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Choosing a cardio machine isn’t as easy as it looks. 

With a range of cardio equipment available at most gyms, how do you know which is most effective?

Treadmills, rowing machines, stair climbers, and stationary bikes. All can help you torch calories, but we want maximum burn!

Today, the real question is – which cardio machine burns the most calories per hour? 

To help you make a decision, I’ve answered this question by making a list of the top 7 types of cardio equipment. 

Keep reading to learn how many calories you can expect to burn per hour at a moderate intensity.         

Factors Influencing which cardio machines burn the most calories

which cardio machine burns the most calories

Regardless of the type of exercise you do, some factors will always influence how many calories you burn per hour.

Type of Cardio Exercise

Low-impact activity will always burn fewer calories. However, high-impact activity can burn you out quicker. 

For instance, using the elliptical will be much lower-impact than running 7 mph on a treadmill. 

Still, you might burn a comparable (or higher) number of calories than the high-impact exercise, given that you can keep it up longer.

When you choose a cardio machine, consider the amount of impact, or force, it has on your body. This will affect how sustainable your cardio sessions are. 

Intensity

Impact and intensity are not the same. 

Consider a squat jump. The impact is what we consider when your feet hit the floor and you bend the knees into your squat.

The intensity is how much effort you put into the jump.

For the list below, we’re focusing on Steady State Cardio (SSC) with moderate effort.

At moderate effort, your heart rate is at about 50 -70% of your maximum heart rate. We’ll discuss this more very soon. 

For now, just bear in mind that moderate intensity uses three to six times more energy than sitting.

Related: Smith Machine Bar Weight

Machine Resistance

Resistance is anything that makes a movement more difficult. The clearest example of this is increasing the resistance on your exercise bike or elliptical.

On its own, resistance training wouldn’t burn as much as straight cardio. But it’s a different story when you combine the two and amp up the resistance on your cardio machine.

That’s because resistance can increase excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). Increasing EPOC generally means you’ll continue burning more calories at rest.

Body Weight

The more you weigh, the more energy you expend moving your body. Therefore, people who weigh more burn more calories faster. 

Muscle mass matters, too. 

For example, a 200-pound person without much muscle mass may burn 80 more calories doing the same amount of cardio as a 120-pound person. 

However, a 180-pound person with great muscle mass can burn more than the 200-pound person. Muscle burns more calories than fat, and adding muscle mass can improve your basal metabolic rate (BMR).

which cardio machine burns the most calories overall?

I won’t keep you in suspense – the arc trainer seems to burn the most calories per hour.

Of course, there’s more to this. While the arc trainer might burn more calories, it might not be the best pick for you.

First, you’ll find that the differences in calories burned really isn’t that large between a lot of these machines.

Other factors will influence which machine you’ll prefer, too. So, I’ll be sharing the pros and cons of each.

How did I calculate calories burned?

I calculated calories burned using a table of established METs (or Metabolic Equivalents) per activity to find energy expenditure for each exercise.

What is MET?

A MET is the ratio of the work metabolic rate to the resting metabolic rate. 

One MET is defined as 1 kcal/kg/hour and is roughly equivalent to the energy cost of sitting still. 

A MET also is defined as oxygen uptake in ml/kg/min with one MET equal to the oxygen cost of sitting quietly, equivalent to 3.5 ml/kg/min.

Steady State Cardio (SSC) with moderate effort takes 3-6 METs.

7 Best Cardio Machines That Burn the Most Calories

1. The Arc Trainer

The arc trainer aims to combine a cross-trainer, a bike, a stair-climber, and a treadmill all into one machine. But it’s one of the lesser-used cardio machines. 

Manufacturers have exaggerated the number of calories an arc trainer can help you burn per hour. In fact, the machines themselves may be programmed to overestimate calorie burn

Benefits:

  • Very good calorie burn even without manufacturer overestimates
  • Full-body workout
  • Less awkward movement than elliptical

Drawbacks:

  • Not as widely available at gyms as other cardio machines
  • Large, expensive equipment might not be great for home use
  • Calorie figures on machine display may be misleading

Calories Burned Per Hour

Bogus claims aside, the arc trainer does give you a good workout. And as you’ll find, it burns more than its counterpart, the elliptical.

The following applies to 4.8 METs.

Weight lbs / kgCalories Per Hour Estimation +/-
125 / 56.7338
155 /  70.3419
185 / 83.9502
215 / 97.5583
245 / 111.1664

2. The Ski Machine

Ski machines might look a bit silly. But what’s great about them is that, unlike some of the other cardio equipment, it targets the full body.

Your glutes, hamstrings, lats, triceps, shoulders – everything gets worked.

Benefits:

  • Decent training for outdoor snow skiing
  • Easier on joints than running
  • Great for toning legs

Drawbacks:

  • Lack of proper technique can cause pain or injury
  • Requires good coordination
  • Kind of a niche piece of equipment; you might not enjoy it unless you’re a skier

Calories Burned Per Hour

Any type of outdoor skiing requires more than moderate effort – light cross country alone is nearly 7 METs. 

You won’t burn as much on an indoor ski machine since the machine is supporting you and removing impact. Plus, the lack of snow reduces resistance.

But as you’ll see, it still has a significant edge over other cardio machines.

The calories estimates below are for an expenditure of approximately 5.3 METs.

Weight lbs / kgCalories Per Hour Estimation +/-
125 / 56.7316
155 /  70.3392
185 / 83.9468
215 / 97.5544
245 / 111.1620 

3. The Treadmill

There’s a good chance you’ll find more treadmills in your gym than any other type of cardio equipment. 

And this is not without good reason: running on the treadmill can burn the highest amount of calories per hour. It all depends on your pace and effort.

Benefits 

  • Great for developing cardiovascular health and weight loss
  • Very easy to use; more predictable than outdoor terrain
  • Can adjust factors like speed and resistance (incline)

Drawbacks

  • Potentially stressful for joints
  • Can be too large and expensive for home use
  • For some, there’s not enough variation to keep long-term workouts interesting

 Calories Burned Per Hour:

The following calorie figures are based on a MET of approximately 5, on the higher side of moderate activity. 

An example of this expenditure on a treadmill would be 4 mph, a brisk pace on a level surface.

Weight lbs / kgCalories Per Hour Estimation +/-
125 / 56.7298
155 /  70.3370
185 / 83.9441
215 / 97.5513
245 / 111.1585

Related: 6 Best Treadmills with TV Screens Reviewed

 4. The Stair Climber

Many people hate climbing stairs, but it’s very beneficial. Various studies have found that it is associated with disease prevention and even a reduced chance of stroke.

Stairs help strengthen your glutes, thighs, hips, and abdominals. And if you use a stair climber, you’ll mitigate some impact on your joints.

Benefits:

  • Good for building bone mass
  • Works the posterior chain
  • Suitable for people with joint problems, whereas the treadmill is not

Drawbacks:

  • Not good for those with back pain
  • No upper body involvement
  • Takes getting used to; beginners will have to work their way up to an hour

 Calories Burned Per Hour:

Of course, the amount of resistance you choose will impact the burn. This data accounts for about 15 lbs. of resistance with an effort of 5 METs.

As you can see, the calorie burn is identical to the estimates for the treadmill. However, as we learned, the stair climber is easier on joints. 

If you are at risk for osteoporosis or arthritis, that can tip this machine in your favor

Weight lbs / kgCalories Per Hour Estimation +/-
125 / 56.7298
155 /  70.3370
185 / 83.9441
215 / 97.5513
245 / 111.1585

5. The Elliptical 

The elliptical is an excellent choice for those who prefer a little resistance with less impact on the joints. 

I’ll fire off some more pros and cons just below, but the elliptical has a unique quality that helps explain its continued popularity. 

It’s called the rate of perceived exertion (RPE). Because the elliptical takes your feet off of the ground, you don’t realize how hard you’re working. 

In fact, it can be just as effective as a treadmill, with less perceived pain and strain.

Benefits:

  • Easy on the body
  • Can involve the upper body with the use of poles
  • Can adjust to move backward, working the posterior chain

Drawbacks:

  • Won’t tone your legs as well as a treadmill
  • Can feel awkward to use
  • Despite being easier on joints overall, elliptical workouts may cause hip pain

Calories Burned Per Hour:

These calorie estimates are based on a MET of 4.9 – very, very close to the MET of 5 we used for treadmills. 

As always, this MET applies to moderate effort. On many machines, this would be a resistance level of 5.

Weight lbs / kgCalories Per Hour Estimation +/-
125 / 56.7292
155 /  70.3362
185 / 83.9433
215 / 97.5503
245 / 111.1573

Related: 5 Best Quiet Ellipticals For Apartments

6. The Stationary Bike

Next to treadmills, stationary bikes are one of the most common pieces of exercise equipment we see, even at home. 

Every decade or so, home stationary cycling enjoys a big renaissance (and then inevitably dips). 

Still, they’ll never leave gyms. Aside from being fantastic for cardiovascular health, cycling is a lot of fun for many. 

Benefits:

  • Increases endurance
  • Relatively low impact
  • Great for reducing stress

Drawbacks:

  • Can get boring
  • Poor posture on a bike can lead to back pain
  • Incorrect form can also damage wrists and neck

 Calories Burned Per Hour

The following data applies to a moderate 4.8 METs. Note that if you are taking an instructor-led cycling class, the intensity will get much higher at times. 

Weight lbs / kgCalories Per Hour Estimation +/-
125 / 56.7286
155 /  70.3355
185 / 83.9424
215 / 97.5493
245 / 111.1561

7. The Rowing Machine

The rowing machine is one of my personal favorites.  

Why? Because it also gives a great upper body workout. It targets your shoulders, the trapezii in your upper back, and the lats in your lower back. 

With proper form, rowing can be especially good for your back. One study even found it improved scoliosis in visually impaired people.

Benefits:

  • Good full-body workout
  • Relatively low impact
  • Can be much cheaper than a treadmill, if you want to do cardio at home

Drawbacks:

  • Can cause lower back problems if you are not paying strict attention to form
  • If you don’t have a strong core, maintaining good form on a rowing machine can be difficult
  • Very repetitive

Calories Burned Per Hour

You can burn a lot of calories on a rower. But remember, we’re keeping it up for a whole hour. Steady State Cardio (SSC) with moderate effort is the way to sustain.

This is an approximation of what one hour at 4.8 METs burns. 

Weight lbs / kgCalories Per Hour Estimation +/-
125 / 56.7286
155 /  70.3355
185 / 83.9424
215 / 97.5493
245 / 111.1561

Related: 10 Best Inexpensive Rowing Machines

Frequently Asked Questions

What burns more calories elliptical or rower?

In general, the elliptical. That’s using the same amount of effort for the same length of time.

Also, the RPE when using an elliptical might make you feel less tired.

However, you can get good use out of both.

The elliptical is better for toning and working the lower body. With proper form, you can strengthen back muscles with a rowing machine.

Which cardio machine is easiest on joints?

Of all the machines discussed here, the stair climber, elliptical, and arc trainer are probably the easiest on joints.

That said, if you love skiing or running outdoors, the treadmill and ski machine will be easier on joints than the outdoor activities.

That’s a big benefit of most cardio machines – they tend to go easier on joints than traditional, manual activity.

Final Thoughts

Today’s breakdown of which cardio machine burns the most calories was for informational purposes – it doesn’t have to dictate what kind of machine you use.

Ultimately, the cardio that’s best for weight loss is the type you will stick to. 

They all burn a good amount of calories. An extra 20 calories an hour is no reason to force yourself to use a machine you don’t enjoy.

What is your favorite cardio machine, and why? Does the difference in calorie burn matter to you? Let us know.