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In a Sea of Machines at the Gym, Which One Will Help You Lose the Most Weight?

Hint: It will involve running

Asking what the best exercise machine is for weight loss is pretty much a trick question. That’s because muscle is a substantial contributor to a person’s overall weight, as it’s about 20 percent denser than fat. 

Therefore, I’m approaching this question from the standpoint of a boxer’s trainer who wants their client to lose the maximum amount of inefficient weight in the form of body fat, while also not gaining any additional muscle mass because they don’t want them to arrive at the pre-fight weigh-in over the weight limit. In short, we’re desirous of an exercise machine that would limit the addition of muscle while ensuring that the greatest percentage of fat is burned.

What qualities would such a machine have? 

First, it would enable users to burn a vast number of calories in each training session. Second, it would minimize the amount of muscle mass being gained as a direct result of its use. Third, it would allow users to maintain a high rate of caloric burn at a sustainable level of exertion for them. Fourth, if users had to temporarily back down from the top exertion rate they could maintain, they’d still be able to burn significant calories. Finally, it has to be reasonably easy for an uninitiated exerciser to use it — after all, a machine can’t be the best option for inducing weight loss in the largest number of people if only the people who are already in incredible physical shape are able to use it.

You’re wasting our time! We already know what your three favorite machines are — rower, skierg and stepmill! 

Give me a chance, please!

*Ahem*

Here’s how I’m going to prove this article is going to be on the up-and-up straight out of the gate: My beloved skierg is toast. On the high end, the heavyweights (by boxing standards) who clock in at 200 pounds or more have reported being able to burn around 600 calories per hour while using a skierg. The major problem with this calculation is that you generally have to churn away at those handles at an intense level of exertion for an entire hour just to burn that many calories, and very few people are capable of sustaining that level of strain, let alone on a machine that couldn’t land anywhere near the top of our list under any circumstances.

Not to mention, the skierg doesn’t engage the legs all that much (relatively speaking at least). The leg muscles are the largest in the human body, and the chief burners of calories. I love the skierg as an active-rest device on some of my upper-body training days, but it’s never going to contend with the top calorie burners.

Trying to engender goodwill by disposing of one of your favorites early, eh? We’re not buying it. The next thing we know, you’ll be getting rid of the stepmill.

I do credit the stepmill with enabling me to incinerate fat like crazy before my wedding, and I also credit the stepmill as one of the reasons I’ve been able to put off leg day for literal years at this point. From a workout efficiency standpoint, if I go to the gym and the stepmill is available, I’m grabbing it, because it allows me to work the muscles I want to work in my lower body, and it allows me to exercise at a fast enough rate to burn plenty of fat and overall calories. I’ve delved into the 1,000-calorie-per-workout range on the stepmill many times, while utterly exhausting the muscles in my legs.

But here are the two problems: First of all, we’re discussing complete weight loss and not just fat burning, and the stepmill has actually helped me to gain and maintain muscle mass in my legs. On top of that, the stepmill can be downright brutal if you use it correctly. Don’t lock out your arms at the top, and force your legs to press the full weight of your body upwards, and then you’ll be bearing the full brunt of the exhausting repetitions. There’s a reason why many people, even at relatively low levels of exertion, will tapout on the stepmill in well under 15 minutes their first few times using it.

Interesting, but this column can only have one winner, and the rowing machine is your true favorite anyway. You’d never say a negative word about it.

Under normal circumstances, that would be true, but these aren’t normal circumstances.

A Concept2 rowing machine is going to fall off of the contenders’ list for a few reasons. Yes, I’m in love with it. Yes, it’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to skip leg day forever. Yes, that also works against it for our purposes because it actually helps to build muscles. In fact, the rowing machine has been shown to work up to 86 percent of the muscles in the human body to varying degrees, with the legs being worked to a greater level of intensity than any of the other muscles.

However, I’m disqualifying it under this heading for different reasons: When you back down from your peak level of exertion on the rower and slow your rowing cadence, your calorie-burning rate plummets. Again, this is another case where casually rowing for an hour or so will burn significant calories and fat, but not at a level that can compete with some of the other machines that allow you to sustain your caloric burn for a longer period of time.

Even more importantly, rowing is highly technical, and without proper instruction, people can spend months training on a rower without optimizing the machine’s benefits. 

Finally, some people may have difficulty physically operating a rowing machine or working it through its full range of motion, where your quads can find themselves pressed right into your chest and abdominals before you initiate the catch. Not everyone is capable of comfortably assuming this position, so the rower can be an advanced, muscle-building, fat-burning tool for a later stage of fitness progression. It’s not going to be ideal for us right now, though.

We’re shocked. Truly shocked. You’ve eliminated all three of your favorite cardio machines. Okay, so who wins?

This is going to sound boring, but I’m afraid I have to award the victory to the treadmill. At its highest levels, seasoned trainees can burn into the 1,000-plus calorie range over the course of an hour. However, even at lower speed levels, you can adjust the incline and optimize your speed to burn the maximum number of calories at the speed you feel most comfortable with, while easily accelerating or decelerating your speed whenever it’s required. 

This machine is also easy for anyone with two functioning legs to use at some level, even if they’ve never trained before, because it requires no specialized knowledge or technique tips to use effectively. Finally, the treadmill is also going to cause you to gain a minimal amount of new weight due to muscle growth. (It won’t, though, give you a six-pack.)

So, yeah, I’m not saying I’m in love with the treadmill or that I’d ever use it if any of my other cherished cardio-training devices are available, because I’m usually trying to get plenty of muscle engagement during my cardiovascular training sessions. That said, the treadmill is legitimately the best training tool for overall weight loss for the greatest number of people. Just don’t expect to find me on one if my beloved stepmill is vacant.

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