How To Use the Most Popular Cardio Machines At the Gym

Picture this: you just signed up for a gym membership and you walk in and see everyone on the cardio machines running, rowing, and climbing their way to fitness.

If you’re anything like me, you asked yourself: How does everyone know how to use the machines in the gym? How does everyone know what cardio machine is best for them? You start to wander, trying to surreptitiously watch other people to see

When I first started working out, I would purposefully got to the gym super early (think like 4am) so there would be no one around to watch me as I fumbled around. If you’ve got anxiety about how to use the machines, I hope you know: I feel that anxiety deep in my soul.

The most popular cardio machines at the gym are the elliptical, the stair climber, the treadmill, and the rower.

All are great and, depending on where you are, will help you get your fitness on.

Not ready to go to the gym (or don’t want to)? There are a lot of at home options of these machines so don’t despair! Wherever you are, you’ve got options!

As a reminder: if you are starting your fitness journey, in the middle of it, or going at it full throttle it’s always best to get clearance by your doctor to make sure you can perform exercises safely. 

How To Use the Most Popular Cardio Machines At the Gym

Note: the below does contain affiliate links. You won’t pay a penny more by clicking through.


Elliptical Machine


What does it do:

Unlike running on a treadmill, the motion of an elliptical machine offers a low impact workout.  The elliptical is primarily used for cardio but it also has the extra benefit of offering a type of weight bearing exercises that inhibit the onset of osteoporosis.

What muscles does it work:

Works your calves, glutes, and hamstrings. It also works the upper body if the handles are used.

Great for:

Those with joint, knees, hips, and lower back issues. The elliptical is gentle and low impact.

How do you use:

  • Make sure you grab the handlebars as you get on, the machine will move right away. Keep that grip light!
  • Keep your feet parallel as you step to the edges of the pedals (this will avoid strain on your hips)
  • As you pedal forward (recommended since it’s not so hard on your knees), keep your legs soft but straight (avoid locking your knees)
  • Stand up straight! Try to avoid leaning backward or forward.
  • Engage your core as you pedal
  • Increase the resistance up or down using the arrows

At home options:

Shaofu Magnetic Control Mute Elliptical Trainer 

Fitness Reality E5500XL Magnetic Elliptical 

Schwinn 430 HR Enabled Elliptical Tr


Stair Climber


What does it do:

Climbing stairs is an intense cardiovascular workout that works your lower body in with “variable resistance rapid repetition style of training that moves your legs through a complete range of motion”.  Due that type of training (think climbing stairs over and over), you easily train a part of your body that can be historically be hard to work (think inner thighs and glutes).

What muscles does it work:

Dem buns! And legs! And hips! The stair climber is very effective at toning your lower half.

Great for:

Those looking to strengthen bones or to ward of osteoporosis.

How do you use:

  • Rest your hands on the handles gently. Good rule of thumb: don’t grip the handles tighter then you would a paper cup
  • Stand up right with a slight lean with the hips. Do not rest your whole body on the climber.
  • Keep your entire foot on the pedal to work your muscles evenly
  • Take deep steps that are even. Quick fast steps can decrease your calorie burn

At home options:

Sunny Health & Fitness Twist Stepper Step Machine 

Mini Stair Stepper of Exercise (I have this one and use it while watching Real Housewives)



treadmillWhat does it do:

Treadmills are the most straightforward of the cardio machines at the gym.  It is great for those looking for a quick cardio burst. It is an easy machine to use and much easier to navigate balance wise then running or walking outdoors.

What muscles does it work:

The treadmill is a great all over cardio machine that works your glutes, thighs, calves, backside, and upper body (not to the extent of lifting weights but does still allow for some arm workout).

Great for:

Those who are beginning their fitness journey (due to their ease of use) and those who aren’t suffering from any knee/hip/joint issues.

How do you use:

  • Never get on the treadmill while it’s moving at full speed. Make sure the machine is stopped or at very slow rate of speed.
  • Do not hold onto the console or handles. You should mimic how you walk or run naturally.
  • If possible add some incline so you aren’t on a flat surface. This will up your calorie burn while making sure you challenging your stability (i.e: core)
  • Avoid hunching and looking down (ack! your neck!). Stand up straight and proud!
  • Don’t over stride: keep your front heel close to your body, while your back foot remains on the ground. This will give you a powerful push-off. This push-off will help strengthen your muscles and help you burn more calories.

At home options:

Smart Digital Folding Exercise Machine – Electric Motorized Treadmill

MaxKare Treadmill with 15 Pre-Set Programs


rowerWhat does it do:

Rowing Machines provide a great full body workout: your upper and lower body need to work together to power the rower.

What muscles does it work:

Your full body! Legs, forearms, triceps, biceps .. you name it, the rower works it.

Great for:

Those in a fitness plateau or those looking for low impact cardio.

How do you use:

  • Secure the straps on your feet tight enough so they don’t slide
  • Keep your grip light (and use an overhand grip)
  • Don’t hunch your back; start and finish with a straight back
  • To Start:
    • hold the oar (the “handle”) with arms extended
    • Bend your knees
    • keep the weight on the balls of your feet
      • the starting position is called the Catch

Once you are comfortable with the Catch Position, move on:

When you are comfortable with that isolated movement, put them together!

At home options:

Sunny Health & Fitness SF-RW5856 Magnetic Rowing Machine Rower

Sunny Health & Fitness Magnetic Rowing Machine with LCD Monitor by SF-RW5515

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