Have you noticed walking into any gym what the most popular pieces of fitness equipment are being used? I guess by the title of this article you should know it's cardio machines (treadmills, elliptical trainers, stationary bikes, rowing machines, steppers). Some gyms have up to 100 pieces of various cardio machines with virtually every one of them being used at the same time. I have seen sign-up lists and time limits of 20 minutes being placed on individual machines. The questions I would like to bring up:
- Why do people use cardio machines?
- Are they really necessary for weight loss and fitness?
- What are the negative aspects of using cardio machines?
- Who benefits most from people exercising on cardio machines?
- Is there a better way to get the results people are searching for?
The number one reason for the popularity of cardio machines is that they are marketed as a great way for losing weight. People like numbers. They like to see the calories clicking off on the digital screen in front of them. The numbers can validate an effort you put forth. They can make you feel good because they indicate you have burned some fat or it justifies having some desert later that night.
The problem is that the calories the machine says you have burnt is WRONG.
Think about this: two females of the same age and weight get onto identical treadmills. They both walk at four miles per hour, at a five degree incline for 45 minutes. If they both did the same work and entered the same information into the treadmill, the readouts of calories expended are identical.
But what if one person exercised regularly and was fit while the other person was a beginner just starting out? The beginner is destroyed trying to finish the workout and the fit person found the routine a stroll in the park. The intensity of the workout was much more difficult for one person than the other. The beginner would have burned many more calories than the fit person because the workout was hard for them. Cardio machines can not differentiate the fitness level of each individual.
Manufacturers of fitness equipment program their machines to show calorie readouts based on metabolic equations. These equations are just estimates and cannot take into account all the variables in caloric expenditure. I would say most people burn about 30 per cent less calories than a typical cardio machine indicates.
The other reasons I think people use cardio machines are:
- They are expensive and fancy looking (they must be good for you).
- Some have televisions to reduce boredom (if you can watch television while training, in my opinion you are not training hard enough).
- They are simple to use (people don’t want to think about what they are doing, are too busy or uneducated to design a better workout for themselves).
- Other people are using them (they must be good for you thought process).
- I get a great sweat it must be doing something. If you are riding a stationary bike at the same intensity level as a bike outdoors you would sweat much more inside. In the outdoors there is better air and wind circulation, indoors you are right beside other people and machines that give off heat. Just because you are warm and sweaty does not mean you are getting a great workout).
The other big reason I believe people use cardio machines is that they can take and monitor their heart rate easily. Have you noticed the heart rate zone charts right on the machines? The charts recommend you do not work past a certain point with your heart rate depending on your age.
The problem is that the charts are WRONG.
Like the calorie readouts, they are based on formulas that are incorrect for your body. Let me give you something to think about. One day I am out running with my business partner Jeff Woods, and we both have heart rate monitors on. We are going up the long steep hill by the Kinsmen Field House in Edmonton. At the top we check our heart rates I am at 182 beats per minute while Jeff is at 206. We are tired but not maxed out.
If I were to follow the traditional formula they use for heart rate zone training (220-age = max heart rate) it would be a bit off for me and extremely off for Jeff. I theoretically should only be able to get my heart rate to 178 and Jeff to 171 beats per minute (also, here is where you can do the math to figure out how old we are).
The heart rate charts on cardio machines recommend you work between 70 per cent and 85 per cent of your max heart rate. For me that would be between 124 to 151 and for Jeff it’s 119 to 145 beats per minute. Here are the issues.
Jeff’s real max heart rate is 215 beats per minute, not 171 which the formula predicts. The adjusted training zone for him should be between 151 to 183 beats per minute. If he followed the heart rate zones on cardio machines he would be wasting his time. Minimal to no training effect would occur for the time he invests in exercising.
Do we need to have our heart rates in a training zone at all? Manufacturers of cardio machines and gym owners claim you need to do “cardio” to lose fat and improve your endurance. The term “cardio” to them refers to working at lower to moderate intensity levels in your aerobic training zone.
Do you remember hearing "You should be able to carry on a conversation” when you are working out, well that is WRONG too.
If your goal is to improve energy and endurance for everyday life activity, then you need to work anaerobically rather than aerobically. This is a level of exertion near your maximum ability. The duration is shorter but the intensity is high. Activities that we do which cause us exhaustion are shorter burst type activities that occur multiple times in the day. An example would be carrying a heavy basket of laundry up the stairs. Working at comfortable levels on a treadmill will not make you better at this.
Any sports we play involve short, high-intensity bouts of effort, like a 45-second shift in hockey, a 10-second play in football, a 20-second rally in tennis. Exercising at moderate intensity for 45 to 60 minutes on a stationary bike will not help you work the correct energy system in any sport unless you are training for cycling. Even then, races are lost during high intensity climbs on hills not cruising easily on the flats.
My other problem with cardio machines is the postural problems they create and the way people use them.
Most people that know me are familiar with my opinion on elliptical trainers. Probably the worst choice you can make for your time exercising. If you want to know the full details, I wrote an article devoted to this one piece which has caused quite a bit of controversy.
If your goal is to get better at running, then working on a treadmill is not a good idea. When running outside you have to push off the ground to get momentum to move your body forward against gravity and air. Your butt muscles are where you want to get power from since they are the biggest muscles in the body and are the primary movers of extending your hips.
On a treadmill, the ground beneath you is moving. Your goal is to maintain your position since the treadmill is trying to spit you off the back end. Your butt muscles are not forced to work as they should moving you forward. The opposing hip flexor muscles are involved more flexing your hips trying to keep you in the same position. In essence you are teaching your body an incorrect motor pattern and muscle recruitment sequence. When you try to run outside after working on a treadmill for long periods it will seem very difficult to do in comparison.
The other problem I have is with people holding on to the handrails. As soon as you touch the treadmill you are making the work load easy. I see so many people in gyms cranking up the incline to 15 degrees and hanging on to the rails for dear life. You are defeating the purpose of the treadmill. It is trying to shoot you off and you are supposed to stay on by working hard. Holding on is cheating. The machine says you walked or ran a certain distance but how much did you really do properly? You might as well stand on the side and let the belt on the machine run.
These have the same issues as the treadmills.
Stationary Bikes and Rowing Machines
The problem I have with these cardio machines is that they involve sitting. People already sit too much. To continue sitting while exercising reinforces poor posture. Your hamstrings, hip flexors, and chest muscles are placed in a shortened/tight position while your glutes and upper back muscles are in a lengthened/weak position. Being in this posture for long periods of time can cause poor length-tension relationships and affect proper movement of the body. Think of an elderly golfer who is hunched over trying to swing a golf club. When they are in a tight, collapsed fetal position proper rotation cannot be performed. If you have a desk job and sit most of your day, don’t go to the gym and do more sitting.
Repetitive action injury
For the past few decades, it was thought that “cardio” type activities should be done separate from resistance training. Cardio would be some kind of activity which involved doing the same motor action over and over again (like running or biking) for at least 30 minutes in duration three to five times per week. This was supposedly the best way to lose fat and make you fit.
A few problems exist with this methodology. First, doing the same action with your body thousands of times in a workout will excessively stress the specific prime movers of that action. This is especially true if your body has any muscular imbalances and does not distribute force evenly. For example some people have a poor running gait because of weakness or tightness in parts of their body. They leak energy laterally by rolling in at the ankles and knees and letting their hips collapse to the side. If you run for cardio and have gait issues, over time you will create a running related injury of some kind.
Another issue with repetitive action activities is that they do not make us better at the jobs our bodies are forced to do in a typical day. Most people want to be fitter so that they have more energy in their day. Think about what you want your body to be better at.
If you are a stay-at-home mom, think about all the different body movements you do daily:
- Squatting down to wipe something off the floor your kids spilled
- Bending over to get groceries out of the trunk of your car
- Sprinting after your kids to stop them from running onto the road
- Playing follow the leader with your children on the playground equipment
- Pushing and pulling the vacuum cleaner while lifting the sofa with one arm to clean underneath
- Kneeling and bent over washing the bath tub
Does it make sense to get on a cardio machine, perform the same muscular action thousands of times, on a fixed artificial apparatus, keeping your heart rate in a specific training zone. Will this make you better in your day?
This same logic applies to anyone wanting to be a better athlete. Think about the sport you play. Most sports involve quick accelerations and decelerations. You change directions, move in multiple planes of motion, and need hand-eye coordination. Most sports as well as most daily activities we engage in involve quick short bursts of energy, not slow, long duration sustained bouts of effort.
The first thing to deteriorate as we age is the speed and power of our body. People in their senior years can still have decent muscular endurance but our fast twitch muscle fibers deteriorate more quickly than the slow twitch. It would be normal to see a 60- or 70-year-old going for a jog but it would be bizarre to see an elderly person jump and scale a chain-link fence.
The goal of most people is to preserve their youth as long as possible. The best way to do this is spend some time doing speed and explosive-type work. The reason most people do not is that it's uncomfortable, and we're inherently lazy. We choose to do what every one else is doing, what may be thought as safer, what is easier.
There is no denying the propaganda of cardio machine manufacturers and gym owners. Together they make people believe that you either have to buy a cardio piece for your home or pay gym fees to get your body lean and fit.
This is the best way... or is it?
What if I tell you instead of spending $3,000+ dollars on a good treadmill or wasting money on gym dues monthly just to use their cardio equipment you can get a better training effect by a one-time purchase of $200 or less? Buy some used dumbbells, a stability ball, maybe a medicine ball, skipping rope or an agility ladder. Not only can you get a good cardio workout but you can train every other component of fitness at the same time:
- Muscular endurance of every joint in multiple planes of movement
- Core strength
- Balance and stability
- Postural improvements
- Speed, Agility and Power
- Expend a great deal of energy which burns fat and elevates metabolism.
If you are going to invest some time to exercise why not maximize the benefits your body will receive?
The best way to improve your cardio fitness, reduce fat and make you functionally fit using all the joints, muscles and movement patterns your body can perform is free-weight circuit type exercise. An example circuit for a beginner would be:
- Body weight squats – 15 reps
- Push ups, hips on the stability ball – 15 reps
- Stationary lunges body weight – 10-15 reps per leg
- Bent over dumbbell rows 12-15 lbs – 15 reps
- Step-ups to bench body weight – 10-15 reps per leg
- One-leg balance shoulder press 5-8 lbs – 10 reps per leg
- Dumbbell torso rotations 5-8 lbs – 10 reps per side
- Lying on stability ball elbow extensions 8-12 lbs – 15 reps
- Stiff leg dead lift with bicep curl 10-15 lbs – 15 reps
- Plank off the knees or toes body weight – 30 - 60 sec hold.
Look at all the different movements you are performing. There are squatting, lunging, bending, twisting, pushing, and pulling exercises. You are working all the muscles in your body in all the movements it is designed to perform for you to exist. The idea is to move from one exercise to the other with little or no rest.
Do all ten exercises in a row and repeat for three sets. It should take about 45 minutes to complete. You will get an incredible cardio workout by lifting weights plus all the other benefits cardio machines do not give you.
Never think cardio is separate from weight training. The muscular system, cardiovascular system and nervous system all work together so that your body can do whatever you ask of it.
The only hard part is getting some help from a professional to get a program set up specific for your fitness level.
After reading this article many people may still have the mentality that using a cardio machine is better than doing nothing. It is this type of thinking that allows people to settle for mediocrity. You can improve your fitness and burn some fat using cardio machines and if you just love the elliptical then by all means do it. Just don’t use cardio machines if you think it is the best way to go.