Q&A: The Best Cardio Equipment

Question: What is the best cardio equipment to buy? A treadmill, stationary cycle, versa climber, elliptical machine, or rowing machine?

Answer: The best piece of “cardio” equipment you can buy is a barbell or a pair of adjustable dumbbells.

When used properly a barbell or dumbbells are capable of stimulating greater improvements in cardiovascular conditioning more quickly, efficiently, and safely than any of the equipment you mentioned(1). Unlike the equipment you mentioned these are also safe and effective tools for improving muscular strength and size, bone and connective tissue strength, and flexibility.

The primary function of your cardiovascular system is delivering oxygen and nutrients to and metabolic wastes away from your muscles and other tissues. When you are more physically active your muscles use more energy and create more waste causing your heart to pump more blood more frequently. If a physical activity is demanding enough to cause significant heart rate elevation ( for even only a few minutes it will stimulate improvements in cardiovascular fitness(2).

Most people don’t think of barbells and dumbbells as cardiovascular conditioning tools because they use them in a way that is very inefficient for this purpose. Typical strength training methods involve sets that are too short (10-30 seconds), with too much rest allowed in between (2-5 minutes), and too few performed with a high intensity of effort. However, when exercises are performed with a high level of effort, for sufficient duration (at least 30 to 90 seconds) and with little or no rest time allowed between it is possible to achieve and maintain average heart rates in excess of 80% of one’s predicted heart rate maximum (220 minus age).

Strength training is the best "cardio"

Contrary to what you might expect, it is not necessary to move quickly during exercise to accomplish this, since the demands on the cardiovascular system are proportional to metabolic rather than mechanical work. This kind of heart rate elevation can be achieved with very slow repetitions or even isometric exercise if the effort is high enough. Using a moderately slow 4/1/4 repetition cadence and performing less than seven repetitions per minute I am able to consistently achieve average heart rates between eighty and ninety percent of my predicted maximum during workouts. As a general rule you should move slowly during exercises and quickly between them.

This makes barbells and dumbbells safer when used correctly, because to achieve this kind of heart rate elevation using most of the other equipment mentioned requires moving at faster speeds increases the risk of overuse and acute injuries. Venous return and thus cardiac blood flow is also more efficient during strength training than traditional endurance activities, making it safer for people with heart conditions (3).

If your goal is fat loss, barbells and dumbbells are still the best choice, because the proper role of exercise in a fat loss program is increasing or maintaining lean body mass while fat is lost, not increasing calorie expenditure since no activity burns enough calories to be worth doing for that purpose. None of the equipment you asked about does this effectively, but barbells and dumbbells do.

While selectorized machines are also highly effective for cardiovascular conditioning(4) and make it possible to move between exercises even more quickly, barbells and dumbbells provide a greater variety of exercises and are more cost and space efficient, making them the best choice if you want to equip a home gym with limited space and budget.


  1. James Peterson, PhD., Total Conditioning: A Case Study, Athletic Journal Vol. 56 September, 1975
  2. Gibala MJ, Little JP, Van essen M, et al. Short-term sprint interval versus traditional endurance training: similar initial adaptations in human skeletal muscle and exercise performance. J Physiol (Lond). 2006;575(Pt 3):901-11.
  3. Meyer K, Hajric R, Westbrook S, et al. Hemodynamic responses during leg press exercise in patients with chronic congestive heart failure. Am J Cardiol. 1999;83(11):1537-43.
  4. Maisch B, Baum E, Grimm W. Die Auswirkungen dynamischen Krafttrainings nach dem Nautilus-Prinzip auf kardiozirkulatorische Parameter und Ausdauerleistungsfähigkeit (The effects of resistance training according to the Nautilus principles on cardiocirculatory parameters and endurance). Angenommen vom Fachbereich Humanmedizin der Philipps-Universität Marburg am 11. Dezember 2003
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