You walk into the gym and see the usual assortment of cardio equipment. You have one goal in mind for this workout: burn calories in the shortest amount of time. Which exercise machine should you choose?
First of all, don’t trust the numbers on the machines. Manufacturers purposely exaggerate the number of calories burned on their equipment to make their product appear to be more effective. Secondly, any machine is only as effective as the effort your put forth. It’s pretty easy to cheat on most cardio machines to make the motion more effortless, but this will only cause you to burn fewer calories. If it feels easy, you aren’t getting a good workout.
Keeping that in mind, here are the five most common pieces of cardio equipment and how they stack up against each other in the fat burning department.
500-1000 calories per hour
Bicycling uses the strong quadriceps muscles to generate a significant calorie burn on a simple piece of equipment. However, it can be easy to let momentum do all the work while you pedal along at a leisurely pace. For effective fat burning, shoot for a pace of at least 85 rotations per minute (rpm), and turn up the resistance to a level that has you breathing hard. For an even more effective workout, choose an interval workout on the bikes display, or create your own.
600-1200 calories per hour
Running is a good full-body motion with the potential to burn a lot of fat. In fact, sprinting up an incline is one of the best ways to burn calories and boost your metabolism for hours after your workout. For an effective treadmill workout, choose one of three options:
Jog: Running at a steady pace will burn significant calories if you choose a pace that is challenging for you.
Walk uphill: Trudging up a steep incline can be physically demanding and a good way to burn fat. Just don’t make the mistake of holding onto the railings. This takes weight off of your legs and negates the benefits of the incline.
Sprint: Alternating bursts of full effort with periods of recovery is the best way to burn calories and stimulate your fat burning hormones. For an extra challenge, sprint uphill.
By the way, don’t bother walking on the treadmill (with no incline) if your goal is to burn calories. Walking should be reserved for two instances: if you are recovering between bursts of full effort (like sprinting), or if you’re just making the transition from a sedentary lifestyle and need to ease into exercise.
600-800 calories per hour
Elliptical trainers are highly variable, and the calorie-burn estimates are largely unreliable. It is also easy to cheat on these machines. Once the elliptical gets moving, the inertia of all of the moving parts can make it really easy to keep going. That’s why it’s especially important on elliptical machines to choose a high resistance. A high resistance is more important than a fast pace when it comes to burning fat on ellipticals.
If the machine has handles that allow you to pump your arms as you run, use them. These will engage the muscles of your upper body and help to burn more calories. If the machine doesn’t include an arm motion, again, don’t lean on the railings. Doing so will significantly reduce your calorie burn.
Rowing is an excellent full-body workout with the potential to burn over 1000 calories per hour. To tap into this potential, you should use a high resistance and fast pace. If you feel like Noah leisurely rowing Allie across the lake (yes, that’s a Notebook reference), then you aren’t working hard enough.
Caution: Rowing is not a motion that most people are accustomed to, so make sure to peek at the instructional diagrams and use proper form. Start slow, and if you start feeling pain—especially in your lower back–stop before you hurt yourself.
800-1400 calories per hour
This has to be the most masochistic contraption at the gym. I’m not talking about the machine that has you pump your legs in a short stair-climbing motion. Those things are useless. I’m talking about the never-ending rotating belt of stairs that can bring the fittest of athletes to their knees.
The stair climber works the powerful muscles of your thighs and butt while engaging your core and lower legs as well. That makes for a hard workout but a fantastic calorie burn. However, this is only possible if you avoid cheating. More than any other machine, clutching the railings and supporting your weight with your arms will destroy the calorie-burning potential of the stair climber. If you need stability, touch your knuckles to the railings as your climb. This will help you keep your balance without taking too much weight off of your legs.
Since climbing stairs is much more difficult than jogging on a flat surface, simply go hard for shorter periods of time. You can climb at a quick pace, stop and rest, then hop back on and repeat. That will be more effective than leaning on the railings.
- Don’t trust the “calories burned” numbers displayed on cardio machines.
- The calories you can burn on any piece of equipment depends mostly on your level of exertion.
- Full body exercises such as rowing and running usually burn more calories than isolated activities like cycling.
Whatever machine you prefer, make sure to switch it up every once and a while. This will keep your body from adapting to the same old exercise and maximize your calorie burn (see my article “What’s the deal with ‘Muscle Confusion'”).
If you’re looking for some great interval workouts you can do on all types of cardio equipment, check out the Interval Training workouts available on the workout downloads page.
Which cardio machines work best for you? Do you have a favorite cardio workout for the gym? Tell us about it in the comments section below!