The Best Home Cardio Equipment: Compact And Effective


Everyone needs to do some cardio exercise regularly. To do it at home a machine is a great tool to get the best workouts. But which type of cardio machine works the best for a home gym?

The best home cardio equipment for small spaces and low ceilings are; 1.) Exercise bike 2.) Rowing machine. Treadmills and elliptical trainers work if you’ve got enough space and at least 8’ high ceilings. The Stairmaster requires a higher ceiling than most home gyms have.

Why are these the best options, how much space do you need for all of these and more can be found below.

Cardio Equipment Options

There are quite a few different cardio machines on the market. Some are popular while others are quite rare. Unless you’re training for a very specific sport or have a certain limitation that prevents you from using the most common

  • Treadmill
  • Exercise bike (Spin/Recumbent/Upright/Air)
  • Rowing machine
  • Stairmaster
  • Elliptical trainer

If you’ve got enough space and money, any of the machines above will work. However, there are a few characteristics that make some of these common cardio machines more or less suitable for a home gym setting. Let’s look at these machines in detail to see what the best is for you.

Of course everyone has different considerations so hopefully this information will help you choose the right option that works best for you.

Treadmill

The treadmill is by far the most popular cardio machine in any gym. Any gym in the world has treadmills and there are some good reasons for that. Walking and running are very natural ways of moving your body and almost everyone can do it. It also carries over very well to other daily activities.

Running is a great way to burn calories. There are machines on this list that burn a few more calories per minute but if you want to train to run, there is no better option.

There are lists of how many calories a certain machine burns per minute and they are all a little different. Some seem to be more effective than others. However, in the end it’s largely about what you enjoy doing and how much effort you put in. So while a treadmill might burn a few calories less per minute than some other machines, if you like running, just go for it. You’ll be more likely to stick to something you enjoy than something that’s 5% more effective but you don’t like to do.

Suggested: How fast can you run on a treadmill?

Running on a treadmill can be quite impactful though. Because every footfall shocks your ankles, knees, hips and spine, recovery can be a bit harder than from a workout on other cardio machines.

Floor space

Treadmills are big machines, especially the higher end models. To have a belt that’s big enough for the average person to run on, you are already looking at a 20” x 60” size. And that’s only the belt. Of course there is much more that has to go around the belt to make everything work so you’re left with a pretty big machine. For the average treadmill, you’ll need a free floor space of about 4’ by 7’.

Ceiling height

A treadmill is a machine you use standing up. When running you even lift off the belt a little. The belt is already a few inches from the floor so if you’re tall, and got a low ceiling, a treadmill might not work. You need about 20”-22” of headroom above your own height. That gives you enough room to run on the average treadmill That means if you’re 6’ tall you need a ceiling almost 8’ high to use a treadmill. That kind of ceiling height is not uncommon in most spaces of a house but some parts like the basement are lower than that.

Suggested: Best home gym equipment to use under low ceilings

Price

Because treadmills are so popular, there is a very wide range of models, brands, qualities and therefore prices. The cheapest treadmills only cost about $300 but the quality of those is questionable, especially in the long run. On the other side of the spectrum you’ve got models that won’t leave much change from $10k. Most people will be able to find a good treadmill for $1000 to $2500.  

Exercise bike (Spin/Recumbent/Upright/Air)

Actually you could split up the exercise bike category into four different types of bikes. They are all a little different but the movement is largely the same. You always pedal with your feet and the resistance is adjustable. The one exception is the air bike which is a bit different.

  • Spin bike: The basic exercise bike you’ve probably seen in spin classes. Effective, sturdy and no fancy bells or whistles. It’s just a frame with a flywheel and handlebars. Great for high intensity workouts.
  • Upright bike: Think of this as the dressed up version of a spin bike. The seating position is slightly less bent over and often these bikes have more electronics. This makes them a bit better for low intensity, steady-state cardio.
  • Recumbent bike: Just want to be comfortable? A recumbent bike has a nice comfy low seat and backrest. This is the perfect bike to read a book on while getting a workout done.
  • Air bike: Air bikes are a bit different since they use a fan blade to create resistance which can be very tough. They also often have arm levers which means it turns into a full body exercise which can burn more calories if used correctly.

Read more about air bikes here

The types have some differences but they are all effective and take up roughly the same floor space which is why I’ve grouped them together.

Floor space

As said, there are different types of exercise bikes and they have different sizes. However, all exercise bikes are quite compact except recumbent bikes. Recumbent bikes are a bit larger although most of them are still more compact than a treadmill.

All the other types of exercise bike are the most compact type of cardio equipment you can buy for your home gym. And within exercise bikes, spin bikes are the smallest although upright and air bikes aren’t far behind. To comfortably use a spin bike you need a space of about 4’ by 6’. However, because it’s light and small, you can easily push it into a corner after use where it takes up much less space.

Ceiling height

As long as you can stand up under your ceiling without hitting your head, you can use any exercise bike. Spin bikes and upright bikes require the seat to be a bit above hip height. So when sitting on it, your head will be at roughly the same height as when standing up. Also when you stand up on the pedals your always bent over so your head is nowhere near the ceiling.

Recumbent bikes and air bikes have their seat a little lower than spin and upright bikes so your head will be even lower. Rowing machines are a little lower so need even less ceiling height but exercise bikes need less floor space.

Price

Because there are quite a few different types of exercise bikes, there are also many different price ranges. The smallest exercise bike is a spin bike. Luckily good spin bikes can be bought for as little as $300. Of course there are more expensive models but this is the cheapest cardio machine for home use on average. Recumbent and upright bikes are quite a bit more expensive though.

Rowing machine

Rowing is a great workout. It uses your legs to drive the biggest part of the movement but it’s also necessary to use your back and arms to complete it. The back is an often forgotten body part that doesn’t get enough attention in the gym. It’s very important to have a strong back for general fitness and longevity though. Having strong back muscles can prevent a lot of back pain as well.

Because it uses the upper and lower body, you have the potential to use a lot of muscle mass at the same time which means you can burn more calories per minute. On top of that, it’s a low impact way of cardio exercise. Because rowing is one smooth motion, there are no impacts that can hurt your joints and spine. All in all rowing is a very effective and safe way of working out.

Find out more about rowing and fat loss here.

Floor space

A rowing machine is often foldable. So while it is long and skinny when in use, it’s often possible to fold up the slide rail for compact storage. To use a rowing machine, you need a free floor space of about 4’ x 9’. This does seem like a lot but as said, you can usually fold them for storage and then they only take up about 2’ x 3’.

Ceiling height

If you’ve got super low ceilings, a rowing machine is the best option. The seat is only about 18” from the floor so you’ll be able to use a rowing machine under 5’ high ceilings without problems. Just be careful when standing up.

However, if the ceiling is very low, you might not be able to fold up the slide rail. This really depends on the model though. The Concept2 rower will fit folded up under 5’ ceilings. How practical building your home gym under 5’ tall ceilings is, is another question.

Price

A cheap rower can be had from about $300 but I wouldn’t recommend any of them. At that price range it’s very hit or miss. A decent rowing machine can be bought for around $600 while the gold standard of rowers (Concept2) costs $900 – $1100. If you’ve got the money, I would certainly recommend the last option.

Stairmaster

A Stairmaster is basically a rolling flight of stairs. As everyone will know, walking up stairs is a lot more intensive than just walking on level ground. A Stairmaster is quite intensive but only uses the lower body. There is almost no upper body involved. While it’s pretty effective at burning calories and building some lower body strength, it’s too much of a one trick pony in my opinion. It just allows you to walk up stairs at different speeds. In a gym with many different machines, it’s good to use sometimes. In a home gym where you only pick one, there are better options.

If you want to get something similar to a Stairmaster that’s a bit more versatile, just get a treadmill that can do very high incline angles like the Bowflex Treadmill 22. Sure, the position of your feet will be a different but the used muscles and intensity will be quite similar.

Or if you live in an apartment building, find the fire escape and run up and down a few times. It’ll be very similar.

Floor space

It’s not like it’s a very compact machine either. Stairmasters are about the same size as an average treadmill. So again, getting a treadmill with high incline setting offers more value per square foot of space used. A treadmill can be used at many more different settings after all.

To place and use a Stairmaster you’ll need about 4’ x 6’ of floor space. Yes that’s the same as an exercise bike but, the Stairmaster is much bulkier than a bike and harder to move around. These things weigh over 600 lbs. so if you want to move it around, you better bring some strong friends. There is no way to easily push it into a corner after a workout.

Ceiling height

Because you’re basically halfway up a flight of stairs all the time, the ceiling has to be pretty high to use a Stairmaster. The manufacturer recommends a minimum ceiling height of 10’ to safely use the Stairmaster.

Price

The price of Stairmasters would be the final nail in the coffin for me. These things are outrageously expensive for home use. Compared to a high end commercial treadmill it’s not that far off but I wouldn’t recommend one of those for home use either.

There aren’t really any cheap options either. You get the brand name Stairmaster or nothing because there aren’t many other options.

Elliptical trainer

The elliptical trainer is one of my personal favorites. It combines walking/running with the option to use arm levers to create a full body workout. Combine that with the lack of impact on the joints like a treadmill and you’ve got a recipe for a machine that can burn a lot of calories with very low injury risk.

The low impact also means the recovery is easier on your body so you can use it more often without getting those little aches and pains regular running can bring.

Floor space

While effective, elliptical trainers are quite large. For a good model, you’ll need a space of about 4’ by 8’ to properly use it. This is more than a treadmill. So while it’s a great and safe workout, it’s definitely not a compact machine.

Ceiling height

The height requirements for an elliptical trainer are similar as for a treadmill. That means about 20”-22” on top of your own height. So 8’ tall ceilings will work for most people. This is not a problem in most home gyms or other places where you can put an elliptical trainer but it’s good to check before buying.

Price

A good elliptical trainer is not cheap but a decent model can be bought for around $1000 to $1500. There are some decent models for around $700 but they are quite simple. For $2000 or over you can expect commercial quality machines with large screens that are super smooth to use.

Best home gym cardio machines

Knowing all the information above, here are the best home gym cardio machines in my opinion.

  1. Exercise bike: Exercise bikes are the most compact and a good quality bike can be bought for less money than other machines. It’s a very effective way to burn calories and get a good cardio workout going. On top of that, you don’t need a high ceiling to use it. All that combined make any type of exercise bike a great choice. If you want a more relaxed, steady state workout a recumbent bike is good while for high intensity workouts a spin or air bike is amazing.
  2. Rowing machine: Number two because rowing machines need more space than exercise bikes but on the other side, this is the machine you can use under the lowest ceilings, can be stored compact, provides an intense but yet low impact full body workout. If you’ve got enough space, it’s actually a better option than an exercise bike.
  3. Elliptical trainer: A great way of getting a low impact, high intensity workout that feels the same as running (which many people want). An elliptical trainer is however quite bulky and a good one is expensive.
  4. Treadmill: The first cardio machine everyone thinks about. A good choice if you have enough space to properly use it and want to run. There are smaller and slightly more compact and effective ways to burn calories but if your personal preference is a treadmill there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a treadmill.

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