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Which Cardio Machine is Best? Exercise Bike vs. Rower vs Elliptical

Which Cardio Machine is Best? Exercise Bike vs. Rower vs Elliptical

We recently spoke with Matt Camargo, Sport Performance Director, MS, CSCS, with ProSport Physical Therapy and Performance - a partner with Hoag Orthopedic Institute - about different types of cardio machines. He shared which is the best for smaller spaces, who should avoid certain machines, and common injuries from using them.

Q: If I only have space for one machine, which is the best one to choose and why?

A: When space is an issue and the goal is to get the heart rate up and work on cardiovascular health, utilizing the rower may be best. The rower is the most space efficient due to the ability to stand it up vertically and or hang it on the wall. The rower can also be taken apart into two separate pieces if more space is needed. A benefit of the rower is that it’s a total body workout as it heavily uses the lower and upper body – in order to be adequate with the rower it forces the individual to learn how to be efficient with total body movements as the body is getting fatigued.

Q: Are there certain people for whom an exercise bike, a rower, or elliptical would be better suited? Are there certain folks with injuries or chronic pain who should definitely avoid one or more of these?

A: It is common to see a decent amount of people outside running to meet their health and fitness goals. Unfortunately, that ability to run for miles outside can result in achy joints. Whether it is too much impact on the joints from too much volume or frequency with running outside, there is a potential injury risk and careful planning in training needs to happen. Replacing or mixing in some sessions with the exercise bike, rower and or elliptical can be potentially safer on the joints compared to running.

The rower is typically safer on the joints as it is low impact. Individuals who have a history of ankle and knee issues could benefit by incorporating the rower. Individuals who have a history of low back issues may want to get guidance from a fitness professional before using the rower. Doing so would ensure no setbacks and can help eliminate any potential limiting factors that cause more harm than good.

The exercise bike is generally safer than the rower. Much like the rower, an exercise bike is low impact and is a good alternative from running. Due to the design of the exercise bike, it’s great for older populations or individuals recovering from lower body injuries and who have difficulty with balance.

Since the elliptical is a machine – it is already a safer alternative than running. Although if an individual has significant ankle, knee or hip discomfort, there could be an issue if those joints did not have the time to properly recover. The elliptical requires a decent amount of coordination since that individual is standing upright, which is why sufficient lower body stability is necessary in order to safely perform repetitions on the elliptical.

Q: Are injuries common with any of these machines, and if so, how can I avoid those problems?

A: Low back injuries could be somewhat common with the rower. Not necessarily because of the rower alone, but if that individual spends a large majority of their time sitting and aren’t consistent with exercise, tightness in the hips could arise. When the hip complex is too tight, compensations can occur which then can be detrimental for the low back. To avoid this, be consistent with planned training sessions and workouts for strength. Find the specific stretches and mobility routines that work is also important. The recovery process is just as important as the actual workouts because the body needs time to repair to come back stronger. Once that adaptation process takes place, that is where the whole training process can continue and new training goals can be met. There are four phases of the rower that are required for efficiency which are: the catch, the drive, the finish and the recovery.

    1. The proper technique for the rower should begin putting the resistance at the appropriate setting in order to master the technique.
    2. The feet should be secured within the pads and straps.
    3. A firm grasp of the handle should be done will having the knees while sliding forward and back.
    4. As the legs extend, the arms should do a rowing motion (retract shoulder blades). Bring the knees towards the feet and extend the arms, efficient repetition then can happen.

Q: What else so you want readers to know about selecting the right piece of exercise equipment for their needs?

A: To select the appropriate exercise equipment, having a fitness professional perform a fitness consultation for optimal guidance will ensure the best results in choosing the best path of training routine and exercise selection. If physically able, the rower may be one of the best pieces of cardio equipment due to its low impact demands on the human body and total body requirements for movement efficiency. Whether the goals are for sport performance or general fitness and health, the rower can safely and effectively be a great tool within training. Some good workouts to try are:

  • 1000-meters for time
    • To be considered aerobically fit - It takes about 2 minutes or less to complete 500 meters, so 1000 meters in 4 minutes or less is a great goal to strive for
      • More advanced individuals should try 2000 meters for time with a goal of under 8 minutes
  • 500-meter intervals
    • The goal is to perform 500 meters as fast as possible. The time it takes to complete 500 meters is now the rest before the next round. This is a strategic method by keeping the work to rest ratio equal. Naturally due to fatigue, as more rounds are performed, the time to complete the round will slowly increase. General recommendations for how many rounds are anywhere from four to 10 total rounds.

Cardio equipment or machines in general have a place, but needs to be done with proper implementation to make sure injuries do not occur and training goals can be met. Not one exercise will get any individual to their goal, but it is achieved through the perfect specific blend of strength training, mobility methods and cardiovascular training. Planned variation prevails every time over randomization when trying to incorporate new activities to make habitual.