Whether you’re trying to burn off baby-weight or completely overhaul your lifestyle, you’ve probably thought about purchasing an exercise machine.
And why not? After all, they let you work out from the comfort of your own home, they’ve been proven to have a whole host of health benefits and they’re incredibly user-friendly. They also remove the need for costly gym subscriptions, which makes them a surprisingly affordable option…
The question is, which type of machine is right for you? Should you be looking at rowing machines or ellipticals? Are treadmills better than exercise bikes? And which of these four – increasingly popular – options really offers the best calorie burning potential?
To help you out, we’ve put together this in-depth comparison of all four machines: Looking at everything from price and footprint, right through to health benefits and ease-of-use.
Cost might not be your biggest concern right now – particularly if you’re focused on getting fit and burning off some of those pesky calories – but understanding the cost associated with each type of exercise machine might make your decision a bit easier.
Learning about the different factors that affect cost will also help you to understand the key differences between each type of machine, and enable you to make an informed decision about the features and functionality that you want to prioritise.
As an example, treadmills are (generally) the most expensive type of exercise machine because they incorporate a lot of advanced technology – including the computer software that lets you do things like adjusting the gradient, speed or surface.
If these technologies are important to you, it makes sense to pay a little bit extra for a machine that’ll give you full control over your training sessions. But if you just want to work out on a simple and user-friendly machine, you might want to save some pennies and opt for something cheaper. Like a rowing machine.
Speaking of which… Rowing machines are the normally the cheapest (or most cost-effective) option because they are relatively simple and straightforward machines; without a lot of moving/mechanical parts.
Of course, you can still find some very expensive rowing machines out there – including the retro, wooden machines featured on House of Cards, or the high-tech versions used by professional athletes.
But for the most part, rowing machines tend to start at around $130, while mid- to high-end machines will cost you far more (depending on the model and brand you opt for).
This is on a par with stationary bikes, which tend to start at around $150. That said, advanced stationary bikes – including the models with pulse monitors built into the handlebars and special brackets for your smartphone – can cost up to $500.
So if you’re looking for a machine that’ll let you really push the envelope (and you’ve got the money to spend) stationary bikes are definitely a viable option.
Next comes ellipticals, which start at $200 and top out at around $600 for the high-end machines, with digital pulse monitors, calorie tracking technology and other, equally advanced special features.
And then there’s the treadmills, which generally cost between $250 – $600. Depending on the feature set, the brand and the complexity of their on-board software.
As you can see, there’s a huge difference between the cost of a top-end elliptical and a mid-level rowing machine, but it’s important to remember that you can buy any type of entry level machine for around $150 – $200 on today’s market, which should be within budget for most households.
It’s also important to remember that price isn’t necessarily correlated with exercise quality or ease-of-use. As we’ll see below, there are many, many factors that differentiate each of the 4 types of machine, and price is only really useful as a measure of a machines complexity.
Footprint is another – fairly minor – consideration that you’ll need to think about in the early stages of your decision making process.
All exercise machines are fairly large (and take up quite a lot of space) but there is still a significant difference between a hulking great treadmill; an elliptical and a (relatively-narrow( stationary bike.
If you’re trying to squeeze your machine into a home office, a garage or your front room, these slight variations in size can have a huge impact on your final decision, which is why we’d always recommend that you start the buying process before:
That way, you know you won’t accidentally buy a machine that’s too big for your home. Or spend too much time looking at a type of machine that simply won’t work in your space…
In terms of overall footprint, treadmills are definitely the largest machines. The average dimensions of a treadmill are (approx) 60x 45 x 26 inches, which makes them the widest type of machine, and one of the longest.
You’ll need lots of space to accomodate a treadmill and it’s also important to consider how you’ll get it in and out of your home, particularly if there are a lot of tight corners or narrow corridors.
Treadmills are quite low though, so if you’re looking for a machine that’d be at home in a garage or low-ceilinged room with plenty of floor space, they might be your best bet.
Next up – surprisingly enough – is the rowing machine. Despite their incredibly low height (and narrow width) most rowing machines are quite long, with the average dimensions looking something like 75 x 20 x 31 inches.
This means that it can be a struggle to fit rowing machines in small spaces, and you might find that you need a lot more space than you’d originally anticipated. Particularly if you need to be able to walk round your machine…
Ellipticals are much smaller; measuring in at approximately 48 x 28 x 60 inches, but they do still need quite a lot of free space, and it’s important to remember that the arms have to be able to swing freely, which means you’ll need an uncluttered room to use them properly.
And then there’s the stationary bike; measuring a diminutive 43 x 19 x 43 inches. If you’re short on space, stationary bikes are definitely your best option because they take up barely any room, they’re light and they have a narrow profile which means you can squeeze them into relatively tight spaces.
That said, you can get folding treadmills and rowing machines, so if you have your heart set on a particular type of machine, try to shop around for different models before refocusing your efforts on something less desirable.
Calorie (or fat) burning potential
Now we’re getting to the nitty gritty of the thing: Which of the four different types of exercise machine which actually help you burn the most calories?
Assuming your buying an exercise machine to get fit or lose weight, this is probably one of your primary considerations, and it’s quite likely to be the deciding factor in which machine you buy. That said, it’s important to remember that calorie-burning potential is a relatively abstract measure of a machines capabilities.
It’s also important to understand that calorie-burning potential is directly correlated to the type of exercise that each machine provides.
Something like a rowing machine – which is designed for both aerobic and anaerobic exercise – will be much more efficient than, say, a stationary bike, which supports your weight while your working out, and focuses on cardiovascular exercise
But (and this is a big but) you’ll probably be able to work out for longer on a stationary bike, and rowing machines can be very difficult to master, particularly when you’re just starting out and you haven’t got the proper technique down properly.
That said, we can still give a general estimation of the calorie-burning potential that’s associated with each type of machine, and after some fairly intensive research, it does look like rowing machines come out on top; allowing you to brun between 600 – 900 calories per hour.
Next up is the elliptical, which – by forcing you to support your own weight as you work out – manages to let you burn approx 650 calories per hour (assuming a steady and consistent pace throughout)
And then there’s the stationary bike, which allows you to burn between 400 and 600 calories per hour, depending on resistance, the vigour with which you pedal and your stance.
It’s important to understand that burning 6600 calories per hour on a stationary bike is only feasible if you’re pedalling hard and standing up, which forces your body to support its own weight and forces your muscles to work harder.
That said, it’s also important to note that stationary bikes have the most accurate calorie counters, and that some scientific studies have shown that other types of exercise machines can overestimate calorie burning potential by 7-10% so a stationary bike might pip an elliptical in some circumstances.
Last place belongs to the treadmill, which burns between 200 and 400 calories per hour – depending on the incline, the speed and your arm movement. That’s not to say that treadmills are markedly less efficient though.
Depending on your level of fitness, your endurance and your capacity for punishing workouts, the treadmill might actually be a better option; particularly if you’re trying to gently ramp up your exercise regime (or abstain from high-intensity exercise)
So, when it comes to calorie burning potential, it’s important to weigh up the pros and cons of using each machine. It’s also important to consider the muscles you’ll be working and the type of exercise on offer – particularly if you’re just starting out.
That said, there’s no denying that rowing machines are definitely the most efficient option…
Beyond the fat burning capabilities of each machine, it’s also important to consider the secondary health benefits. Take rowing machines as a (perfect) example. These super-efficient machines allow you to burn a lot of calories per hour, but they also help to strengthen your heart, and build back/shoulder muscles.
As such, rowing machines can help you to improve your posture, and increase your resistance to various cardiovascular ailments. All while helping you to lose weight and build muscle.
And it’s understanding the various health benefits associated with each type of exercise machine that will – ultimately – help you to make an informed decision about your next purchase.
As such, we’re going to use this section of the guide to explore the secondary health benefits associated with each tyype of machine, as well as giving you a quick overview of the different muscle groups that each type of machine will force you to use.
First up, let’s take a look at the elliptical. Ellipticals are designed to let you mimic walking; running or climbing stairs, which means that they offer a full-body workout. They also help you to strengthen the cardiovascular system and build healthy glutes, thighs and back muscles.
In comparison, stationary bikes tend to focus on your legs and glutes. They offer a healthy dose of cardiovascular benefits – having been shown to encourage the development of a strong heart and lungs – but they leave your arms untouched and they don’t really encourage good posture, so your main benefit here is calorie burning/weight loss.
And the rowing machine? Well, lets just say that the rowing machine works out most of the muscles in your body, including your:
They’ve also been shown to provide fairly substantial cardiovascular benefits, with one study – published in the Annals of Rehabilitation Medication – showing that people using a rowing machine for 30 mins per day could expect a “significant reduction in cardiovascular risk factors”
The treadmill is no slouch either though. According to an article published on Livestrong, regularly using a treadmill can help to build endurance/stamina, boost cardiovascular performance and improve the strength of your leg/back muscles.
So when it comes to secondary health benefits, it’s important to weigh up your own priorities. If you’re looking for an intensive, full-body workout, the rowing machine is definitely king, but the treadmill and the elliptical are still up there in terms of secondary health benefits, and the standing bike is no slouch in the calorie-burning department…
As with all of these considerations, we’d recommend taking your time, and weighing up the pros and cons of each machine before you make a final decision.
To unlock the full potential of any exercise machine, you’ll need to be able to master proper technique.
For some machines (like the treadmill or the standing bike) this is super-straightforward because they’re designed to help you imitate movements you make every day – like walking down the street, or cycling.
For other machines – like the rowing machine – much more complex technique is required, and poor technique can have pretty devastating consequences – from reducing the efficiency of the machine right through to causing you small injuries or damaging your muscles.
That’s not to say that rowing machines are dangerous, but if you’re new to using an exercise machine, it is important to consider the size of the learning curve, and the inherent difficulty of mastering each option.
To help you out, we’re going to walk you through the skills required to use each type of machine. Starting with the aforementioned treadmill:
You’ll need to learn how far to pull back (so that you don’t overextend) and you may need a spotter to help you keep straight and level for the first few days. That said, if you can master the technique, rowing machines do offer a lot of health benefits…
So, as a prospective buyer, you’ll need to weigh up your own abilities; the health benefits and the time it’ll take to master each machine before you can make an informed decision.
The easy, breezy machines are definitely best if you’re just trying to burn off some weight without committing to a new regime, but if you’re interested in the long-lasting health benefits? One of the more complex machines may well be a better choice.
In deciding between ellipticals; stationary bikes, rowing machines and treadmills, it is also important to consider the inherent safety of each machine.
By this, we mean the immediate consideration of how safe they are to use on a day-to-day basis, and the longer-term health problems associated with over-using each machine.
And by this, of course, we’re referring to the damage done by high-impact machines like the treadmill, which has developed a reputation for being unsafe over the last 5-10 years.
We’ll start with the elliptical, since it’s widely considered to be one of the safest types of exercise machine.
The elliptical is a low-impact machine, which means it won’t put stress on your joints or damage delicate tissues in your body. It’s perfectly safe for people with arthritis, back pain or osteoporosis.
Ellipticals are also easy to adjust, and you can set them to a resistance level that suits your body which means there’s a very low risk of accidental sprains or strains.
The only slight concern is that ellipticals don’t force you to adopt a healthy posture, so if you slouch while you’re using one, you may do a small amount of damage to your back.
The stationary bike is similar in most respects: It supports your weight, allows you to adopt a comfortable position and focuses on letting you work out at your own pace, which means there are no real safety risks to using one.
Stationary bikes are also low-impact, which means that they won’t injure your joints or bones – even if you use them every day for several years…
Rowing machines are also considered low-impact in terms of joint stress, but they are slightly more dangerous in the sense that they put strain on a lot of different muscle groups.
They are generally considered to be very safe, but if you’re very unfit, there is a slight risk of strains, tears or pulled muscles so some caution is advised.
And then there’s the treadmill…
Despite their fearsome reputation, treadmills *are* safe to use, and there’s really no reason to avoid them altogether. That said, there is some truth to the idea that they can damage your hips, knees and ankles.
They are high-impact, and running on them will send a small shock travelling up your leg, which means that you should be careful not to overuse them on a daily basis
That said, the risk of actual injury is minute and it’s important to remember that treadmills create significantly less impact than running on a tarmacked road. If you run int he proper gear and don’t overdo it, the health benefits significantly outweigh any health concerns.
All in all, it’s safe to say that all exercise machines are fairly safe to use. Just make sure that you learn the proper technique and try to build a full understanding of the safety risks so that you can minimise your chance of injury and enjoy a healthy and fulfilling workout.
Now that we’ve covered everything from size to safety, it’s time to think about day-to-day maintenance.
This may seem like a relatively minor concern, but it’s important to remember that some exercise machines contain a lot of moving (or mechanical) parts, which means lots of things that could break and need replacing
Some exercise machines also put a lot of strain on so-called wear-parts, which slide back and forth during operation. These wear parts need lubrication on a semi-regular basis, and you might need to replace them from time to time too.
All in all, this means that you’ll need to familiarise yourself with the maintenance requirements associated with each type of machine before you can make an informed decision. Luckily, we’re here to help with that.
Let’s start with the stationary bike. Generally speaking, these machines are fairly maintenance-free. You might need to tighten the bolts that secure the pedals once every 2-3 months (because they will slowly work themselves free).
You might need to lubricate the chain once every 1-2 years too, but there’s very little need for more hands-on maintenance and most good models come with a 3 year warranty.
Elliptical machines are similar. Here again, you’ll need to tighten the bolts that secure important pivot points once every 2-3 months – and you might need to spray some silicone-based lubricant onto the same pivot points to prevent excessive wear – but there’s no need for anything intensive.
And treadmills? Well, they’re even simpler, because they’re mostly self-contained units with no exposed parts, and bar occasionally checking all the buttons on the control pad, there’s nothing you need to do.
The only slight caveat? Treadmills are fairly complex machines with lots of moving parts. As such, they are slightly more prone to going wrong and you might find that you need to call someone out to repair a fault, which might affect your decision to buy one…
Rowing machines are probably the most maintenance-intensive of the four machines we’re looking at here. That said, there’s still very little to do. You have to spray some lubricant onto the moving parts from time to time, and you’ll have to tighten the seat screws every month or so…
But other than that, even rowing machines are largely set-and-forget purchases.
So, if you’re struggling to decide between two machines, maintenance concerns might give one of the simpler options a bit of an edge. That said, the maintenance requirements on all 4 options are fairly straightforward and most good machines come with some sort of warranty so you might want to prioritise other considerations here…
Last but not least, we should mention portability. This is a fairly minor concern given that you’ll (probably) be leaving your exercise machine in one place unless you’re moving house or refurbishing a room.
That said, it’s still worth considering the weight of each machine before you make a decision – just in case you do find yourself cursing the weight of your treadmill, and pining for a (much lighter) rowing machine…
So which machine is lightest? Interestingly enough, rowing machines and stationary bikes are generally the most portable options. They tend to weigh less, and they also tend to be the least bulky; having a narrow width, and a low height.
Best of all, they’ve got plenty of natural hand-holds and two people could easily carry one from room to room, which makes them a great choice if portability is a big factor.
Ellipticals are also (fairly) portable, but they do tend to be a bit taller, which can make them quite cumbersome. Ellipticals also tend to be a fair bit heavier than stationary bikes or rowing machines, and moving them from room to room is generally a labour-intensive activity.
And treadmills? Well, lets just say that they’re staying put once you’ve got them installed. Treadmills tend to be fairly heavy, and they’re also quite large which means they can be a real struggle to move from room to room.
Some treadmills do fold-up for easy portability, but they’re generally the least maneuverable of the four machines we’re exploring here, so if you’re going to be moving your equipment around a lot, there are definitely better options.
There are pros and cons to each type of exercise machine, with rowing machines offering significantly more health benefits (at the cost of a much higher learning curve), and machines like the stationary bike offering a much more user-friendly experience – at the cost of much lower calorie-burning potential.
If you have a high percentage of body fat and you’re looking for a gentle workout, ellipticals or stationary bikes are definitely your best bet.
And if you’ve already burnt off most of your excess weight, you’ll probably want something that has the potential to increase muscle tone/cardiovascular healt; in which case a rowing machine is definitely your best bet.
Those of us that prefer running should definitely opt for the treadmill (as long as there’s space in their house) while people who suffer from back pain – or just want to avoid high impact exercise – would definitely be best with an elliptical machine or a stationary bike
And then – of course – you’ll need to consider the amount of space in your house, the relative cost and the functionality you want from your machine.
By weighing up each factor individually, you should be able to make a choice that suits you, but don’t be afraid to refer back to this guide while you’re browsing machines – just to refresh your memory and help you make an informed decision.