Fitness / Beginner Fitness

The Beginners’ Guide to Cardio Machines at the Gym

How to use the cardio machines at the gym when you have no idea what you're doing.

Like it or not, cardio is an essential part of being healthy. Although at times we may think of it as a chore, every doctor, trainer, and fitness buff can speak for its bevy of benefits.

We’re not just talking about weight loss. Reduced stress, a healthier heart and lungs, improved muscle density, and even decreased risk of some types of cancer and heart disease have been attributed to cardio.

We could wax poetic about it all day. All that’s great but what if you’re a total beginner when it comes to cardio machines at the gym?

Whether you’re just setting out on your cardio-fitness journey or jumping back in after a long break, it can be challenging to figure out where to begin—especially when you have skill level, injuries, and goals to consider. Wonder no more.

We’re here to tell you what makes each cardio machine different and beneficial in its own way. Keep your own goals in mind as you read, then try out some of the suggested Aaptiv routines!



The treadmill (like this at home version) is arguably the most straightforward of all the cardio machines.

With a single belt to stand on and a screen of buttons for customizing, getting started on this very popular machine couldn’t be easier.

First, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with a few of those buttons (namely quick start and speed). Once you’re ready to get on, straddle one leg on each side of the belt, atop the rubber strips.

Press the quick start button, which will start the treadmill at a very slow speed (.5 or 1, in most cases). If this is your first time, begin walking at this speed, slowly increasing until you’re at a moderate pace. Not sure what a moderate pace is? Ask yourself: Could I easily have a conversation at this speed? If not, you’re going too fast.

Although you may be tempted to hit the ground running, your first day—or first day back—stay at a walk. Does that mean you’ll fall into boredom from the start? No!

No matter what beginner routine you’re doing, the Aaptiv trainers will keep you in the zone while taking it slow, introducing different speeds and inclines along the way. As long as you understand the treadmill you’re on, we leave you with nothing to worry about. In fact, we’ve got five beginner runs to get you started off right.

Ready to hop off? As gradually as you started, slow the treadmill down until you’re practically at a standstill.

Whatever you do, don’t come to an abrupt stop, which can be harmful and, admittedly, embarrassing. Once you’ve reached the slowest speed on your ‘mill, hit stop. Remove any emergency features it might have and walk off using the rubber sides. Oh, and don’t actually hop off.


One of the most beneficial aspects of the treadmill is its variety. Users of all skill levels, ages, and sizes can use the tool to build up endurance, lose weight, and improve cardiovascular health.

Even while walking. With Aaptiv’s trainers and multitude of routines, you can easily begin to customize for the results you want. Looking to build stronger legs? Choose a workout with inclines.

Longer endurance? Choose a routine that goes from a walk to a jog, or a run. It’s seriously that simple. Also, make sure to avoid these common treadmill mistakes.
Check out the beginner treadmill workouts we have on the Aaptiv app!



The elliptical (this is another popular alternative) is often dismissed as the treadmill’s lesser, ineffective counterpart. Those searching for an easier time often seek it out, completely unaware of the effect it can have on their workouts.

Usually placed near the treadmills, these machines provide a low-impact, easy to understand cardio option. Ellipticals have their own set of buttons to familiarize yourself with.

Using an elliptical is pretty simple. But, before you step on keep in mind: the pedals will instantly start to move!

Start by getting a good grip on the handlebars on each side and step in. You’ll probably notice that the pedals are pretty, uh, huge. That’s okay!

Actually, the extra room provides comfort. Just make sure you align your feet with the edges of each “foot” to avoid any strain on your hips. As always, use proper form by straightening your back, tucking your abs, pushing your pelvis forward just slightly, and never looking down! Unless you’re making a quick adjustment, that is.

From there, pick a set of handlebars to hold onto (stationary for stabilizing, moving for extra upper body movement). Keep a light hold and a bend in the elbows, then get pedaling! Similar to the treadmill, start off at a moderate pace—no incline or resistance just yet. Remember to keep a slight bend in your knees, too, since locked joints can cause pain later.

Once you’re comfortable, pick your poison! Er, routine. Gradually introduce the controls (now’s time for those incline and resistance buttons), always aiming for a smooth motion.


An elliptical can go toe-to-toe with the treadmill in terms of physical and cardiovascular benefits. Yet, the real benefit lies in the potential to get an effective, low-impact workout.

It allows for an easy bend in the knees, as well as that smooth motion we talked about. Speaking of knees, it’s proven to be good for those, too. Whether you’re recovering from an injury, have aching joints that need some support, or just want to shake things up, the elliptical is pretty much the perfect option.

Check out the beginner elliptical workouts we have on the Aaptiv app!

Indoor Cycle


Also known as the spin bike or stationary bike (this is a top seller), the cycle is another very popular addition to anyone’s fitness routine.

Touted by the likes of serious athletes, social media influencers, and Victoria’s Secret models, you can find machines and classes just about anywhere.

Don’t give in to the hype and jump on immediately, though. There are some things you need to know—and do—before putting the pedal to the metal.

First thing’s first: Prep. This includes adjusting your seat height and handlebars. Ideally, when either pedal is at its lowest point, you want your leg to be almost (but not entirely) straight.

When that’s achieved, you’re at the right cycling height for you. You want to avoid pushing your hips forward or straining your legs to reach the pedals. If that’s the case, you should lower your seat.

As for handlebars, you want your arms to be able to reach out to them at shoulder level comfortably. You can get step-by-step instructions on how to set up your bike, here.

Next, strap your feet in. Believe it or not, cycling is much easier and far more comfortable when using the straps.

Don’t believe it? Try it out. Also, check your form. Hold your chest up, keeping your shoulders down, and avoiding hunching or rounding your back.

Once you’re all adjusted and strapped in, it’s time to get moving. You might want to move the pedals with only your toes, but that’s just a whole lot of foot strain waiting to happen.

You wouldn’t ride a regular bike that way, would you? Instead, start with the ball of your foot and push through to your heel as you press down. Then, pull up using the top of your foot.


Although it’s not a total-body workout, cycling has proven itself to be a calorie burning, heart-pumping challenge. And, since it isn’t high impact, there’s less of a chance you’ll hurt your knees, ankles, and hips. The stationary bike also burns fat, improves strength (thanks to endurance muscles), and is good for your mental health. It’s the right cardio machine to go for if you want a low-impact, killer workout—because, surprising to some, both of those can exist in the same routine.

Check out the beginner indoor cycling workouts we have on the Aaptiv app!

Stair Climber


Stair climber, StairMaster, step machine, stair stepper (like this at home version)—they’re all variants of one thing—moving stairs.

A major upgrade from jogging up and down football field bleachers, the machine consists of a set of hand rails and upward-moving steps. So, how do we get started?

Begin by lightly placing your fingertips on the front or side bars. You should actually be able to use the stair climber without touching the bars at all, but using them for balance (especially as a beginner) is totally okay.

What you don’t want to do is depend on them too heavily by placing all of your weight forward and off of your legs. This reduces the muscle usage in your legs, as well as total calories burned.

What you want to do now that you’re on is, of course, check your form. It might come as a surprise that you don’t actually want to stand completely straight. That’s overcorrecting. Instead, leaning forward just a tad will prevent both your back and knees from overcompensating (overarching and locking out, in this case).

Now, like every machine before this, start off slowly, then at a comfortable moderate pace. If you find yourself clutching the bars to keep up, you’re going too fast. Avoid quick, hop-like steps that’ll hurt your calves and take even steps instead.

Finally, keep your entire foot on the stairs or pedals. Not doing so can also put extra pressure on those calf muscles.


Much like the elliptical and cycle, the stair climber is a top choice for those wanting a low-impact cardio machine that can still increase your stamina. While scorching calories, you’ll also be kicking your quads, calves, hamstrings, and bum into high gear.

More in tune with building muscle, this cardio machine is for those who want to do so while also getting their heart rate pumping.
Check out the beginner stair climber workouts we have on the Aaptiv app!

Beginner Fitness Health


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