It seems like everyone has a favorite apparatus or type of apparatus when trying to get into shape. For many gym goers, the cardio machines beckon to them from the door. They are easy and mostly foolproof. Basically, you get on and go. Barring the odd misplaced step, they also tend to be pretty safe. This appeals to most people because, well, see above for foolproof. The problem is that cardio machines, whether you are talking treadmills, ellipticals, Stairmasters or stationary bikes, are repetitive and boring. Our bodies acclimate to them quickly and begin to show little to no return on investment. Sure you can take a spin around the various programs available on most cardio machines. And, yes, you can play with elevation and resistance. But there is no escaping the cold, hard facts. These bad boys only go in one direction and only repeat the same motion and, sadly, the motion is suspiciously similar across all of these machines.
In training terms, they utilize the sagittal plane (forward/backward movement), mostly forward, and that’s it. Yes, you can get creative and go backwards on some which is good but still it’s the same basic motion. For the avid fitness fan, cardio machines serve a couple of acceptable purposes. They are okay to warm up on. They are good for an active recovery period between sets. And, they are good for your easy days when you don’t want to think and just want to feel your heart rate go up, get a good sweat on, hopefully triggering a few endorphins for the day. However, for the average gym goer, cardio machines equate to what they think is a lot of work with diminishing results. I can’t tell you how many steadfast people I’ve seen show up day after day, hop on their favorite machine, and take it for a 2 hour cruise only to shed very little by way of pounds or muscle gain. Disappointed, they eventually give up, concluding they are physically incapable of losing the weight they so desperately want or need to lose.
Two interesting variations on cardio machines are rowing machines and spin bikes. Spin bikes have been hugely popular for a number of years and with good cause. They offer high intensity cardio set to music with energetic teachers. With no impact, they can be good for people with a variety of injuries and the nearly infinite resistance is completely within the control of the rider. While still highly repetitive (sit, stand, turn knob up, turn knob down, go forward, now go backward), spin bikes offer most a very good sweat as well as a great endorphin rush, accomplishing good stress relief for those who really throw themselves into their rides. In the few years, I’ve also seen some very creative approaches being taken with the spin bike generation that definitely peak my curiosity in a positive way. Some forward thinking souls have found ways to implement a lot more core into their spin bike classes and that I find very interesting. I would say my biggest note of caution is for those who build leg muscles easily and for those with certain knee issues as too much resistance can exacerbate your knee problems (for some, any resistance may create issues).
Rowing machines are conversely an awesome upper body cardio workout in a field littered with forward motion leg machines seeking to simulate running or biking. They are very popular with CrossFit boxes that have brought the rowing machine out of relative obscurity. When I first began training, the club I worked in offered one rowing machine that was rarely in use. Today, I can peek into any CrossFit box to find numerous rowing machines lined up against a wall either in use or waiting patiently for someone to hop on to perform the 2 or 3 minute stint in the day’s WOD.
With any cardio machine, I offer the following guidance to my clients—once maybe twice per week and change it up if possible. However, my normal recommendation is to err on the side of caution and send my clients to an elliptical machine to plug in an interval training program with instructions to push as hard as they can for 30-45 minutes. Why? With no impact and no assistance from a motorized belt, the elliptical machine keeps their joints the safest while not under my watchful eye but still forces them to do the work they need.