This is a very interesting topic and merits further investigation.
Is the elliptical the best form or cardio? How does it compare to running or even rowing?
In order to answer this question, it’s first important to understand 2 things:
1. We burn roughly 5 calories for every liter of oxygen consumed.
2. Inefficient movements generate more heat
I explain these in full detail in the following video and in the text below it…
We’ve established that an increased oxygen intake during your workout (based on the training method chosen) and afterwards (as a result of EPOC) leads to a greater caloric expenditure. This is a result of the simple fact that each liter of oxygen intake burns 5 calories.
So if the goal is to consume large amounts of oxygen then what do you think would be the ideal form of cardio to do?
Well, let’s look at the typical options. Running, biking, swimming, elliptical, rowing, walking, stair climbing/stair master, upper body ergometer, and obviously many outdoor sports such as cross-country skiing.
Since the goal is to maximize oxygen consumption (and thus VO2) it is essential to find activities that will recruit the greatest amount of muscle. This is because the more muscle that is needed to perform an activity or movement, the more oxygen that will be needed to supply those working muscles.
Oxygen is the precursor to all the energy your body produces. Your working muscles need oxygen otherwise they will quickly fatigue and will be unable to perform their functions.
It is well known that athletes in sports that require large amounts of muscle have the highest VO2 max because their sports demand a massive supply of oxygen to their working muscles.
The highest VO2 max on record exist not in runners (as many would think) but rather cross-country skiers – rowing is a close 2nd.
Think about that for a second. Both cross-country skiing and rowing involve just about muscle in the body working against resistance. Both the upper body and lower body muscles are pushing and pulling a given resistance which makes these sports not only great aerobic training tools but also fantastic fat burning machines.
If you’ve ever watched Olympic rowing you will have undoubtedly noticed towering men and women stacked with large and lean muscles. Most of the male rowers are upwards of 6’4’’ and 220 lbs of shear muscle, making them calorie-burning machines.
These male and female rowers can get away with their large frames because rowing is not a true weight-bearing sport.
In fact, this terrific sport idealizes large muscular athletes because they can produce a lot power, both aerobically and muscularly, through your large muscle mass.
However, If you took these same rowers and asked them to run at the same intensities at which they row, they would most likely have a difficult time – not only because of the specific nature of running but also because they would be “carrying” a lot of mass.
How many 6’4”, 220 lbs runners do you know of?
Most runners are slim and slight. It simply makes their movement much easier. Less weight to carry means less effort.
If you have a tough time envisioning this then I encourage you to go for a run with a 20 lbs pack on your torso. You will immediately notice the difference.
Similarly, most cross-skiers don’t exhibit the same physical stature as rowers.
However, their aerobic capacity is astronomical. They are more similar to runners in physical stature as cross-country skiing is a weight-bearing sport and thus does not reward athletes with lots of weight, even if it’s muscle.
Cross-country skiing burns more calories – at a given weight and intensity – than any other activity.
However, running is very close. Let’s look at why…
Why does running burn so many calories?
There are two main reasons for this.
First, running is weight bearing which means that the muscles of your lower body must work harder to support you and propel you forward; thus, expending more calories. Therefore, the heavier you are, the more calories you will burn (assuming equal intensity as someone who is lighter).
Second, running is one of the least efficient of human movements, which means that it produces a lot of heat/energy expenditure for its movement. This also means that a lot of calories are being spent. This is great for those who want to lose weight but not so great for those looking for efficient modes of movement.
But it makes sense if you think about it…
Cycling is easier than running, right?
That’s because cycling is one of the most mechanically efficient human movements, meaning that more of the energy you put into the movement actually results in movement (and not as much heat production) as running!
But What If Running is Not Your Thing?
If running is not your cup of tea for whatever reason (joint pain, don’t enjoy it, etc…) then your best bet for burning maximum calories and getting a terrific cardiovascular training effect is rowing and/or cross-country skiing. The reasons for these 2 choices have already described. However, there is another great option if you don’t mind the weight-bearing activities – the stair climber!
In my experience working with over 1000 people from all walks of life I’ve seen first hand what works most effectively. The science only backs up my observations.
For instance, an eye-opening study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that among 6 popular indoor exercise machines, treadmill running yielded the greatest energy expenditure (ie. calories burned). The second most effective in this study was the stair climber. These 2 machines ranked higher than rowing, cycling, and the elliptical.
What would be even more effective?
An elliptical machine that incorporates vertical resistance! DOUBLE-WHAMMY!
I like the stair climber because it forces your body to work against gravity vertically. I’d like to remember this very important notion. Are you ready? Ok, here it is…
Any time you move your body vertically you will be spending a tremendous amount of energy, especially if you are heavier.
That’s why walking or running up hill is so challenging. Even in cycling, the most efficient hill “climbers” weigh the least.
If you are NOT able to run or don’t like running, I firmly believe that you best bet for interval cardio training is to use the elliptical machine – but only if you use it properly.
There are numerous types of elliptical machines do a pretty good job at mimicking the cross-country skiing movement.
But the biggest challenge facing elliptical users is that they don’t know how to properly use the machine.
I am always amazed at how many people (especially women) who spend hours upon hours on the elliptical simply going through the motion without much effort (and perhaps while even reading a magazine!).
The fact that the elliptical is a very simple machine to use presents a catch 22 scenario. On one hand, it is definitely beneficial for those with joint issues who can’t tolerate high impact activities like running. But on the other hand, the nature of the movement makes the elliptical almost too easy, rendering it a very ineffective for fat loss tool for many people.
UNLESS… you do something very important.
And I’ll tell you what that is tomorrow!
Yuri Elkaim is one of the world’s most trusted health and fitness experts. A former pro soccer player turned NYT bestselling author of The All-Day Energy Diet and The All-Day Fat Burning Diet, his clear, science-backed advice has transformed the lives of more than 500,000 men and women and he’s on a mission to help 100 million people by 2040. Read his inspiring story, “From Soccer to Bed to No Hair on My Head” that started it all.