Choosing Good Cardio Equipment

Choosing Good Cardio Equipment

There are many good, cheap indoor cardio options for winter but let’s look at how you can tell good cardio equipment from bad. How can we determine what is bad cardio equipment? Good question, first we need to look at what a good cardio machine does. Yes, they make you sweat a lot but that is not a good measure of effectiveness because some people don’t sweat much. To do a maximum of work, your body needs to oxidize as much food or stored fat as possible. To do this requires that you move a LOT of air thru your lungs to get the oxygen required and it requires you move a lot of blood to get this oxygen to the muscles so they can do their work. The best way to measure how hard you are working is to measure how much CO2 you are producing but measuring that accurately requires very expensive equipment. A much more practical way to measure the effectiveness of a cardio machine is your heart rate, how fast your body is pumping the oxygen to the muscles. If you can peg your heart rate at its maximum then it’s good cardio equipment! The belt vibrator was used in the 50’s, think that helps you lose fat? Of course not, you are not doing any work so your heart rate is not elevated at all.

Gossamer Albatross II, NASA photo

let’s start with the basics. The human body is a powerful machine, even more powerful than a horse when you calculate our power to weight ratio. Humans have such a high power to weight ratio that human powered flight is possible. In 1979 cyclist Bryan Allen flew the Gossamer Albatross across the English Channel using his leg power alone. During the nearly 3 hour flight he output 300 watts of power which is quite a feat considering he only weighed 145 pounds. The point of all this is that the human body capable of incredible power output, it’s not unheard of for a strong cyclist to output nearly 2 kilowatts of power in short bursts. What does this have to do with cardio equipment? Everything!

electric burner coil

Power output of a good athlete is about the same as this red hot burner coil

To adequately train a strong human body requires that the device be capable of dissipating all that power that the body is generating. How much power? If you want to get a machine that will always be capable of giving you an adequate workout as your cardiovascular performance increases then you need something that can dissipate the 800-2000 watts that an athlete can generate while doing interval training. There are basically three ways to dissipate that power: as heat, as generated electricity, and by moving large volumes of air. To see what we are up against, see the burner to the left? Thats how much power we need to dissipate! it’s pretty clear that you need some heavy duty cardio equipment to dissipate that kind of energy without melting or falling apart. Still don’t understand why it’s important to have all that resistance? Think of it this way, could you build a physique like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s using 2lb dumbbells? Of course not! Similarly, you can’t build your endurance, VO2max, and cardiovascular capacity unless you have a device that can provide adequate resistance and dissipate all that energy you are developing.

Useless Cardio Gadgets

Ab Circle Pro

let’s look at some useless cardio equipment starting with the Ab Circle Pro. Why isn’t this good cardio equipment? Because there is no way possible it can offer sufficient resistance to allow you to generate the power necessary to get a good workout. How can this possibly elevate your heart rate to its maximum when there is no resistance offered other than the bodies own internal resistance? It can’t! It doesn’t generate electricity, it doesn’t get hot, and it doesn’t blow a lot of air around. All this device does is allow you to wiggle and wiggling may be good for flexibility but it does nothing for your cardiovascular system. In a bit we will look at how to tell good cardio equipment but first, some more bad stuff. The Ab Circle Pro was fined by the FDA for their false advertising claims.

bad cardio equipment

Many of the bad cardio machines have something in common, they are a class of devices I call “The Swingers”. Swingers allow you to swing or spin without offering anything other than the bodies own resistance. The problem with just using the bodies own resistance is that unless you are in the last phases of heart failure, they don’t offer enough resistance to elevate your heart rate. With this device you swing from left to right in a skiing like motion which may feel good and help you with flexibility but it doesn’t do your cardiovascular system the slightest bit of good. Again, ask yourself how this machine could possibly dissipate the 1000 watts necessary to give you a good workout. Does it generate electricity? No. Does it generate lots of heat? No. Does it move a lot of air? Nope. Bad cardio equipment! Shown below is a very common type of “Swinger” cardio equipment sold on late night infomercials. It allows you to make a walking-like motion. With devices like this it is *very* difficult to get your heart rate up to even 50% of its maximum.

bad cardio equipment

Here is another great example of bad cardio equipment. If you read the description it sounds good, “Adjust the resistance with a turn of the dial”. Look at it though, the shipping weight is only 16 pounds so the device itself is probably much lighter. Look at the burner above and then look at this flimsy contraption. Do you see any way that this could possibly dissipate the amount of heat in that burner without bursting into flame? Nope, it couldn’t. This machine might serve as good cardio for 5 year olds and people with congestive heart failure but its not going to offer nearly enough resistance to improve the cardiovascular performance of any athlete. My guess is that brisk walking would provide better cardio than this device.

Guidelines For Choosing Good Cardio Equipement

Here are some general guidelines so you can answer your own question. First, its all about elevating your heart rate. If you already own the piece of equipment in question then try this. Use it for 5-10 minutes then measure your heart rate. If you can get your heart rate above 85% of your maximum, then its a good piece of cardio equipment. Its that simple!

Its pretty easy to tell by looking at a piece of cardio equipment if it will let you elevate your heart rate sufficiently. Here is what to look for:

    1. What muscles are being worked? To elevate your heart rate sufficiently you need to work the BIG muscles in the body, like the legs, or the entire body as you do with burpees. If the “cardio equipment” is exercising your core, arms, or some other minor muscle group then there is no way it will ever allow you to elevate your heart rate sufficiently. Bikes and elliptical machines work because they work the huge legs. Rowing machines work because they work the entire body. The Ab Circle Pro does NOT work because all it does is work the tiny core muscles.
    2. Follow the energy! To get cardiovascular exercise your body has to do work. The energy you are expending can leave in one of a few possible ways, as heat, as electricity, or by moving something (like air). Some rowing machines and stationary bicycles use a big fan which is a reliable and simple way to dissipate the energy. Very few pieces of cardio equipment generate electricity so we will skip that one. By far the most common way to provide the necessary resistance for the body is thru friction which then dissipates the energy in the form of heat – WHAT is getting hot?
      Cooling Fins Indicate Quality Cardio Equipment

      If there is nothing getting hot then it can’t possibly be a good piece of cardio equipment. Many of the late night infomercial devices sold for losing weight are completely useless because they just let your body wiggle, swing, rock, or twist without actually doing anything. Look at the Ab Circle Pro here. What is dissipating the heat? Nothing, therefore it can’t possibly be useful as cardio. The expensive stationary equipment at the gym is all sleek and plastic but beneath those covers is a heat sink with fins that dissipates the energy. Look at the photo of the bike trainer above, see the cooling fins? When I use that it gets *very* hot.

    3. Good cardio equipment is usually heavy!

Dissipating enough energy to give you a good workout requires a very sturdy, metal, device. If the weight of the device is less than 50lbs (20kg) then its very unlikely it is good. Note also that the weights listed are usually shipping weight so that means you really need something that weighs at least 70lbs (30kg).

Good Cardio Equipment

So lets look at some good cardio devices. Be very, very careful when purchasing cardio equipment. As you see below, good equipment is *very* expensive so its tempting to buy devices that look basically the same but costs far less. Don’t do it, you will be sorry. If you want to find the best value, check the Consumers Reports ratings. If you can’t afford a high quality one, then either buy a used one on for pennies on the dollar or get one of the devices at the bottom that is much more affordable.

280lbs $5500 Treadmill Good treadmills are very heavy and very expensive. Getting a cheaper, lighter one is a waste of money. If you can’t afford one that Consumers Reports recommends then consider one of the last two devices shown here.
250lbs $4300 elliptical Good elliptical machines are heavy and expensive. Getting a cheaper, lighter one is a waste of money. If you can’t afford one that Consumers Reports recommends then consider one of the last two devices shown here.
200lbs $3200 rowing machine You guessed it, Good rowing machines are heavy and expensive. Do I sound like a broken record??? There are two types of rowing machines, those that use hydraulics to provide the resistance and those that use fans, both are fine. Good units are heavy like this one.
175lbs $2700 Stationary Exercise Bike Good exercise bikes are heavy and expensive. Be careful as there are a lot of cheap, useless ones out there. Read the Consumers Reports reviews to make sure you get a good one. Failing that, weight is a good indicator of quality – dont buy anything lighter than 100lbs (45kg)
145lbs $4300 Versaclimber Not sure why but VersaClimber seems to have the market cornered on this style of machine, must be a patent. All of the cheap knock-offs seem really bad. If you like this style of machine, I suggest finding a used commercial grade one rather than buying one of their cheaper home models.
50lbs $500-$1500 Zwift Smart Bike Trainers. If you find stationary bikes boring, these smart trainers are for you! Use your existing bike with these trainers and get a Zwift account, and you are biking real routes as the bike simulates the terrain of the real courses. A true biking simulator puts you in a real life video game.
40lbs $350 Kurt Kinetic Fluid Trainer I own this Kurt Kinetic Trainer (green device), it’s an incredible value if you already have a bike. Its sturdy, well-made, durable, compact, and provides sufficient resistance for even the most advanced cyclist.
1 lb $80 shoes You probably already own the #1 best piece of cardio equipment there is – athletic shoes! Do burpees, dance, jog or just go for a brisk walk.
1lb $10 jumprope This is the best value of all time is a jump rope!

Consumers Reports

As an aside, you notice that I put a very high value upon the opinion of Consumers Reports and this is for a very good reason. Consumer Reports is an expert, independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves. As I grew up, my parents always subscribed and as an adult I have continued that tradition. In this era of deceptive marketing they are the one place I trust for unbiased advice. Please be aware though there are many imitators with similar sounding names but they are nothing more than pay-for-placement reviews and advertisements. Hand these imitators $10,000 and guess what, you are now ranked #1! Amazing how that works.

Some people rely on those star rankings on Amazon, and other online stores. The star rankings are better than no information at all but it is very easy for manufacturers to cheaply improve the rankings of even the worst product. Just hire people to write good reviews, blog posts, forum posts, and even buy the product on places like where only purchasers can write reviews. If you rely on those reviews, read ALL of them carefully to see if any seem fishy. Its not beyond corporate America’s morals to soil the name of competitors by making false, bad reviews. We have more information than ever but the trouble is sifting thru it and figuring out what is real and what is garbage. If you truly want independent, unbiased reviews of products then check out Consumers Reports.