Primary Cardio Machines -vs- Secondary Cardio Machines

March 3, 2009

Unlike many people in the fitness industry, I actually think that all cardio machines have some value. I would separate the machines into two groups. The first group is what I would call primary cardio machines. These are the pieces of equipment you use to jack up your metabolism, release fatty acids from your fat cells, and increase your HGH levels. The secondary cardio machines are valuable for steady state low intensity cardio. When combined in a strategic way, you can maximize fat loss by taking advantage of both types of equipment.
cardio equipment treadmills
[When used properly and with a sense of purpose and intensity, the treadmill can be considered a Primary Cardio Machine.]

The Ability of a Cardio Machine to Illicit an HGH Response

The biggest thing which separates various pieces of cardio equipment is the ability of that piece of equipment to to create what some call the “HGH flush”. That is when an exercise makes you short of breath, and your skin hot to the touch. This is a good indicator that your exercise was intense enough to boost your metabolism following your workout as well as increase your body’s natural HGH output. Many people haven’t experienced this type of exercise since Junior High, when your teacher made you “run lines” or made you sprint for one lap around the track.

Not All Machines Have the Same “Bang for the Buck”

Sprinting on a treadmill is tougher than doing cardio on an Elliptical Trainer. Jogging on a StepMill Machine is considerably more difficult than exercising on a typical Stair Climber. Doing intervals on an Upright Stationary Bike is quite a bit tougher than doing the same interval routine on a Recumbent Stationary Bike. The Stepmill Machine is what I consider the toughest piece of cardio equipment in the gym. It is the stair climber that looks like a mini-escalator with real stairs that rotate towards you. This evil machine will make you work up a sweat…especially when you do your HIIT routine on it.

The 3 Main Primary Cardio Machines

Here is my list of three…The Treadmill, The Stepmill, and the Upright Stationary Bike. These lend themselves well to intervals and definitely get the whole “HGH Flush” going when done with enough intensity. Unfortunately you won’t see many gyms with Stepmills, but if your gym has one then take advantage of it. You will get tremendous results.

Almost Everything Else Is Secondary

Here are some secondary cardio machines…the Elliptical Trainer, the Recumbent Stationary Bike, the Stair Climber, Nordic Track, and Rower. You could try hard to do intervals on these pieces of equipment and could certainly work up a sweat, but not to the same degree as the other 3 that I listed above.

How to Strategically Combine Both Types of Machines

My advice is to do intervals on one of the Primary Cardio Machines for 10-15 minutes, followed by moderate steady state cardio on one of the Secondary Cardio Machines for 20 minutes. Doing HIIT followed by steady state cardio is called the Stubborn Fat Protocol. I threw together a 3 page mini-course which explains how to do this for maximum fat loss: Fat Loss Cardio

Why Not Just Stay on The Same Machine At a Slower Pace?

There are two reasons I suggest you change equipment after performing HIIT. The first reason is that it is mentally draining to stay on the same piece of equipment for 30-40 minutes. The change of location will do you some good. The second reason is that your body will respond better to a bit of variety when it comes to cardio.

Primary Machines Can Be Used As Secondary

You can take any piece of primary equipment and use it in place of a secondary machine, but you should Not try to it the other way around. For example: You could do intervals on a treadmill then follow that with exercising at a slow pace on an upright stationary bike for steady state cardio. You would not want to try to do Intervals on a Nordic Track. You certainly could go through the motions on a secondary machine and do intervals, but you are not going to get the same level of HGH response.

Ignore the “Calories Burned” Readings on Cardio Machines

Once you understand how to do effective cardio workouts, you will realize that these little “calories burned” readings on these machines mean nothing. For effective fat loss cardio you are looking for two things: Intense enough intervals to release fatty acids from your fat cells…followed by steady state cardio to use that fat for energy.

What if You Don’t Have Any Cardio Equipment?

If you don’t belong to a gym, or don’t have cardio equipment…then you can “recreate” the HIIT effect from primary cardio machines in a number of ways. I have two popular posts about ow to do HIIT without expensive equipment. The first method is Jumping Rope. Try this killer Jump Rope Routine! If you only have access to a room with no equipment whatsoever, you can do a Intervals with bodyweight exercises only. Here is a post I did about a bodyweight routine I did this past winter: Body Weight Circuits Are Kickin’ My Butt!

Note: After doing jump rope intervals or body weight circuits, then you can do something like a fast walk or slow jog outside. When pressed for time, you can eliminate the steady state cardio all together. The majority of your fat loss results will come from the intense intervals…the steady state cardio is just “icing on the cake”. One last thing…you can replicate HIIT with weights as well: A Circuit Training Routine That Actually Makes Sense!

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris - March 9, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Rusty – Funny you say that, I get the opposite effect. Traditional monostructural ‘cardio’ tends to hurt my joints. High intensity circuits don’t seem to.

You should by all means use what works for you. I just found the disconnect interesting.

cathy March 9, 2009 at 1:50 pm

Just wondering if you got a response to this as I also drink coffee with some flavored cream in it….

Scott Kustes - Life Spotlight March 10, 2009 at 10:59 am

Rusty, Nice post, but I think you’ve never put a rower to good use if you think the treadmill is a better piece of equipment. There’s nothing like a Concept 2 to absolutely destroy yourself.


admin March 10, 2009 at 12:41 pm


You can lose weight without going into your cardio in a fasted state, it will just take a little longer.


I found a treadmill with a speed that goes up to 15 in my gym (most top out at 12). Anyway…I work up to 13.0 for 30 seconds followed by 4.0 for 60 seconds. I typically don’t feel comfortable going above 13.0 yet, since this is a new thing for me (I’ve been doing 12.0 for years). Anyway, I do this on a 2.0 degree incline. As far as losing weight goes…there is a time element involved, but you reach your goals much faster as you increase in performance.


James is right. Keep your same weight and just try to get stronger without adding any muscle. This will build density over time and make you look and feel incredible. The other guys will look soft and puffy when standing next to you.


I am a big fan of the treadmill, for sure.


It is still fine to wait until dinner to eat. In fact, you will drop weight quickly with the approach you are taking.


My joints hurt after jogging long distances, but all the low impact stuff doesn’t hurt my joints when doing steady state cardo…so I understand what you are saying.


I would avoid the cream if possible. You can learn to like coffee black and it will benefit you better in the long term.


I have seen the error of my ways when it comes to the Rowing Machine…LOL! I have a hard time getting a great workout on it, but I am a long-armed freak…so I probably get a different effect from it.



Michael March 11, 2009 at 8:20 pm

I think the reason it’s easy to write off the erg (rower) is because it has no minimum bound on effort. You can sit down on one and slide back and forth and effectively do no work and you can still claim “I rowed for 20 minutes”. With a treadmill, at some point you’re just walking.

It is also a motion that appears simple when observed, but people usually take months or years to master it. So until you have had someone who knows what they are doing teach you proper technique, or do extensive individual research / practice, you are more likely to hurt your lower back than get a good workout. It’s alot like the olympic lifts, no one would advise you to attempt to build strength with those lifts before spending significant time learning proper technique.

If you want to see the kind of work that can be done on an erg search for “crash-b erg” on youtube.

Velma March 12, 2009 at 9:42 am

Hi Rusty, & Everyone Else!
I stumbled onto this website while googling about how to tone without bulking up. I am not a newbie to working out but I am a newbie to losing a large amount of weight and to the gym.

Pre-pregnancy I weighed 120lbs and did taebo cardio and cindy crawford weights at home and this helped me mainatin between 110-130lbs. For various reasons i gained quite a bit during he pregnancy (60lbs) and weighed 186 on “birth-day”. I lost the first 40lbs relatively easily and within the first year without exercising etc…

Here is my dilemma, 2 years ago I was diagnosed with PCOS and although I was eating healthy I was easily gaining weight. I have hit my highest weight of 220 July ’08. I joined curves in January of ’09, it wasn’t challenging me enough so I joined Golds Gym Feb ’09 with the hubby. I am pretty strong and at this point don’t want to get bigger muscle, just burn the fat off. (I can curl 30lbs 10X, 3 sets, shoulder fly 50lbs & squat 350 10X 3 sets).

I have been doing a 18min Interval training 4x wk. 3min wmup, @ min 4, 1 min run, @ min 6, 1 min run, @ min, 30 sec run etc…. and then I was hitting the weights after this, arms one day legs the next. I havent seen any results and I am getting discouraged. Honestly, this is the longest I have stayed consistent with working out in 6 years and the only thing keeping me pumped is the “high” i feel and the energy it gives me.

I started yesterday your HIIT solution with the 10min interval and 20min steady, then i hit the bicep,tricep and did some squats. I read today you dont recommend squats so I will cut that out. Should I be doing weights first then cardio? I want maximum burn!!! LOL

I am also insulin resistant because of the PCOS and have added grapefruit and have noticed some positive side effects from that.

I am currently
219lbs (Jan 2nd weighed 223)

Longterm goal

25″ waist
38″ hips

I need a plan to follow for the next 4 weeks diet and exercise… so suggestions please!!! Thank You

PS# in 4wks my hubby has lost 10lbs…. and we are doing the same cardio…..

Ron March 17, 2009 at 10:35 am

Watch the latest videos on

What is the favorite cardio machine of all?

Ron March 17, 2009 at 10:53 am

For the next 4 weeks, follow strict dieting schedule of fist-sized meals consiting of tuna and whole wheat bread, protein shakes, and fat burners! Water, light foods consisting of protein and low carbs and calories.

admin March 21, 2009 at 3:14 pm


That is a good tip on the rower. I will search on Youtube. I like the idea of rowing to get fit, because it will insure good posture and probably help a little bit with back density.


Do weights first, but drop the squats for sure. I think you will get much better results using that energy for tough HIIT and cardio. Here is a basic routine that gets results…

Day 1) Chest and Back, Abs – HIIT (followed by steady state)
Day 2) Shoulders, Biceps, Triceps – HIIT (steady sate optional)
Day 3) Rest or a little bit of Steady State cardio
[Just repeat this rotation and throw in an extra rest day every now and then]


Scott March 23, 2009 at 8:22 pm

Let me first say I agree with you, the stair climber and the treadmill gives you a killer workout. There is a new machine on the block, the incline trainer, that also does and I think once it catches on will really become a hit.

The thing with rowing when I first tried it out, I did not have the correct form/technique. With the treadmill, spinner, stair climber I could get on them and just go. I didn’t need anybody to teach me how to walk, run, climb stairs. With rowing I thought it was pretty much the same thing but it isn’t at all.

When I fist tried it I would set the resistance to 7 – 10 and I was all herky jerky in my motion but I didn’t know it. My arms would become tired and I really could not crank up the heart rate like other exercises. Finally one day I saw I guy from Germany who was a rower get on the machine. His stroke looked so smooth and effortless, it was all one motion. He broke down the stroke for me and told me it was like riding a bike, you will not get it down the first try but with time it comes and then shazam, it kicks your ass.

The feeling you get on the rower is different, with a stair climber it can kick your butt because your using the legand glute muscles a much higher intensity. Yet in a way your leg muscles can become the limiting factor. You feel the burn when you crank it up just a notch too much.

With the rower your using a lot more muscle (back, arms and legs) through a fuller range of motion. You crank it up on the rower and all those muscles are demanding more energy and it feels like somebody sucked out all the O2 out of the room. You can really see it on the Polar HRM. I went over and above my max HR (do not do this at home).

The key is to set the resistance at a proper resistance setting (2 – 4) and learn the stroke. Yet it is opening Pandora’s box.

matt April 3, 2009 at 11:43 am

Hi Rusty,

You dont talk very much about swimming for a cardio workout. I try and swim a few times a week and love it. Any suggestions on how to maximize that workout?

Sun May 18, 2009 at 8:13 pm

Hey Rusty,

I was doing a pubmed literature review for a summer research project and got sidetracked by several HIIT articles. Anyway, here’s a link to an abstract regarding exercise and fat oxidation titled “Optimizing fat oxidation through exercise and diet.” The second to last sentence sounds oddly familiar. If you want a copy of the entire pdf and can’t get access, feel free to email me.

BTW: Thank you for creating this site. I’ve been an avid reader for a little over a year and it’s refreshing to find an alternative to the single-minded mass-building sites. Keep up the good work!

Alister Lane MD September 30, 2009 at 4:16 am


Why do you class elliptical runners as less effective than your main 3? I’ve been using ellipticals for years now and never fail to get the HGH flush. What, in your opinion, makes this a less effective cardio exercise?

Tanya - Naperville Exercise Equipment November 17, 2010 at 12:29 pm

I was surprised to see that you didn’t list the elliptical as one of the top 3 cardio machines. I know it’s not as intense as the treadmill or stepper, but if you do it consistently for a decent amount of time, you’ll certainly see quick results!

Becca April 14, 2011 at 8:27 pm

I disagree with rowing machines being a secondary cardio machine. I challenge anyone to use an ergometer (Rowing machine) for interval training (or even a regular steady state workout)and tell me it wasn’t one of the most intense workouts of your life, far more intense than a bike. As long as you use an erg PROPERLY (I’ve been erging for years and coaches still tell me I have some technical problems) you’ll get full body workout basically, including the core. It’s especially killer on your legs, definitely builds them up. I’m terrified of HIT on ergs though haha, so I do have to stick to bikes haha 🙁

Becca April 14, 2011 at 8:29 pm

I should probably also add Concept2 ergs are the standard machine for erg competitions including the world championships, so I’m not sure how ergs at your local gym work/match up, I’m sure some are poor quality

Michael September 27, 2011 at 5:14 pm

This is an old post but maybe someone will see this.

I’ve tried lots of different machines at various gyms including all of those mentioned above. The one that really kicks my butt, however, is the VersaClimber. My first time on it, I didn’t last ten minutes–and that was at a relatively slow pace. I used to own a Concept II and while it was good, the VersaClimber is more intense and is the best I’ve found for HIIT. Now I own one and it’s my main workout. When I go to climb a hill it’s so much easier than when I used to run those very same hills.

Also, another point about the Stepmill type climbers is that the movement is different than on the currently popular steppers. It’s a much more natural movement and stresses the hip joint far less. It’s actually far closer to climbing real stairs (or a mountain) than the side to side motion of the more common stairclimbers. When I was having back problems a number of years ago my physical therapist insisted that I stick with what we then called the ‘old-fashioned’ stair climbers. At that time, they were pretty much all Stairmasters but the older versions had the escalator like stairs vs. the side to side steppers on the newer models.

essays term papers December 5, 2011 at 10:42 am

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noella April 22, 2012 at 9:36 pm

my height is 4ft 9 inches and i’m 56 kgs ….i’m trying to lose weight ie….i intend to touch 50 kgs …i’m looking out for a threadmill/ climber …..what do u thonk would be better another thing …i’m heavy on my hips . thanks

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