actively using both upper and lower body,” said Katz. 

Because the machine engages the entire body, the workout is an intense calorie-burner — and best for those who are in healthy physical condition. “A vertical climbing machine is good for anyone without current joint issues — including shoulder joint issues. If you feel pretty good overall, then you can try out one of these machines for cardio,” said Mansour. “This is not good for people who can’t reach their arms up without pain or have knee/ankle issues.”

The Takeaway: Mix it up

The moral of the story? No one machine is better than the rest. Each one offers up specific benefits that will better serve you at different points in your fitness journey as your goals evolve and change. Instead of defaulting to the same machine when it’s time to log some cardio, take advantage of what each has to offer and incorporate them into your routine accordingly.

In general, Mansour recommends strength training three days a week and doing cardio two to three days a week. The best way to get that cardio in is specific to your body and goals — but mixing it up, say with a walk one day, hopping on a spin bike another, and doing a HIIT workout the next, will keep your workout routine interesting and your body guessing.