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Which Exercise Machine Burns the Most Calories?

Which cardio machine should you use when you want to quickly burn off last night’s cheesecake?

By
Ben Greenfield
August 30, 2010
Episode #001

Which Exercise Machine Burns the Most Calories?

Which exercise machine will give you the most bang for your buck when it comes to burning the most calories? If I had a nickel for every time I hear this question from a client or curious gym-goer, I'd have a pretty fat wallet! In today’s article, I'll compare the calorie-burning effects of some popular cardio machines that you’ll find at the gym, and give you quick and dirty tips for each.

Let’s start with most popular machine--the one that shows up at the poshest exclusive health club and the hole-in-a-wall hotel.

How Many Calories Does Bicycling Burn?

Since the pedaling motion incorporates the big and powerful muscles of the leg, bicycling is a great choice for calorie burning. Depending on your intensity, bicycling can burn 500-1000 calories per hour, which ranks it among the highest calorie burners, so long as you use it correctly.

How to Burn the Most Calories on the Bike

Many people don’t choose a resistance that is high enough to really stimulate those calorie burning leg muscles, and instead let the natural movement of a bicycle’s pedals do the work for them. To avoid this problem and get maximum benefit from a bike, choose a resistance that makes you breathe hard in order to achieve 90 RPM, or revolutions per minute; most indoor stationary bicycles show this number on the computer display.

Upright Versus Recumbent Bicycles

What about upright vs. recumbent bicycles (the type that you sit in)? Though the back rest on a recumbent bicycle can relieve stress on the lower back, neck, elbow and wrist, this type of bicycle should be used only if you have pain in these joints when you’re seated on an upright bicycle. That is because you don’t make any of those calorie-burning core muscles work when you’re on a recumbent bike.

Quick and dirty tip for getting the most bang for your buck on the bike: Do a few 2-3 minute sets in which you pedal at 90 revolutions per minute at the highest resistance at which you can sustain that pedaling speed. Make sure to fully recover between each set.

How Many Calories Can You Burn on the Treadmill?

Running is a full body workout that burns 600-1200 calories per hour. As a matter of fact, running up an incline on the treadmill is the best way to boost your metabolism for hours after you’ve finished that workout.

Walking on the treadmill burns far less calories--about 300-400 per hour. The primary reason for that is that humans are very efficient at walking, as most of us have done so since an early age.

An exercise like walking, at which your body is very efficient, should be avoided as your primary cardio workout when you’re trying to burn calories. As a matter of fact, I have to frequently point this out to every desperate person who walks through the parking lot, walks up the stairs, walks into my personal training office and complains that they’re not losing any weight with their morning walk. They walk so much the rest of the time that their body just doesn’t get much a metabolic boost from walking for their cardio session.

Quick and dirty tip for the treadmill: If you’re using a treadmill, then either jog or use an incline, but avoid the common mistake of choosing a ridiculously high incline, then holding on to the handrails to keep up. You may look like a champion Everest ascender, but the fact is, the rails should only be used if you have extreme balance difficulties, or must stabilize yourself to change a setting. Remember to vigorously pump your arms too, as long as you can pull that off without smacking any nearby exercisers in the face.

How Many Calories Does the Elliptical Trainer Burn?

Unfortunately, the computers on most elliptical trainers overestimate the actual amount of calories burned, especially in individuals who lean against the railing for support. You can generally burn about 600 calories per hour on the ellipticals that don’t include arm movement, and slightly more on the ones that do. Using the elliptical burns fewer calories than running because once you get the parts on an elliptical moving, they’re pretty easy to keep moving, and so you expend less energy.

How to Burn the Most Calories on the Elliptical

When it comes to calorie burning, the two most common mistakes made on the elliptical trainer are:

  1. excessive leaning against the rails on the trainer (on those ellipticals that don’t have arm movement);

  2. inadequate resistance (similar to the same problem on the bike).

So to get the most benefit, try to use the rails as little as possible, and challenge yourself with the resistance settings. Shoot for a cadence or stride rate of 120-140.

Keep throwing those cardio curveballs at the body, and you’ll burn more calories and lose that weight.

Quick and dirty tip for the elliptical: Choose a resistance that is actually high enough so that the machine isn’t doing all the work for you. If you don’t feel your muscles contracting during the forward and back stroke of the elliptical, they probably aren’t!

How Many Calories Does the Rowing Machine Burn?

An incredible upper and lower body cardiovascular challenge, the rowing machine can burn over 1000 calories per hour. Just ask Ben Hur. But this quasi-torture device can also be nauseatingly boring when you try to go for long periods of time. To make time go by faster while still maintaining a high intensity, incorporate short periods or distances of very hard pulling combined with easy pulling. For instance, row for 250 meters as hard as possible, then 100 meters easy, and repeat 6-8 times. Be sure to use as many body parts as possible when rowing, including the torso and the legs--not just the arms.

Quick and dirty tip for the rowing machine: It’s actually pretty easy to throw out your low back if you don’t know what your doing, so look at the little diagram that appears on the instruction panel of most of the machines; see how it shows a little stick figure pulling with the whole body, including upper back and legs? Make sure you do that.

How Many Calories Does the Stairmaster Burn?

Sorry, Jane Fonda, but I just don’t have much praise for the good, ol’ stairmaster. It incorporates tiny-teeny calf muscles, and just a little bit of your backside and butt, but really won’t give you more than about 400-500 calories per hour. In addition, anybody who has low back pain will almost surely find it aggravated during the straight up and down motion of the Stairmaster.

Now, for those stair-lovers out there, I do have good news. You know the “stairway to nowhere”, or, as I had one client describe it, “the stairway to heaven because you feel as if you’re about to die”? Yes, I’m talking about the moving belt of stairs that actually make you climb a stationary staircase. That will give you just as much calorie-burning benefit as running up an incline on a treadmill, but this is not for the faint of heart.

Quick and dirty tip for climbing stairs: Use the trick of holding a small set of 1-3 lb dumbbells in either hand as you climb for maximum calorie burning.

How to Burn the Most Calories When Exercising

Of course, there are many additional forms of cardio; but for maximum calorie burning benefit no matter which form you choose, be sure to incorporate a form of cardio that is inefficient or unfamiliar to your body. So if you always walk, try switching to cycling or using the elliptical; or if you always run, try the rowing machine. Keep throwing those cardio curveballs at the body, and you’ll burn more calories and lose that weight. Of course, most importantly, have fun when you’re exercising. And clean the sweat off that machine when you’re done, for goodness sake.

Treadmill Cartoon image from Shutterstock

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