All About Exercise Machines

How to find an exercise machine that suits you, and make the most out of any machine workout.

By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Here you are, standing in a sea of cardiovascular equipment at the gym - rows upon rows of treadmills, elliptical machines, stair steppers, rowing machines, stationary bikes, and more.

So which one do you choose: The machine that is supposed to get you the most fit; the one that burns the most calories; or the device that has least impact on your joints?

These are all valid concerns -- but none of these is the most important question you should be asking yourself, says exercise physiologist Bryant A. Stamford. That question is: Which machine do you really want to use?

"When it comes to exercise and weight management, a good assumption is that if someone needs to exercise for weight management, they're probably pretty easily turned off by exercise," says Stamford, professor and chairman of the department of exercise science at Hanover College in Hanover, Ind. "The worst thing to do is to mold someone into something because people say it is the best."

So instead of choosing the treadmill for the calorie-burning factor, or the elliptical trainer your friend recommended, figure out which machine feels best to you, he suggests. "What is it going to take to get you compliant?" he asks. "Everything else is secondary."

Nashville exercise physiologist Kathy Alexander agrees: "The best aerobic piece of equipment is the one you're most willing to use," she says.

But how do you know which machine is likely to feel right to you? Here's what you can expect from the most popular cardio machines out there, along with some tips on getting the most out of your workout.

Choosing a Machine

Here's the lowdown on what you can expect from some of the machines you're likely to find at your local gym.

1. The Treadmill

The treadmill burns the most calories of any of the cardiovascular machines available at most gyms, says Alexander. You can expect to burn about 100 calories per mile, walking briskly.

Stamford notes that a treadmill can be adapted to many different fitness levels by increasing the speed from walking to running or by adjusting the incline.

But even walking may be too much for someone who is overweight and has joint pain.

Every time your foot hits the ground, says Alexander, "the impact forces are 3.7 times your weight just walking on the planet."

Since a treadmill is moving under you, the impact may be slightly less than that. But if it doesn't feel right -- particularly on your knees or lower back -- choose another machine.

One more thing to keep in mind: Treadmills can pose a real balance challenge for new exercisers or those who haven't worked out in a while, says Matthew Vukovich, exercise physiologist and associate professor at South Dakota State University.

2. Elliptical Machines and Stair Steppers

These machines pack a little less punch on the joints, and either can be a good alternative to the treadmill, says Vukovich.

Because you use them in a standing position, you're using lots of muscle mass, so the calorie burn rate is still pretty high.

Elliptical machines with arm components can further increase the numbers of calories you burn, says Stamford. But if you're a beginner, he doesn't recommend using your arms at first.

3. Stationary Bikes

All our experts agree that the stationary bike offers the workout with the least impact on the joints. People with knee pain are often steered toward these bikes, since the impact of body weight is not a concern as it is on a treadmill, elliptical trainer, or stair stepper.

But to avoid knee strain, you must make sure the bike is adjusted to fit your body, Vukovich says.

"Nine times out of 10, people get on a bike and are not fitted to the bike," he says.

When adjusting the seat height, he says, make sure that when you're sitting on the seat with the ball of your foot on the pedal, there is a very slight (5- to 10-degree) bend in your knee.

Most people sit too low, meaning their knees flex too much as they pedal. This can put too much pressure on the knee and result in soreness, warn Vukovich.

In addition, "if you're too low, you're not allowing the leg to go through a full range of motion," meaning you'll use fewer calories, he says.

The stationary bike is a less intense calorie-burner than some of the other machines. You'll need to pedal four miles to burn 100 calories, says Alexander.