Level-Up Cardio Equipment That Will Whip You Into Shape Fast

There's nothing wrong with your tried-and-true cardio workout on the elliptical machine. It's familiar, it's reliable . . . and it's boring. Don't pretend it's not. The good news is, fitness companies have spent a lot of time and research developing new and innovative equipment to make your standard cardio workout just a little bit better.

In some cases they've revamped a familiar concept (like an elliptical machine or treadmill), to make your workout a little more functional. And in other cases, they've developed a medium for recruiting more muscle groups simultaneously, kicking your calorie-burn into high gear. As an exercise physiologist with a master's degree in exercise science, these are the pieces of equipment I turn to when I want to get my heart pumping. Seek them out the next time you hit your gym's cardio room floor.

Woodway Curve

If you've never tried a non-motorized treadmill, the Woodway Curve may feel a little strange at first. Unlike traditional treadmills that use a motor and a rotating belt to help you log your miles, the Woodway Curve is completely self-powered, using nothing more than the power of your own legs to propel the belt forward. But non-motorized treadmills aren't new—they've been around for decades. What sets the Curve apart is its curved design.

The "U" shape makes it easier to speed up, maintain your pace, and slow down by simply changing your location on the belt. As you move forward, pushing the belt down behind you, your pace increases, and as you move backward, pushing the belt up the "U," your pace slows. Ultimately, this type of self-powered motion is more challenging than on a traditional treadmill, and studies confirm you burn more calories on the Curve than you do on a motorized treadmill. Plus, the Curve doesn't require electricity and is practically maintenance-free, so if your gym is looking for ways to "green up" their facility practices, it can't hurt to suggest they add a few Curves to the cardio room floor.

Octane Zero Runner

For serious runners, the Octane Zero Runner is quite possibly one of the coolest new pieces of equipment on the market. Technically, it's neither a treadmill nor an elliptical trainer, but a hybrid machine that combines the natural running motion you'd perform on a treadmill with the zero-impact experience of an elliptical. What really makes the Zero Runner special is its double "joints" at the hip and knee that enable you to completely customize your gait and stride length, rather than being forced to alter your gait based on the preset limitations of an elliptical trainer.

What results is a study-confirmed experience that's equivalent to a treadmill workout, but without the impact of running on a hard surface. This means you can run more frequently and for longer distances while reducing the likelihood of lower-extremity injuries. First developed as a high-end piece of residential fitness equipment, the Zero Runner now has a commercial version, so if your gym doesn't have them yet, it's time to put in a request!

VersaClimber

The VersaClimber's been around for almost 40 years, but it wasn't until Jason Walsh, a celebrity personal trainer, opened up Rise Nation, a boutique fitness studio dedicated to VersaClimber workouts, that the funny-looking piece of fitness equipment really started gaining steam. What sets the VersaClimber apart is its design—standing at seven-feet tall, the piece of equipment has pedals and hand-grips that slide up and down the frame, mimicking the motion of climbing up a ladder. Users control the speed and range of the sliding motion, but even small, slow movements elicit a significant cardiovascular response.

In fact, according to a study published in Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, the VersaClimber was more effective at eliciting the highest VO2 max values—a measurement of cardiovascular fitness—than running on a treadmill or rowing on a rowing machine. In other words, this workout will get your heart pumping! Because of its challenging nature, most VersaClimber workouts are kept short—30 minutes or less—or are set up in an interval-training format that alternates between climbing on the VersaClimber and performing other exercises, like squats, lunges, planks, and push-ups.

Concept2 Rower

Like the VersaClimber, the Concept2 rower has been around a long time, cycling into and out of style based on current fitness trends. And like the VersaClimber, the rower is also an excellent cardiovascular option because it engages the upper and lower body simultaneously while providing a no-impact workout. One thing that sets the rower apart, though, is that it's more easily modified to all fitness levels, making it a good cardio alternative for just about everyone.

In fact, one study found that rowing is even an appropriate workout for some wheelchair-bound, elderly individuals, as the seated position is more comfortable and places less stress on the knees than other cardiovascular forms of exercise. The trick is getting the form right, as proper rowing form is a little tricky to master. Check out this video to get started, and don't be afraid to ask a trainer for tips.

IC7 Myride VX Personal

If you've ever attended a group cycling class, you know they're serious business. In addition to delivering a lung-burning, thigh-screaming workout routine, they're just plain fun. The problem is trying to emulate that same experience outside of a group class. It's a whole lot harder to really push yourself when you're alone in the relative quiet of the cardio room floor. The solution? the IC7 Myride VX Personal offered by Life Fitness.

The IC7 bike is the most technically-advanced group cycling bike on the market, and the winner of five separate design and innovation awards. And while the bike is exceptional in a group-cycling setting, what's really cool is the option to use it as an individual rider. The Myride VX Personal set-up includes a tablet screen that provides immersive video experiences and coaching you can follow when you're exercising alone. So the next time you can't make it to an official cycling class, no worries! Just see if your gym offers a few of these bad boys so you can pedal to heart-pumping music and professional coaching whenever you're ready to ride.

Assault AirBike

If the Assault Airbike looks like something you saw your grandparents using in the 1980s, you're not entirely off-base. In fact, I vividly remember the stationary bike my grandfather had that looked eerily similar. But just because something looks "old school," doesn't make it ineffective.

The Assault bike, unlike other stationary bikes or spin bikes, requires upper and lower-body engagement throughout the workout as you have to push and pull the handles while pedaling the pedals. And because the bike uses resistance from the fan built into its front "wheel," the faster you pedal or the harder you push and pull your arms, the more challenging your workout becomes.

Eric "ERock" Botsford, an official Tough Mudder Trainer points to the Assault bike as one of his favorite pieces of cardio equipment, "It offers a full-body exercise, but it makes you work for it, preparing you for any challenge. Before Tough Mudder events, I use the bike for warm ups to get my joints moving through their full range of motion."

Crossrope jump ropes

You don't have to have high-tech equipment to get a killer cardio workout in. Crossrope jump ropes are one of my personal favorite ways to get my heart racing. Unlike traditional jump ropes, with Crossropes, the handles and ropes detach from each other, enabling you to switch between ropes of different weights.

The lighter the rope, the easier and faster it turns, giving you the chance to work on speed and double-unders. Conversely, when you opt for a heavier rope, you work more on power, grip strength, core strength, and overall control. And finally (and possibly best of all), by switching back and forth between different weights, it's a whole lot harder to get bored!

Leveling up your workout without fancy equipment

The truth is, some equipment is better than other equipment. Some equipment is more fun or novel than other equipment. But that doesn't mean you can't get a serious workout on whatever equipment you happen to have available. The trick to a great cardio workout lies in pushing yourself hard enough to experience change.

One great way to enhance your cardiovascular capacity is to incorporate interval training into your routine. While there are lots of ways to do this effectively, an easy way to start is to use the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale while incorporating longer, lower-intensity intervals. The RPE scale is a scale of one to ten, where the one on the scale equates to little to no exertion, and the ten equates to an all-out effort you couldn't possibly maintain for longer then a few seconds.

Start by performing a brief, five-minute warm-up on whatever piece of cardio you're using, gradually building up to an intensity of five or six. Then cycle between one minute at RPE seven, followed by two minutes of RPE four or five. If you're exercising on a treadmill, this is basically the difference between a fast jog or loping run (where you're pushing yourself, but not sprinting) and a slow jog or fast walk. Continue cycling back and forth between the two intensities for eight rounds (24 minutes total), then cool down for five to ten minutes at an RPE of two or three. Just like that, you've given your cardio routine a makeover for maximum benefit!

Choosing the Best Cardio Equipment

The reality is, the absolute best piece of cardio equipment is the item you'll actually use. If you love your tried-and-true elliptical machine, by all means, keep your good habit going. But as new and innovative pieces of equipment pop up at your local gym, don't be shy about giving them a whirl. You may love some and hate others, and that's okay. It's all part of the experience of developing a lifelong love of fitness.

The point is, fitness companies are always hard at work trying to make equipment that's more efficient, more beneficial, and perhaps even more fun. Instead of getting stuck in a rut, go ahead and try new things. You might discover a new machine or workout you truly enjoy.