Ready to take your cardio game to the next level? Here’s a look at the best cardio workouts to do at the gym, benefits, and the best cardio machines to use.
Cardio is a crucial component of every fitness program!
While resistance training focuses on building strength and power, cardio increases your body’s natural endurance, and the ability to deliver oxygenated, nutrient-rich blood to your hard-working muscles.
Without good cardio conditioning, you won’t be able to run, jump, and play as hard as you want to, so it’s always worth putting in the effort to train cardio.
Below, we’ll look at everything you need to know about the best cardio workouts to do at the gym—including the benefits of cardio, the best machines to use, great workouts you can do without a machine, and the best workouts to improve your cardio.
By the end of this post, you’ll know everything you need to know to take your cardiovascular fitness to the next level.
Let’s get started.
Benefits of Doing Cardio Workouts at the Gym
Why is it worth spending so much time and effort doing cardio?
What are the benefits of improving your cardiovascular fitness?
⭐ Reduction in body fat.
High body fat can lead to a higher rate of a wide range of health conditions—from heart disease to diabetes.
Losing body fat will not only make you look better, but also be healthier and far less prone to the serious and often fatal health problems caused by obesity.
⭐ Reduction in weight.
Though losing body fat is what we all strive for, losing weight is also a great benefit.
Your body is designed to carry around only so much weight, and every pound you add onto your musculoskeletal system will increase the strain on your bones, joints, and muscles.
Weight loss alleviates the burdens on your body and makes every form of movement far easier.
⭐ Improvement in cardiovascular function.
You’ll find that doing cardio will help you move more easily in every sense of the word, because your heart, lungs, and blood vessels are all better-able to increase function in order to keep up with your increased activity.
⭐ Improvement in agility and mobility.
The time you spend doing cardio will make you a more agile, mobile person.
After all, exercises like sprint training, treadmill training, stair climbing, and rowing work the muscles that help you to move and maintain your balance across every activity.
⭐ Increased sense of well-being.
Exercise has been shown to lift your mood, releasing a flood of feel-good chemicals that can actually make you feel happier.
Beyond that, there’s the increased sense of well-being that comes from knowing you’re making smart, healthy choices to live the best life you possibly can.
⭐ Increased emotional resilience.
Being able to push through fatigue and tiredness to complete your workout will actually develop greater emotional resilience in every aspect of your life.
Mental fortitude is crucial for weathering the challenges you’ll face daily.
⭐ Less stress.
Exercise, and cardio especially, is a fantastic stress-buster.
Not only does it help to lower the presence of the stress hormone cortisol, but the self-hypnotic effects of cardio encourage mental relaxation that combats stress in your mind as well as your body.
⭐ Less fatigue.
The more energy you consume on a daily basis, the more energy your body will need to produce to keep up with demands.
This will translate into a faster metabolism and better-able to deliver enough energy to keep you from feeling tired throughout the day—meaning you’ll feel less fatigued and more alert.
As you can see, there are A LOT of benefits to doing cardio!
The Two Types of Workouts for Improving Cardio
Basically, when it comes to cardio training, there are two approaches:
1. Low-intensity, steady state.
This type of workout is exactly as described: low intensity, and a steady state that doesn’t involve sudden acceleration of pace.
Typically, these LISS workouts will last around 30 to 60 minutes, though some runners, joggers, cyclists, swimmers, and marathoners can sustain this lower level of intensity for well beyond an hour.
This type of exercise does wonders to build your cardiovascular endurance. Your body has to maintain a steady supply of energy for a much longer duration, which makes it more efficient at tapping into stored fats as well as available sugar-based energy.
Though you will never burn as many calories as faster-paced workouts, LISS trains your body to sustain exertion for longer periods of time.
It’s critical for being able to run, cycle, walk, jog, or swim in real-life environments and thus is highly functional.
Both HIIT and Tabata follow the same structure: periods of high-intensity exercise combined with periods of low-intensity exercise that serve as “active rest” for your body.
Combining the low- and high-intensity periods pushes your cardiovascular system to its max capacity, which, over time, actually helps to increase that max capacity.
For example, if your Max Heart Rate is 180 (average for a 40-year old), HIIT training can help you to push it to 185, 190, and beyond because it’s forcing your body to sustain maximum effort for prolonged periods (20 to 60 seconds) over and over again.
HIIT and Tabata (the Japanese workout program that originated HIIT) will burn a lot of calories, increase muscular endurance and strength, and help your body to become more effective at absorbing and utilizing oxygen even if you’re at the limits of your endurance.
Combining both of these workout types is the key to increasing your fitness overall!
The Best Cardio Machines for Doing Cardio at the Gym
If your goal is to get a truly kickass cardio workout at the gym, here are the machines where you should be spending your time:
The elliptical machine is one of my all-time favorite workout machines, because it A) delivers a full-body workout, and B) is a low-impact form of training.
It’s also the most versatile cardio machine in the gym—you can use it to walk, jog, sprint, climb stairs, and work out your upper body, lower body, and core.
I’ll always recommend the treadmill as a good choice of cardio workout machine because it is probably the most functional of all the machines.
Think about it: the more you walk, jog, run, or sprint on the treadmill, the more you’ll be able to do that in real life. And, as we all know, these are the most common ways that we get around.
Treadmill training is a great alternative for the winter when it’s too cold to train outdoors.
You can use the treadmill to maintain your walking, running, or sprint training until the weather is once again pleasant enough to head back outside and explore your city, forests, trails, and mountains.
The spinning bike is a great workout not because of the bike itself, but what you do on the bike during the spinning class.
The constant shift between sitting and standing, varying up the pace, sprint-pedaling, and cycling to the rhythm of the music makes for a truly active, intense calorie-burning workout that not many other gym machines can equal.
The great thing about spinning is that no two workouts are ever identical, so there’s no chance you’ll wind up getting bored with the training.
The rowing machine is another beautifully functional machine, one that trains you to row in real life—great for kayakers, paddleboarders, canoers, and boaters.
Anyone who enjoys water sports should spend time on the rowing machine because it helps to develop the muscles that you’ll use to row/paddle your boat on real water. Plus, it’s an amazing workout that burns a lot of calories.
If you’re lucky enough to have a Jacob’s Ladder in your gym, I strongly recommend you use it.
No lower body workout—not the stair climber, not the elliptical, not even squats or lunges—can really come close to the intense cardiovascular training that you get on the Jacob’s Ladder.
On the face it, it’s a simple machine: just climb an endless ladder one or two rungs at a time.
However, the act of climbing is far more demanding on your body than you might realize. Your legs will soon be burning, your heart will be pumping hard, and you’ll be sweating bullets.
The faster you climb, the more you push your cardiovascular system and leg muscles to their absolute limit.
The assault bike (also known as an air bike), like the elliptical, works your entire body, including your legs, core, Push, and Pull upper body muscles.
It’s also designed to increase resistance the faster you cycle, so you can easily push it from a light, low-intensity workout into high-intensity interval training easily.
It’s a great low-impact workout that is guaranteed to burn A LOT of calories!
Last, but definitely not least, the stair climber machine, or Stairmaster.
This machine works your lower body muscles, paying extra attention to your glutes and quads.
The Stair Climber is great for functional fitness—you’ll climb lots of stairs throughout your day—and burns a lot of calories while also strengthening your leg muscles.
Best Ways to Do Cardio at the Gym (without a Machine)
What do you do if all the cardio machines at the gym are occupied? How do you get in a good cardio session?
You’ll be glad to know there are actually a lot more ways to do cardio at the gym without a machine than you’d expect:
Swimming is the best form of cardio around, by a wide margin.
The benefits of swimming are legit: it works every muscle in your body, pushes your cardiovascular system to its absolute max, and trains your lungs to absorb oxygen at a steady (if slightly decreased) rate, which in turn compels your body to become more efficient at utilizing that oxygen to produce energy.
Jumping rope is a high-impact form of exercise that will increase the resiliency of your musculoskeletal system.
Your body has to increase bone density to bear up under the strain of the repeated jumps, and your muscular endurance will increase from the repeated explosive muscles contractions of the jumping.
One of my favorite cardio workouts during the lockdowns of 2020, while my neighborhood gyms were closed, was :30 of skipping with :30 rest for 30-40 minutes. I’d use my trusty crossfit timer to stay on track of the intervals.
High intensity interval training isn’t just done on the cardio machines; you can also do it using standard resistance training (weightlifting) exercises.
The act of continuously engaging your muscles in high-intensity activity with only short periods of low-intensity rest between will develop cardiovascular endurance as effectively as sprint training or speed-cycling.
Burpees are an absolute killer, great for building muscle and improving your cardiovascular conditioning.
The combination of jump squat, push-up, plank, and jump all without rest will quickly leave you gasping for air—a truly amazing HIIT workout choice!
Plyometric training, or “jump training”, is a great form of cardio because of how much energy is required to propel you into the air.
That explosive contraction of your muscles burns through a lot of energy at once, forcing your cardiovascular system to work over-time to send oxygenated and nutrient-rich blood to power your depleted muscles.
Over the course of a 30 to 45-minute plyo workout, you can burn A LOT of calories and increase your cardiovascular endurance significantly.
Jumping jacks, like jumping rope, is a great, simple form of high-impact cardio that will deplete energy reserves quickly and force your cardiovascular system to work harder to replenish that burned energy.
Kettlebell training typically involves higher-intensity, faster-paced, more dynamic movements than standard weight training, which means more muscles are worked with every movement.
The more muscles that are engaged at once, the faster you burn through stored energy, so the harder your cardiovascular system has to work to replenish energy supplies. The result: better cardio conditioning as well as muscular strength.
I love a good stair run! You’re mixing a lot of fast-paced activities—running, jumping, and stair-climbing—which together get your cardiovascular system pushing hard to keep up with the energy demands of the workout.
Plus, you get an amazing glute-and-quad-centric training session that will help to develop greater explosive muscular capacity in your legs.
The Bottom Line
As you’ve seen above, there are so many ways you can do cardio workouts at your gym.
Whether you hop on your favorite machine or get a machine-free workout, there are many approaches you can take.
Any of which will be highly effective at pushing your cardiovascular endurance and making your heart, lungs, and blood vessels more efficient at doing their job of keeping your muscles fueled and oxygenated.
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