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Here is one thing I love about strength and conditioning: There is a method for everyone at every stage in life. I know that sounds rather optimistic, but as a certified personal trainer who’s worked with people of all skill levels—from teenagers to seniors and everything in between—I firmly believe you can work around nearly any obstacle and introduce (or reintroduce) training into your life. 

The treadmill has an extensive history and is one of the most popular pieces of fitness equipment for commercial gyms and home gyms alike. However, what happens when you’re not able to use a treadmill? Although the treadmill is a popular option, it’s not the only one. 

There are many great alternatives that can help you reap all the same healthy benefits you get from walking, jogging, or running. This is a comprehensive guide to navigating treadmill alternatives including other cardio machines and options for strength training.  

Why a Treadmill Alternative?

For one reason or another, you decided to search for the best treadmill alternatives. Perhaps your space is small and you share it with three roommates on the third floor and even the smallest, most space-saving folding treadmill won’t work. 

Maybe you’re like me and just loathe running. I also experience intermittent knee pain that is often provoked with tight quads and hip flexors, and running doesn’t always help my case. 

Speaking of pain, those of you who experience chronic pain in your ankles, knees, or hips might be on the hunt for anything that allows you to increase your heart rate and burn calories without the repetitive impact of running or walking. Cue the low-impact workout machines! 

It’s possible to bring your knees and hips through full range of motion and keep them happy (and quiet) at the same time. Low-impact machines like rowers and exercise bikes are just two examples of treadmill alternatives. 

Cardiovascular Benefits

No matter the reason you’re searching for treadmill alternatives, you’re probably also seeking the same aerobic benefits people get from using their treadmills during home workouts. Your heart is made up of muscle tissues1 just like the other muscles that make up your entire body. 

That said, your heart can become stronger and more efficient at pumping blood to the whole body when it endures the stress of cardio exercise. According to the American Heart Association (AHA)2, being physically active can help lower blood pressure, increase good cholesterol, and improve circulation—all functions of a healthy heart. However, to reap the benefits of exercise, the AHA recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each week. 

What Are The Best Treadmill Alternatives?

Although this is not an exhaustive list of all the alternatives to treadmill workouts, this list will give you some ideas of where to turn if the treadmill just isn’t cutting it for you. Treadmill alternatives include:

  • Elliptical machines
  • Rowing machines
  • Exercise bikes
  • Vertical climbers
  • Smart home gyms

Elliptical Machines

Ellipticals are cardio machines that offer the most similar body mechanics to walking, while offering a low-impact experience to the joints for all fitness levels. 

Benefits of Ellipticals

Ellipticals reduce stress to ankles, knees, and hips because your feet stay in contact with the pedals rather than one foot lifting off the ground while the other foot takes the weight of your whole body for a brief millisecond. Most ellipticals have resistance that you can control through the console, however you’re totally in control of your own speed, which makes it easy to perform high-intensity interval training

Coop using the best elliptical NordicTrack 14.9

Things to Consider About Ellipticals

Not all ellipticals are created equal. Some machines mimic walking while others feel more like stair climbers. The good news is, we have an entire elliptical buying guide to help you with the process of finding the right machine for you. 

For now, just know that there are a handful of considerations that go into purchasing a large piece of fitness equipment including space requirements, drive system, type of resistance, and flywheel weight. These factors can help you find a machine that you’ll want to use and is built to last. 

What Muscles Do They Work?

Ellipticals usually have handlebars that move in sync with the foot pedals so you can activate your upper body in addition to the lower body. For the lower body, the elliptical primarily targets the quads while you’re pushing the pedal down and propelling into the next stride. You also utilize the hamstrings and glutes to power your legs through a full range of motion—mainly hip extension. 

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Rowing Machine

A rowing machine is a cardio machine that mimics outdoor sport rowing and primarily works the upper body, although the legs are a major factor in producing power. 

Benefits of a Rowing Machine

Unlike team rowing, you’ll be solo on your home rowing machine while still getting some of the same health benefits from the open water. Outdoor rowing can certainly add additional benefits of being outdoors and getting sunlight, but indoor rowing is still efficient at burning calories, increasing your heart rate, and engaging muscles from both the upper and lower body. 

In a March 2008 study3 published in the Medicine & Science in Exercise and Science, found that in a group of experienced rowers those who underwent a 12-week program of low-intensity rowing improved their VO2 max just as much as those who underwent a 12-week program of mixed intensity (aka interval training). 

Woman using the Model D Concept 2 Rower in her living room

VO2 max in basic terms is a measurement to indicate your overall cardiovascular and metabolic health by measuring how much oxygen you can intake during exercise. Based on the findings of this study, both steady-state, or low-intensity can be just as effective at improving overall health as high intensity interval training. 

Types of Rowing Machines

There are three main types of resistance in rowing machines.. 

  • Air rowers: Air rowers are pretty much big fans. The more air the fan intakes (meaning, the faster you row), the fan blades gain more resistance as you pull.
  • Water rowers: Water rowers are similar to air rowing because there is a fan inside the water holding tank that creates resistance as you row. Water rowers are different because the resistance changes depending on how much water is filled in the tank. 
  • Magnetic rowers: The resistance can be adjusted to your liking—typically with a touch of a button—which signals a magnet to adjust its position against the metal flywheel. The closer the magnet is, the more resistance you get. 

What Muscles Do Rowing Machines Work?

Rowing is truly a full-body workout because you have to push your legs and extend your hips and pull the rowing handle by using your back muscles. With correct rowing form, you can stimulate the entire body including your core. 

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Exercise Bikes

Stationary bikes bring outdoor cycling into your home without the constraints of the elements.  

Benefits of an Exercise Bike

No matter what type of bike you’re riding, you’re going to get the benefits of increasing your heart rate, which ultimately stimulates a laundry list of full-body benefits. 

In a September 2018 review4 published by the Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine, researchers assessed the cardiovascular benefits of regular exercise including lowered blood pressure, reduced risk of heart disease, and higher insulin sensitivity—a fancy way of saying your body is good at processing glucose (sugar) and using it for energy. 

woman riding peloton bike

You can reap all of these benefits without dealing with the outdoor elements, uneven terrain, or the bustling traffic of your neighborhood. Additionally, cycling is low-impact and can be a terrific option for anyone with achy joints or recovering from injury. 

Types of Exercise Bikes

There are several different types of home stationary exercise bikes to choose from. Although all choices give you a predominantly leg-driven cardio workout, your personal preferences paired with your fitness goals will determine what kind of bike is best for you. Here are the most common stationary bikes you’ll find:

  • Air bikes: The faster you pedal, the fan intakes more air, which creates more resistance on the fan blades. Air bikes have the user in an upright riding position.
  • Upright bikes: One of the more common saddle styles, meaning you mount the bike like a traditional bike. 
  • Studio cycle bikes: This is also an upright bike, but the resistance is usually changed with a knob and is typically either friction-based or magnetic resistance. 
  • Recumbent bikes: Slightly reclined riding position with a cushioned seat and backrest. Pedals are out in front of your hips versus directly below your hips in an upright position.

What Muscles Do Exercise Bikes Work?

When pedaling, different muscles are stimulated depending on what part of the pedaling cycle you’re in. When one foot is pushing downward to create force, into the next revolution, the main working muscles are the quadriceps. At the same time, your opposite leg is recruiting the hamstrings to draw the legs back up toward the torso to complete the revolution. 

Cycling also stimulates the glutes, hip flexors, and calves. Let’s not forget that cycling also engages the muscles that are helping you stabilize including your core, upper back, and arms.

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Vertical Climbers

Vertical climbers simulate outdoor rock climbing, using both the upper and lower body to climb in place. 

Benefits of a Vertical Climber

Typically, when more muscles are stimulated at once during a bout of exercise, the overall calorie expenditure goes up. Therefore, we can consider a vertical climber a fairly efficient workout since it engages all major muscle groups. 

In a table published by Harvard Health5, researchers found that 30 minutes of rock climbing can burn up to 336 calories in a 185-pound person, whereas walking at 4 MPH burns 189 calories for the same amount of time in a 185-pound person.

woman using clmbr

Vertical climbers are another low-impact option as your feet don’t leave the pedals and your joints don’t have to absorb your body weight with every step. 

What Muscles Do Vertical Climbers Work?

Vertical climbers engage a variety of muscle groups including your legs, upper back, arms, and core. Your upper back and shoulders work to help pull you through the climbing position and your quads, hamstrings, and glutes engage to push down into the pedals and propel you into the next step.

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Smart Home Gym

A smart home gym is just a high-tech way to perform resistance training at home, with fitness app technology and led by certified personal trainers. 

Benefits of a Smart Home Gym

A smart home gym is a great way to improve your overall strength and endurance. Lifting dumbbells, barbells, and other methods of resistance training will increase your heart rate, but don’t expect to be gasping for air like you might on an all-out bout of speed on a rower or exercise bike. 

According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)6, resistance training does not typically improve maximal oxygen consumption like other cardio methods, however it can improve the development of cardiovascular endurance and performance.

In a 2017 study7 published by the World Journal of Cardiology, researchers explore the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise training effects on heart health. Both have unique factors in increasing cardiovascular health. 

Tonal vs. Tempo: Coop and Amanda exercising with Tonal and Tempo Studio, respectively, in a smart home gym room with blue walls.

Consistent strength training can lead to an increase in your anaerobic threshold8, which is the highest level of intensity you can sustain during exercise without causing a buildup of lactic acid. This type of energy expenditure doesn’t rely on oxygen intake, rather stored energy in the body called ATP, which can still make an impact on overall metabolic health. 

What Muscles Do Smart Home Gyms Work?

Depending on your goals and the type of workouts you perform, it’s likely you’ll be training all the major muscle groups. You might be led through full-body strength training routines or weekly splits that break up legs and upper body. 

With either method, smart home gyms typically offer fitness classes for a variety of levels—adjusting the programming as you improve. You might start performing squats with just bodyweight and progress to loaded squats with dumbbells. Your progress and overall strength adaptations can lead to great performance when you choose to introduce traditional aerobic training into your routine. 

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Treadmill Alternatives: Final Thoughts 

Whether you don’t like running or you just don’t have the space needed for a treadmill, there are alternatives to treadmill workouts. The good news is that there is no single path to progress in the arena of strength and conditioning. A mix of aerobic (cardio) and anaerobic (resistance training) is a trusted method to increase heart health in addition to increasing strength and changing your body composition. 

At the end of the day, using exercise equipment that you enjoy and want to use is what matters most. That could be a mix of strength training and HIIT workouts. It could also be a mix of calisthenics and steady-state cardio—it’s up to you to decide.

Treadmill Alternatives: Q&A

What is a better alternative to a treadmill?

There is more than one treadmill alternative, however we suggest ellipticals, exercise bikes, rowing machines, vertical climbers, and smart home gyms. 

What are the disadvantages of using a treadmill?

One disadvantage to owning a treadmill is the fact it takes up a lot of space. Treadmills can also be a pretty intense workout for anyone with chronic joint pain or mobility issues. Low-impact machines can offer a safer workout for people with joint issues. 

What other exercises can you do on a treadmill?

Treadmills offer a space to walk, jog, or run. You can also try adding weights to your treadmill workout for a total-body experience.

References 

  1. Ripa R, George T, Sattar Y. Physiology, Cardiac Muscle. StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. 
  2. American Heart Association. Why is physical activity so important for health and well-being? 2017, January 14. 
  3. Ingham SA, Carter H, Whyte GP, Doust JH. Physiological and performance effects of low- versus mixed-intensity rowing training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008;40(3):579-584. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e31815ecc6a
  4. Nystoriak MA, Bhatnagar A. Cardiovascular Effects and Benefits of Exercise. Front Cardiovasc Med. 2018;5:135. 2018 Sep 28. doi:10.3389/fcvm.2018.00135
  5. Harvard Health Publishing. Calories burned in 30 minutes for people of three different weights. 2021, March 8. 
  6. Haff GG, Triplett TN. Essentials of Strength and Conditioning. Human Kinetics. 2016. 
  7. Patel H, Alkhawam H, Madanieh R, Shah N, Kosmas CE, Vittorio TJ. Aerobic vs anaerobic exercise training effects on the cardiovascular system. World J Cardiol. 2017;9(2):134-138. doi:10.4330/wjc.v9.i2.134
  8. Wasserman K. The anaerobic threshold: definition, physiological significance and identification. Adv Cardiol. 1986;35:1-23.

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Here is one thing I love about strength and conditioning: There is a method for everyone at every stage in life. I know that sounds rather optimistic, but as a certified personal trainer who’s worked with people of all skill levels—from teenagers to seniors and everything in between—I firmly believe you can work around nearly any obstacle and introduce (or reintroduce) training into your life. The treadmill has an extensive history and is one of the most popular pieces of fitness equipment for commercial gyms and home gyms alike.  » Read more about: Treadmill Alternatives: You Can Row, Bike, or Stride Your Way to Better Health  » Read more