If you can only use one piece of cardio equipment, which should it be - cross trainer, bike, treadmill or rower?
For many people joining a gym or a weekly fitness class is not an option, and if you have never been properly introduced to exercise then it can be hard to follow a workout by yourself. So home exercise equipment can literally be a lifesaver. But which is best?
There are really 4 different exercise machines that people think of when considering buying a piece of cardio equipment for the home:
Elliptical / Cross Trainer
They all have their strengths and weaknesses. We really cannot answer the question, “which is best?” – this was deliberately misleading – because each form of exercise can be the best for you, depending on your personal circumstances.
Treadmills, a.k.a. running machines, are in a way the most basic of the exercise machines. If you can walk, you can use a treadmill. They were invented as a way for runners to continue to train indoors during harsh winters, but are now commonplace in every gym and fitness club.
Benefits of a Treadmill
As mentioned, they provide a way for you to carry on running when the weather is too miserable to get out (safely). Many people do run in snow, however, you have to be a seasoned runner and have the right sort of clothing to be able to run safely when the ground is frozen. So one benefit of a treadmill is that it allows you to run any time of the year. They are also good if you do not feel safe running in your neighborhood at night, and cannot run any other time.
Treadmills also have another big benefit – they control your pace. Unlike bikes, rowers and cross trainers, you have to run at the speed currently dictated by the treadmill. While this may be seen as a negative point, especially for those who are just starting to get it, it can be a great way to force yourself to work hard – you cannot slow down when feeling tired, you have to push yourself to complete the workout at full speed – or press the stop button!
Drawbacks of Treadmills
This may seem obvious – but they are only good for running. OK, walking too. While running is an excellent way to get fit, it does not provide any upper body exercise. Also, for anyone who lives in a nice area, running outdoors can be safer and healthier.
Another problem with treadmills is that you are not in control – the treadmill dictates your speed. With rowers, elliptical and bikes you dictate the speed – if you get tired, you slow down. On a treadmill, if you get tired, you have to reduce the speed of the machine, or you fall off!
In overweight and unfit individuals, running can place a lot of strain on the joints, especially the knees, hips and ankles. Running injuries are not uncommon. Of all the types of fitness equipment running is the highest impact.
So, while treadmills are an excellent choice for seasoned runners who cannot get out to run sometimes, they are not the best option for people not used to running. You have to be a reasonable good runner to get the best results from a treadmill. If you do choose a treadmill you may find this article helpful: Running Workouts For Speed and Endurance.
Stationary Exercise Bikes
Exercise bikes are possibly the easiest piece of equipment to use. You do not need to know how to ride a bike to use one – you just sit and peddle. They can provide a very intensive workout, and modern exercise bikes are designed to be easily stored away (although out of sight often means out of mind).
Benefits of Exercise Bikes
As mentioned, they are easy to use. You do not need to be fit to start using them. As you remain seated you are exercising in a much safer way – there is no risk of tripping or falling. You are also in complete control of the intensity – you can slow down the pace if you start to feel extremely tired, and stop pedaling completely if you come over faint.
Peddling is also a low impact exercise, making it good for the joints. Many pro cyclists manage to compete for many years longer than runners or rowers because of the limited strain on the body.
Exercise bikes allow you to perform very high intensity exercise with little risk of injury as there is no back-and-forth motion used, as is the case with ellipticals and rowers. “Spinning” classes have become a popular group exercise class in many gyms – a class of individuals follow set cycling routines and instructions from a teacher, usually along with motivational music.
One other great benefit of exercise bikes is that they can get you fit for real cycling, and outdoor cycling is very healthy and provides a great way to see your local neighborhood and countryside.
Read more about cycling for fitness here - this article also covers cycling safety..
Problems with Exercise Bikes
However, as with treadmills, exercise bikes do not work the upper body. If this is the only workout you do each week you will be neglecting the top half of your body. While you will still improve your cardiovascular fitness and increase leg strength, you will not be toning the upper body or improving arm strength.
Rowers / Rowing Machines
Rowing machines are in a way very similar to ellipticals. They provide an intensive workout that is low impact and work both the upper and lower body.
A good rowing machine can be programmed to set a workout with varying resistance, however, unlike the treadmill, adjusting your speed means that you can control the pace of the workout.
Benefits of Rowing Machines
Modern rowers provide an excellent fitness workout which works both upper and lower muscles. You can perform either long endurance sessions or fast and intensive sessions. Being in full control of the movement and seated means that injury risk is minimal. Like with any exercise, there are many ways to approach it – see our article on Rowing Workouts for some advice.
Problems with Rowing Machines
There are really no major issues with rowers. When intensive rowing is performed there is much more of a jolting movement in the exercise – not the smooth / circular movement you get from cycling or using an elliptical machine. Therefore there is additional impact and strain on the body. Poor technique could result in lower back problems, however, once you learn the proper rowing method you should not suffer from this.
Some people do experience knee strains when rowing. This is mostly due to poor form though, again, with some good instruction and good exercise form there should not be any problem.
Ellipticals / Cross Trainers
Not all ellipticals are equal. You should always try out an elliptical machine before buying one for your home as the motion and size of the machines varies considerably, and an ill-suited machine will very quickly put you off using it.
Benefits of Ellipticals
Ellipticals / Cross Trainers have three main benefits over treadmills:
- They work the upper body as well as the lower body.
- They provide a low impact exercise – better for the knees and ankles.
- You control the intensity of the workout.
You can both push and pull the handles on an elliptical to work your muscles in both directions – this is a benefit over a rowing machine as you only work the pulling muscles on a rower.
The low impact nature of ellipticals (your feet do not leave the “ground”) means that injuries are far less frequent. In fact, many runners use ellipticals when recovering from an injury.
While you can increase or reduce the resistance of an elliptical, you can also slow down and speed up at will to adjust the intensity of the workout, as it is also possible on a bicycle and rower. We have written up some Cross Training / Elliptical Workouts to help you plan your workouts.
Problems with Ellipticals
There are not really any major issues with ellipticals. However, some people just do not get used to them at all. If you do not enjoy your exercise you will not stay motivated.
They also tend to be more expensive and more costly to maintain due to the large moving parts. A good elliptical is powered by an electromagnetic disc which provides the variable resistance – these electronics can fail. We recommend that when shopping for an elliptical it is especially important to check the warranty – and check how repairs are fixed. Some companies will send an engineer to your home (good) while others will expect you to ship it to the factory (bad).
Really, the best exercise machine is the one that you enjoy using the most. For complete beginners to exercise, especially those of you who exercise alone, it is best to avoid using a treadmill. These have the highest risk of injury (from stumbling and falling when tired) and also running is the highest impact exercise. However, if you wish to use running as your way to get fit, and maybe even compete in local fun runs and races, then a treadmill is the logical choice.
As for rowers, bicycles and ellipticals, there is not much between them. Rowing and cycling are skills that you can take from your home into the outside world – you could join a rowing club or buy a road bike or mountain bike and get some outdoor exercise. Ellipticals do not provide any useful transferable skills (unless you enjoy cross-country skiing, then they may be useful), but they do provide a good upper and lower body workout, and are the only machine where you can push with the arms as well as pull.
We hope this helps you choose your first piece of home fitness equipment. Always consider all the options available though, do not limit yourself. You could always buy an exercise bike and some dumbbells and get a full body workout this way, and then in the summer you could head out on the road and imagine yourself as the next Bradley Wiggins or Lance Armstrong!