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Which Cardio Machine Should I Let Kick My Ass — the Treadmill, Bike or Elliptical?

If I’m going to remove myself from the couch, I may as well get the most out of it

Perhaps no single sight screams “You’ve just entered a modern health club!” quite like the daunting wall of cold steel supplied by the rows upon rows of cardio equipment that greet you as you first set foot inside of your chosen gym. All that cold steel typically belongs to three types of exercise machines — the treadmill, the bike and the elliptical. But if you only have time for one of them, or are a total gym noob whose motivation is high but whose training knowledge is low, which should you select, and why?

I should use the treadmill, right?

Well, if you already think you have all the answers, why are you even talking to me? Actually, no, I would not have you use the treadmill for a variety of reasons, but I’ll start with the most obvious one: Once you’ve walked into a gym, why would I start off by encouraging you to devote your time to an exercise you could have performed outside for free? You can walk anywhere you please, so what’s the point of having you do it at the gym?

I’ll answer those questions for you (they were, after all, rhetorical): There isn’t a whole lot of sense behind asking you to devote your rented gym time to a machine that replicates two activities — walking and running — that you can do just about anywhere else at zero cost. And that’s before we even get into the basic mechanics of the workouts.

Wait… Don’t tell me you’re going to have me use the elliptical. A lot of people I respect have told me those things are trash.

I might tell you that, eventually, but we’re not quite there yet.

Another thing I have to consider — for the sake of your own gym-going longevity — is how easily you might believe you can replace the gym, at least in your own mind. About 43 percent of gym attendees use treadmills, and they’re also the best-selling fitness products in the U.S., with sales up 135 percent since 2020. On top of that, a more-than-adequate treadmill sells for $1,100, while the average person with a gym membership is spending roughly $500 annually to pay for that membership.

Here’s what I’m getting at: If I allow you to convince yourself that all of the functionality of your gym membership can be replaced by spending two years’ worth of gym fees up front on one piece of equipment and then remaining at home, what good would I be doing you? You’d never progress to using any of the other gym equipment and strengthening yourself in additional ways. 

Okay, I get it. So tell me about the stationary bike.

The stationary bike is great, and people who use it are often able to get into fantastic shape. It’s also an excellent gateway product for you to get into group fitness classes — specifically spin classes. In that sense, I’d be doing you a huge favor by encouraging you to use the stationary bike, because gym members who end up in group exercise classes are far more likely to maintain their gym memberships than members who don’t. 

That sounds awesome! So why do I feel a “but” coming on?

Actually, it’s less of a “but” and more of a “however.”

However… I can’t give you that much credit to assume that you’re going to use the stationary bike in a way I consider to be optimal, and there are frankly a ton of postural considerations that need to be addressed before I can be comfortable that you aren’t doing more harm than good. I also can’t assume that you’re going to walk over to the front desk and register for a spin class after your first 30-minute training sesh is over.

In fact, I have to assume that you’re going to hop on the bike, plop all of your weight down onto the seat and pedal lethargically as the seconds tick away. Nor am I allowed to hover over you and suggest form corrections that would make your workout more challenging.  

*sigh* So you are recommending the elliptical.

I am, and here’s why: You didn’t tell me that you eventually want to run an effortless 5K or qualify for the Tour de France, so it isn’t critical that I get you going with specialized workouts geared toward a sport-specific performance goal as quickly as possible. This scenario also doesn’t allow me to make any presumptions that you might slip off to the free-weight rack and start supersetting incline bench presses with elevated pushups. Again, what we’re talking about is maximizing your overall fitness benefits by using only one piece of cardiovascular training equipment at a stage when you have low fitness knowledge and dubious levels of motivation.

Even if we set aside the gym-specific advantage of the elliptical motion not being automatically replicated through the daily practice of moving yourself from one place to another (and the elliptical bikes look downright dumb), or the fact that the elliptical forces you to support your entire bodyweight while you train, or the fact that an elliptical has a built-in upper-body training component to it, I’ve still got cold, hard science to back up my position.

A comprehensive study comparing the muscle activity of trainees who were walking (both on treadmills and overground), riding stationary bikes or using ellipticals demonstrated how the users of ellipticals experienced substantially greater muscle activation over the course of their workouts than did the participants in the other activities. This means that even if you barely managed to scrape yourself off the couch, drag yourself past the reception desk of the gym, park your keister on an exercise modality and do the bare minimum, you will derive greater body-enhancing benefits from your mediocre training efforts on the elliptical than you would from using either the treadmill or the stationary bike.

Interesting! So maybe I should give the elliptical another look!

Give it a look, and think it over. I tend to view the elliptical as a baby’s-first-workout tool; the instant you can reliably jog, swim, stepmill or do just about any other form of cardiovascular training and you have a separate full-body strength-training program squarely in place, it’s probably time to bid the elliptical a fond adieu. However, as far as baby’s-first-workout tools go, you could do far worse.

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