Cardio Machines 101: Tips for Beginners

Work up a sweat and blast fat at the gym

Photo: 3 women on rowing machines in a gym

If you’re new to the gym, the row of cardio machines can be intimidating or confusing. Which one is best for you? How do you get started? How long do you really need to exercise? Use this simple guide to navigate your way around the cardio floor.

Help Your Heart and Burn Calories
First things first: what’s the benefit of cardio exercise? This type of exercise gets your heart rate up, which improves blood flow and burns calories, says Stephen Lo Cicero, personal training manager at Blink Fitness in West Babylon, NY. With regular cardio exercise, you can help lower your heart disease risk and lose weight. It’s key to engage in moderate-intensity activity at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.

Try These Machines to Start
Though you may think “treadmill” when you head to the gym, don’t miss out on other beginner-friendly options:

Bike: The bike is a good place to build up endurance so you can confidently move to a non-seated machine. “Your first workout should be about learning how to use the equipment and progressing,” Lo Cicero says. You can use the bike to learn pace (how fast you’re going), resistance (which adds a challenge), and intervals (alternating speeds).

Elliptical: When you feel comfortable on the bike, try the elliptical without using the arms. Approach your first elliptical workout the same way as your first bike workout: slowly and with the goal to master the movement. You can add speed, resistance, and arm motions as you gain confidence. “Cardio is a commitment to learning, so be patient,” Lo Cicero says.

Rowing Machine: Ready for a challenge? Check out the underappreciated rowing machine. “Even with high-tech cardio machines coming out each year, sometimes the oldies are the goodies,” Lo Cicero says. This machine requires both your upper body and lower body to work together. Because it requires more concentration and coordination, try it only after you’ve built some endurance on the bike and elliptical.

Ask for Instructions
Before you hop on any machine, ask gym staff to explain how it works. Most machines are user-friendly, but it’s helpful to get instructions before you get started, Lo Cicero says. If you have any health issues, such as a bad knee, it’s also a good time to ask if there are any modifications you should try.

Get the Most from Your Workout
One of the most common mistakes people make when using cardio machines is skipping the step of entering their age and weight into the machine’s settings. “Most people push the Quick Start button, but that can give you a false reading of calories burned and heart rate,” Lo Cicero says. Getting a better reading makes it easier for you to track your progress.

Mix Up Your Routine
It’s important to stick with a machine until you master the basic movements. But once you have a regular cardio routine, you’ll want to alternate the machines you use. This will help you avoid overuse injuries, which can occur if you’re doing the same motions over and over, Lo Cicero says. It’s also a good idea to add challenges with resistance or intervals so that you’ll continue to see fitness results and avoid boredom.

Talk to your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.