“What is the best cardio I can do at the gym?”

imagesOne of the most common questions I get asked especially from new clients is “What is the best cardio I can do at the gym?”  The true answer is “The one you’ll actually do!” 

I say that because all too often people have the best intentions to improve their cardiovascular endurance only to quit a few days or weeks later because:

  • They don’t get the results they thought they would or
  • They realize it’s HARD if they do it right or
  • They find it boring

Are there some that I think are better and more effective than others?  Sure, But the truth is even going for a slow walk is better than just sitting on the couch. If you can find something that you enjoy doing and it will keep you motivated to keep going then DO IT!   That said there are some forms of “cardio” that I feel are more effective than others.  In general I prefer those that incorporate the entire body as opposed to a focus on one particular area. 

My top 3 (and why):

Rowing Machine (aka “The Erg” or Medieval Torture Device):  First a disclaimer I row crew and have competed at several regattas including at US Nationals and Worlds so I am a bit partial to rowing, lol. Also we rowers have a love/hate relationship with the erg but it is a key piece to our training.

What is the least used piece of cardio equipment in any gym?  Without a doubt it’s the rowing machine.  Most gyms carry just a couple of them and many have none at all.  Those that do have them park them in the corner out of the way where they collect dust. 

Why don’t people use them?  The number one reason is it’s HARD! It takes work to use a rower and worse you can’t watch TV or read a book while rowing.  You not only have to use your legs but your arms and back as well.  And dammit you actually might sweat if you use the rower and we Americans hate to have to work up a sweat we avoid this machine like the plague.

Yet the benefits of rowing (this applies to on the water as well!) are undeniable.  As mentioned it is a full body workout that not only will challenge your cardio fitness but incorporate some strength building as well.  Another benefit is your core will be engaged on every stroke so you’re working towards those nice abs you want.  

One thing to make sure of is to use a proper stroke. I could (and do) spend hours teaching proper rowing form and you should be sure to learn the proper method. At the least check out this video from Concept 2.  When done correctly rowing causes very joint issues or other injuries.

On a side note rowers have been found to have the biggest hearts (both literally and figuratively) 

Swimming:  Swimming is a fantastic way to improve your cardio fitness.  In fact numerous studies have shown that overall swimmers have the best cardiovascular fitness of anyone.  Not only will you use your entire body and burn massive amounts of calories but you’ll have less wear and tear on your joints as your body is suspended in the water.  This is a large part of the reason I recommend swimming for my extremely obese clients.  When your body is fully immerged in the water it weighs as much as 90% less thus allowing you to get a good workout without causing stress to the body.

You also have a wide variety of strokes to choose from which allows for some variety in your workout.  The crawl, breaststroke, back stroke or any combination of them will give you a solid workout.

Boxing (or MMA training):   this one may surprise a lot of people by being on the list but as most of my clients can attest boxing is a killer way to burn calories.  In fact it is THE most popular part of our fitness and Bootcamp classes and has by far the highest attendance.  And think about this how many fat boxers have you seen?

Although most think of boxing as just punching with the arms it is a full body workout.  When done right you’ll be moving around and incorporating footwork.   Some (including us) incorporate kicks and knees into the workout as well.  Your abs will get a great workout also (hence all the 6 pack abs those boxers have)

A side benefit to boxing is that it is a GREAT stress reliever.  I can’t tell you how many people have said to me they love to box because it gets all the stress out of their body.  Oddly they seem to get the most stress out when they beat on me, lol.  

If you’ve never boxed before I encourage you to take a few classes with someone or seek out a personal trainer who has some experience in boxing.  They can show you the various punches and the proper way to do them so you don’t get injured.  Also key is having a good set of wraps and/or gloves to protect the hands if you are going to box often.

My not so top 3

Again I believe ANY cardio is better than none and if you choose to do these as opposed to sitting on the couch then GOOD FOR YOU!

That said these are my not so top 3 not because the particular machine isn’t good (they all are) but because of the way they are used.  These 3 in my opinion are the most misused pieces of equipment which is too bad because you can get TERRIFIC workouts using them.  Also all of these tend to work just one part of the body (in each case the legs).

Elliptical – Yep the “almighty” elliptical makes this list.  And yes I know in many gyms it is the most used piece of equipment.  Why?  Well there are 2 primary reasons.   

Number 1 is because it’s easy!   More often than not (WAYYYY more often) I see folks climb on the elliptical and set it to 1, 1.  That’s level 1 resistance and level 1 incline. They then dutifully “walk” for 30 minutes (while watching TV or reading a book), get down and head home thinking they’ve done a great workout.  But have they?  Well if they are a true beginner just starting out then maybe yes but if they are a little more seasoned then not so much.  

To get an effective workout you need to set the resistance to a level where it takes some effort to move.  There is no set number it depends on the person but you need to increase it from time to time in order to continue to challenge your body.  When is that time?  Well when the setting you are using becomes easy.  In other words when you get done you should feel like you couldn’t go another 5 minutes.

On a side note another issue I often see is that people will hold onto the handlebars, knuckles white, and lean forward starting at their feet below them.  You should be upright not hunched over and if you need to hold on for balance reason use a gentle touch.

Recumbent bike – Americans as a whole sit too much we slouch, have horrible posture and so on…. I bet you can figure out what I’m going to say next.   The majority of the time when I see people on the recumbent bike they are slouched down, reading the latest People magazine, casually pedaling with nary a bit of effort.  Oh occasionally they’ll ramp up the rpm’s a bit but then when it becomes effort or they can’t read the latest celeb gossip they slow down.  Really you’re on your ass all day long do you really think it’s that beneficial to sit on your ass and “workout” while reading a magazine?  You’re only fooling yourself.   

That said you can get a good workout using the bike.  In fact I recommend it for those with back issues, shoulder or neck issues.  Because you are sitting back you don’t have to hold the handlebars like on an upright bike which will take the pressure off of the neck and shoulders.  Just make sure you aren’t slouching down and put some effort into it.

Treadmill – Having this one on the list is going to piss some people off.  I’m committing heresy I know to some of you by putting the treadmill on the not so top 3 list.   But I have my reason.  #1 on the list is very similar to the elliptical which is people don’t make it challenging enough.  Let me talk about one individual I observed over the course of about 18 months.  To her credit she did a weight lifting routine 5 days a week and used the cardio as her “finisher”.  When she first started out she would set the treadmill at an incline of 5 with a speed of 4.0.  At first it was challenging but as she got stronger I could see it became easier and easier.

Fast forward 18 months and guess what setting she was using? You guessed it incline of 5, speed of 4.0.    Because she never changed the setting the benefits she could have gotten from the workout were reduced.  It’s also why after a while she seeing any results till I suggested she work in some interval and other setting changes. 

The other issue I’ve seen with treadmills is the incline setting.  Thinking they are getting a better workout if they “crank it up”.  There are a couple of issues with that. First as you increase the incline you are putting more pressure on your back and knees which can lead to issues or injury. Second the risk of falling increases as well especially if you increase the speed too quickly.  Most of the face plants I’ve seen on the treadmill happened when folks had the incline set pretty high and then increased their speed.

This is not to say you should never increase the incline. It is to say do so in moderate increments. Better to use a slightly lower incline and more speed to increase the challenge.

One final thought on all of these pieces of equipment.  A lot of folks use the calorie counts on them as gospel. Fact is more often than not they are wrong.  In some cases it’s because they manufactures set the calorie count for a specific type. One well known rowing machine gives calorie counts based on a 180 pound male.  If you aren’t male or 180 pounds well then those numbers don’t reflect what you actually burned. 

Worse some manufacturers deliberately misrepresent the calorie burn in order to make you think the equipment is giving you a better workout.  Some boy almost a third!  What does that mean?  Well you might think you burned 300 calories during the workout but actually only burned 200!

The best method an average person can use for tracking calorie burn is to wear a heart monitor. One I recommend is the Polar FT7.  

Let me reiterate I chose these as my not top 3 because of the way they are used not because they are bad pieces of equipment.

Finally I want to mention one other method of getting cardio in which costs nothing, gets you out into the fresh air and will help you burn calories. It is walking.  Getting out for a walk every day is a proven method for improving your overall fitness and it’s FREE! 




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About fullcirclefitnessny

I am a certified personal trainer specializing in Small Group, Bootcamp and 1:1 training. In addition I am a competitive athlete having played football for over 30 years. Currently I compete in crew (rowing) with the Saratoga Rowing Association and have been fortunate to competed at US Masters Nationals and Worlds. I also enjoy participating in several 5k races per year as well as cross country skiing and snow shoeing. My true passion is working with others like myself who have struggled with their weight. I lost over 100lbs and have kept it off for over 10 years. I know from personal experience how hard it is to get the weight off and get fit. Helping someone to achieve that goal is what makes me love what I do so much

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