Stationary bikes, treadmills and stair steppers might be some of the most popular exercise machines at the gym, but they won’t help you build upper-body strength. Gliders, rowers, riders and some ellipticals move your legs, torso and arms, providing you a wider range of motion when you exercise that helps if your goal is toning. A full-body workout won’t necessarily burn more calories, so understanding how different machines affect your fitness will help you make the best choice for you.
A full-body workout requires you to move your lower-body, core and upper-body muscles. Exercise machines that provide this type of workout often create no impact on your body, since your feet don’t leave the ground or the machine. They can create repetitive stress, however, especially on your lower back, based on the repeated push-pull movements they create.
A number of companies make gliders, which create a cross-country skiing movement. Holding onto poles while you stand on separate footpads, you move one of your arms backward while the opposite leg moves forward, then move the arm forward while the opposite leg moves backward. Depending on how much arm or leg effort you use, you increase or decrease the amount of muscle you use in a particular area of your body. Changing the resistance setting on some of these machines lets you create low-resistance cardio workouts or higher-resistance routines. Standing on your toes, you’ll emphasize your calf muscles -- helpful if you want to look good in heels. Leaning backward, you’ll work your hamstrings, butt and hips more. Because of the forward-and-backward movement, you won’t get much tummy work with many of these machines, so budget five to 10 minutes of ab exercises before your cardio work on a glider.
Rowers, or ergometers, let you exercise while seated, using a motion similar to the one you use while using a rowboat. Rowing machines are an effective choice for shaping your arms and shoulders. As you pull yourself toward the front of the machine, your knees bend upward. When you reach the end of your pull, you push yourself backward, straightening your legs. Depending on your strength or what muscles you want to emphasize, you can do half rows, increase or decrease the resistance or use more arm or leg effort. As you fatigue, if you don’t perform the rowing with proper technique, you might begin to strain your lower back.
Aerobic riders became popular in the 1980s because they were simple to use, like stationary bikes, but added an upper-body workout because of the moving handles. These machines are a cross between stationary bikes and rowing machines. Changing the resistance setting lets you work faster for cardio workouts, or harder for muscular endurance or strength routines. Their popularity faded when users noticed repetitive-stress pain and a lower calorie burn than other cardio machines.
While some elliptical machines require you to place your hands on non-moving handles, other models come with moveable arm poles, creating a workout similar to a glider. A glider keeps your legs relatively straight, requiring you to use more upper-body effort to move the machine. An elliptical creates a pedaling motion, putting the emphasis of your muscular effort on your lower body. Because of the configuration of the machines, it might be difficult to decrease your lower-body use to emphasize an upper-body workout the way you can with a glider or rowing machine.
Weight machines, also known as universal machines and home gyms, let you perform many specific exercises that target your legs, hips, core, arms, shoulders, chest and back. Some use weight stacks with cables, some use proprietary resistance mechanisms and some rely on your body’s weight to create much of the resistance. While you can create a cardio workout with a weight machine using less resistance, these pieces of equipment don’t provide an easy way to do a repetitive, steady-state aerobic workout unless they have a moving bench that lets you create a rowing motion. A better cardio workout on these machines is a circuit-training workout performed with little resistance at a high intensity.
- American College of Sports Medicine: Selecting and Effectively Using a Rowing Machine
- MayoClinic.com: Are Elliptical Machines Better Than Treadmills for Basic Aerobic Workouts?
- American College of Sports Medicine: Selecting and Effectively Using an Elliptical Trainer
- American College of Sports Medicine: Selecting and Effectively Using Home Weight Machines
Sam Ashe-Edmunds has been writing and lecturing for decades. He has worked in the corporate and nonprofit arenas as a C-Suite executive, serving on several nonprofit boards. He is an internationally traveled sport science writer and lecturer. He has been published in print publications such as Entrepreneur, Tennis, SI for Kids, Chicago Tribune, Sacramento Bee, and on websites such Smart-Healthy-Living.net, SmartyCents and Youthletic. Edmunds has a bachelor's degree in journalism.