Understanding which machine is right for you!

By Raymond Onyango.

The variety of cardiovascular equipment on offer in your average health club has expanded considerably in the last two decades. In addition to age-old favorites like the treadmill and the stationery bicycle; Indoors rowers, elliptical machines and stair climbers are now standard cardio theatre fixtures in any decent health club.  On the one hand this has been a boon to the health and fitness industry because it has made it possible for a much larger number of people to access the benefits of regular exercise, but on the flip side it has also presented a new and unique set of challenges especially to the novice gym user.

With so many machines on offer, which one do you use? Do you choose the machine that burns the most calories, or the one that targets your butt or maybe the one that has the least impact on your joints? A fitness professional will advice you not to have favorites, after all every machine has its strengths and drawbacks and the best way to get ahead is to incorporate as much variety into your exercise schedule as possible.  However when there are intervening factors such as bad knees or lower back pain, that place limits your use of certain machines, it helps a lot to know the attributes of the different cardio machines, so that you can make a safe and informed choice.

Treadmill – The Fat Burner

Used properly the treadmill burns the most calories of any machine in the cardio theatre. It is also by far the most popular piece of fitness equipment in just about every gym around the world.  The major challenges associated with the use of the treadmill have to do with the steep learning curve required to master the biomechanics of using the machine and the relatively high impact incurred by the joints of the lower body.

For many beginners in the gym, the treadmill should not be a first choice, because walking on the machine is very different from walking on solid ground, and there is a lot of balance and coordination required to use the machine safely. Further to this, is the fact that the treadmill places enormous stress on crucial weight bearing structures in your body, such as your knees and lower back. Every time your foot makes strikes the ground, your knees bear an impact equivalent to four times your body weight.

This means that for an over weight individual weighing about 95 kilograms, each of their knees would be absorbing an impact in excess of 380 kilograms, while walking on the treadmill! For any one with existing knee problems or who lack muscle tone to support the knee structure, use of the treadmill might only serve to instigate or exacerbate injury.

You also need to learn how to balance the speed and incline functions of the machine to get the most out of your workout while minimizing wear and tear on the joints. As a general rule of thumb, if the incline or speed is so high that you must support yourself on the guardrails, then you need to slow things down to a more manageable level.

Stationery Bicycle  – The Joint Saver

The stationery bicycle, especially the recumbent variety, places perhaps the least stress on the joints out of all the cardio machines in the gym. Much of this has to do with the fact that you are not supporting your body weight, and there is no direct impact to the knees or lower back. The machines are also very easy to use, with little coordination required, which makes them perhaps the best fit for novices, the elderly and anyone nursing a prior recurrent knee injury or condition such as arthritis.

However injury is still possible on a bicycle especially if it is not well adjusted to suit the user in question. Most people place the saddle to low, meaning that their knees bend too much when they pedal, which can put pressure on the joints and result in soreness.  In the right position there should be a very slight bend at the knee at the bottom of the pedal stroke. In this position the legs can crank out more power, meaning that you also burn more calories using the machine.

Rowing Machine – The All Rounder

In many health clubs I have been to, the rowing machine often lies unused and dusty, somewhere in a corner. This is unfortunate because pound for pound, no other machine offers as much of an all round challenge as the rowing machine. This machine works out virtually every single muscle group both in your upper and lower body, which means that you build some serious muscle tone and burn lots of calories in one stroke.  The main thing that keeps most people off the rowing machine is the fact that with so many muscle groups working together, you have to concentrate a lot on what you are doing while exercising some very refined motor coordination skills. This can be a huge challenge for a first timer at the gym, especially if coordination does not come naturally to you. Also, the fact that you have to engage the core muscles of your abdomen and lower back means that there is lots of technique required to keep you from injury especially to the lower spine.  This is a machine to work up to slowly, begin with short intervals of only 5 to 10 minutes and build up your endurance gradually.

The Elliptical machine – A Little Bit Of Everything.

The elliptical machine also known as the cross trainer is a fairly new entrant into cardio theaters worldwide having been invested only in the 1990’s. They have however proved to be almost as popular as the treadmill, and have a rabid following among gym goers world over. The huge benefit of the elliptical is that it offers you a little bit of everything. You get much of the benefit of running, but without the impact associated with the treadmill. You work both the upper and lower body but without the level of coordination needed for the rowing machine and you get the joint friendly nature of the bicycle while burning more calories because you are supporting your entire body weight.  The elliptical is a great machine for the novice to start out on, but also offers enough challenge to make it suitable for the most seasoned athletes, it really does give you a little bit of everything.

At the end of the day it is important to understand that no single machine is better that the other. The only thing that determines whether you use one machine or the other is weather it is appropriate for your current needs and fitness level. As I mentioned at the beginning however, the more variety you incorporate into your workouts, the more progress your will make. Have a lovely weekend, will you!