Love it or loathe it, cardio is pretty important. It helps you burn fat, boosts your cardiac and respiratory health, supports your brain function, helps maintain your range of motion, improves your mood, and much more.
In a perfect world, we’d get our cardio in by playing outdoors—surfing, hiking, biking, and more—which trains our bodies in a well-rounded and robust way, says Craig Weller, exercise specialist at Precision Nutrition. But because rain and winter and, well, big cities, exist, that’s just not always possible. This is where gyms with rooms filled with cardio machines come in.
But which machine should you claim? The answer: all of them, if possible. Bouncing around from machine from machine can help you recreate the variability of outdoor exercise from the gym, says Weller. Put in moderate effort on the stair stepper, then the treadmill, the elliptical, the rower, and finally a spin bike, for example, to challenge your body in as many ways as possible and burn more calories.
But when the gym is crazy crowded—or you just don’t have a game of ‘musical cardio machines’ in you—committing to one machine may be your only option. In that case, go for the machine that “moves big muscle groups through big ranges of motion,” Weller says. The larger the muscles you work—and the larger the range of motion you move them through—the more energy your body needs and the more calories you burn, he explains. (Just a friendly FYI: Cardio machines are notorious for overestimating how many calories you burn, so ignore the wonky numbers on the screen as you sweat.)
If you’re looking to torch as many calories as possible in the cardio room, there are a couple of machines that offer the most potential burn.
Calorie-Crusher #1: The Stair-Stepper
There’s a reason so many of us dread the stair-stepper: it’s hard. So unsurprisingly, the stair-stepper can be a phenomenal calorie-torching tool, if you use it properly, Weller says. This killer machine activates large muscle groups like your glutes, hamstrings, and quads, but hits other areas of the body, too. The stair-stepper also engages your core, along with smaller stabilizing muscles all throughout your lower body, he explains.
According to Harvard Medical School, the average 155-pound person can burn about 223 calories in 30 minutes of stair-stepping.
Here’s the issue, though: If you put a lot of your body weight into leaning on those rails to make stair-stepping easier on your lower body, you’re totally sabotaging yourself. “That really reduces the amount of work you’re doing,” says Weller. And that means fewer calories burned. To burn as many calories as possible, you need to actively engage your hamstrings and glutes, and move your arms in tandem with your legs as if you were actually walking up a flight of stairs, he explains.
Calorie-Crusher #2: The Rowing Machine
You know the rowing machine—it’s usually stuck in the corner of the cardio room just looking for some love. But if you want to fire up as many muscles as possible and torch big-time calories, it’s the machine for you. The rower is probably the closest thing to a full-body workout you’ll find in the cardio room, Weller says. It activates your upper and mid-back, along with your shoulders, quads, glutes and hamstrings.
According to Harvard Medical School, the average 155-pound person can burn about 260 calories in 30 minutes of moderate rowing.
With improper form on this one, though, you risk injuring your back, so keeping your core stable is key for both protecting your spine and maximizing calorie-burn, Weller says. Throughout the movement, brace your core enough to feel tension in your abs. This will keep the strain off your lower back. “Avoid arching your lower back at the finish of the pull,” Weller says. “Instead, exhale fully and feel your lower ribs on the front of your torso drop inward, together, and downward as your exhale.” (If you need a few extra pointers to nail your rowing form, check out this article.)
The Bottom Line
Yes, some machines may automatically up your potential for calorie-burning, but the only machine you need to use is the one you enjoy the most. “The best machine is usually the one that people just work hard on, or enjoy the most, or can tune out on but still put work in on,” says Weller. If you can spin the minutes away on the stationary bike and really love every pedal stroke, then that’s the machine for you.