From treadmills to rowers and steppers to stationary bikes, most modern gyms offer a wide range of machines for cardiovascular (CV) exercise. If you're confused by the wide array of exercise gym equipment on offer, then look no further than this guide to getting the best out of your CV exercises at the gym.

When faced with such an extensive range of CV gym equipment, it can be confusing when you’re trying to decide which machine is most suitable for you and your health and fitness goals. For example:

  • What are the pros and cons of each machine?
  • Which is the best piece of equipment for your exercise?
  • How do you get the best from your exercise sessions?
  • What sorts of sessions should you do?

If you’re want to get the best from your gym cardio workout, simply consult the following guide and get more from your gym session.

Equipment Description Pros Cons
Treadmill A rolling road to walk, jog or run on. Can vary speed and usually incline

1. Ideal when it’s too hot or cold outside.

2. Can program precise sessions for advanced training

1. Can become boring over long periods

2. Doesn’t completely replicate running because the road moves rather than you

3. High impact is unsuitable for some people

Cross-trainer A cross between a treadmill and a bike in terms of movement, with different settings for intensity

1. Great low impact exercise

2. Can exercise arms as well as legs

As with all gym CV machines, overuse can result in boredom
Stepping machine (stepper) Replicates stair-climbing with variable load settings Excellent for leg strength As with all gym CV machines, overuse can result in boredom
Rower Closely copies outdoor rowing, the harder you pull, the more challenging the session Low impact. Excellent all-over workout Good technique is important to avoid back problems
Upright cycle Different tension or load settings can be used Low impact. Excellent all-over workout Overuse can cause knee problems
Recliner cycle Similar to the upright cycle but in more of an ‘armchair’ position Relaxed position is ideal for cool-down Overuse can cause knee problems
Hand cycle Uses the arms rather than the legs Good upper body workout machine Least effective CV machine because smaller muscle groups employed
Versa-climber Specialist equipment that is similar to climbing a ladder Excellent for both upper and lower body Machine height (8 feet) may cause installation problems. Mostly suitable for advanced exercisers

CV training: what to look for

The idea of CV training is to exercise the cardiovascular system; i.e. your heart and lungs. To achieve this, you need to use large muscle groups that will require a lot of oxygen and have a large blood flow to them. Hence, the most effective pieces of cardiovascular exercise equipment are machines that use the legs as they contain the largest muscle groups in the body. Machines that employ other muscle groups can still provide a CV workout, but it can be less effective. Consult the list below to see which machines provide the most training benefits:

What’s the best all-round CV exercise equipment?

  • Versa-climber
  • Rower
  • Treadmill
  • Stepping machine (stepper)
  • Cross-trainer
  • Upright cycle
  • Recliner cycle
  • Hand cycle

CV training tips

With all CV machines, it is important to include a gradual warm-up at the start of your session and finish with a cool-down at the end. Both your warm-up and cool-down should be for a minimum of five minutes.


Tip: Most treadmills have a range of programs, such as ‘hills’. Experiment with them to avoid your sessions stagnating.

Session idea: Partner pacing. You and a partner each run on adjacent treadmills, taking it in turns to decide on the pace, duration and incline. Every session is different and the time will go quicker if training with a partner.


Tip: As well as doing forward motion, the cross-trainer will also move in reverse. Occasionally spend a little time ‘going backwards’ to challenge your body in a different way.

Session idea: Vary your use of the ‘ski poles’ during your session, five minutes with, to tone your arms and five minutes without, to focus on balance and legs.

Stepping machine

Tip: Avoid supporting your bodyweight with your hands on the rails and only use your hands for balance. This way you get a more challenging and beneficial workout.

Session idea: Take the landmark challenge. See if you can climb to the top of a famous landmark - on your stepper! Consult the table below for some challenging heights:

Famous Landmark Equivalent number of steps
La Sagrada Familia 400
St. Paul ’s Cathedral 732
Empire State Building 2,500
Ben Nevis 8,812
Everest 58,070


Tip: To maximize your rowing session, as well as pulling with your arms, drive with your legs as well to develop more power.

Session idea: Set up a challenge with your friends over a set distance of say 2,000 metres. Everyone rows the distance weekly or fortnightly recording their time on a ‘performance ladder’ score-sheet chronicling names, dates and times. Just watch everyone improve when competing against each other!

Upright cycle

Tip: Always tighten the foot-straps so that as well as pushing down on the pedals, you can also pull up, which generates much more power.

Session idea: Alternate periods sitting in the saddle with periods out of the saddle, standing up on the pedals. It makes for a more challenging workout but builds leg strength fast!

Recliner cycle

Tip: When setting the position of the seat, make sure that with your foot on the pedal, your knee is very slightly bent. You will then transmit all your power to the pedal efficiently without rocking your pelvis.

Session idea: Use the recliner cycle for an easy cool-down after a more intense session on other equipment. The lying back position is ideal to relax after a tough workout.

Hand cycle

Tip: Many users forget to adjust the length of the ‘cranks’ and find themselves overstretching to complete each revolution. Before you use the machine, adjust the crank length to suit your arm length to get the best from your session.

Session idea: Getting your heart rate up on the hand cycle can be hard because your weight is supported and you are using smaller muscle groups. Try alternating one minute fast with one minute slow during your workout to challenge your CV system more effectively.


Tip: Avoid taking short steps when you climb because short steps don’t put your muscles through their full range of movement or fully challenge your body. Instead, climb full height steps, fully extending your legs each time.

Session idea: The Versa-climber is a challenging CV machine, so build up gradually. Try adding one or two minutes to your session duration everytime you use the machine and your CV conditioning will really progress.

Mix your exercises up

To maximise your benefits and enjoyment of your CV training at the gym, vary the different pieces of equipment that you use. That way, you keep your sessions interesting and your body will be more balanced instead of solely used to working one type of machine.