The Best Cardio Workouts At The Gym

Looking for better cardio workouts at the gym? We’ve got your back. When it’s time to hit the gym, most of us have two rules: Get in and out as fast as you can, and get the most out of every minute you spend there. That’s because there’s a glass of rosé waiting for you at your post-workout brunch with friends. But there’s an unspoken secret third rule that most of us live by—the workouts need to be interesting. Otherwise, gym time gets boring fast. Like really fast.

So when time is tight and you’re looking for an efficient gym cardio routine, it’s easy to head straight to the treadmill. And yes, running, jogging, and walking on the equipment is a great way to have a quick and effective workout—you don’t have to think much while doing it, and you know it’s going to spike your heart rate. More often than not, though, it breaks that third rule (they don’t call it the “dreadmill” for nothing).

So next time you’re walking near one, well, keep on walking. Gabe Valencia, C.S.C.S., M.E.S., co-founder of FocusNYC and Focus Personal Training Institute says these eight pieces of gym equipment are begging to be used instead, and in return they’ll give you a few cardio workouts at the gym that are totally worth your time.

1. Get climbing with the VersaClimber.

While we’re not ones to discount the stair climber machine (it definitely raises your heart rate and helps sculpt a firm booty), Valencia suggests mixing things up and trying the VersaClimber. This machine simultaneously combines upper body and lower body “climbing” that is regulated by your own pace—the faster you move, the faster the machine moves. For a great low-impact routine, Valencia suggests doing 90-second sprints at a vigorous effort, followed by two to three minutes of active recovery. Repeat until you hit the 20-minute mark.

2. Get hooked on the TRX.

These black-and-yellow suspension straps are hanging in nearly every gym (and even homes) for good reason: “They’re portable, relatively inexpensive, and extremely versatile,” says Valencia. Plus, they make exercises super-scalable, meaning you can make a single move easier or harder, usually just by adjusting your stance. A few moves that get your heart rate up include single-leg burpees and mountain climbers. And here’s a supercharged total-body TRX routine.

Never used a TRX before? Ask a trainer at the gym to give you a quick tutorial, and show you how to make the straps shorter or longer. (Hint: Pinch the metal attachment and slide up or down.) And remember to keep your core tight with each move you perform. Those who are new to the straps tend to sag through the midsection, says Valencia, which can increase your risk of injury because it puts unnecessary pressure on your lower back.

Related: 20-Minute Small-Space Workouts

3. And use a jump, jump, jump rope.

If your main goal is to burn lots of calories in the shortest amount of time, then Valencia suggests picking up a jump rope—here’s a seven-minute jump rope routine you can do. And if you want to make it part of a more comprehensive circuit workout, Valencia suggests doing four rounds of the following routine:

  • Jump rope for five minutes
  • 50 sit-ups
  • 15 box jumps (jump up and step down)
  • 20 kettlebell swings

4. Pick up the pace on a fan bike.

Airdyne bikes (and other upright fan bike models) might look old-school thanks to the gigantic fan in the wheel, but that fan is exactly what gets your whole body working when you’re on it. “It’s like the bike is literally pushing back at you when you use it due to the air resistance from the fan,” explains Valencia. “So the faster you pedal, the more resistance you get and that really engages your muscles.” That said, pedaling is only one part of the equation. You get an upper body workout, too, because you have to push and pull the handlebars to help keep that front wheel churning. “Combining that component with the pedaling—and the resulting air resistance—is what makes this machine so awesome,” says Valencia.

Want to give it a go? After a light warm-up, tackle this pyramid workout he put together. During the sprints, Valencia says to push to maximum effort, or a 9 or 10 on a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale of 1-10.

  • Sprint 10 seconds, Rest 50 seconds
  • Sprint 20 seconds, Rest 40 seconds
  • Sprint 30 seconds, Rest 30 seconds
  • Sprint 40 seconds, Rest 20 seconds
  • Sprint 40 seconds, Rest 20 seconds
  • Sprint 30 seconds, Rest 30 seconds
  • Sprint 20 seconds, Rest 40 seconds
  • Sprint 10 seconds, Rest 50 seconds

5. Flex your mind and your muscles with agility ladder exercises.

You probably used one all the time during high school soccer practice, but if you haven’t touched one since, it’s time to start. “Agility ladders require focus and coordination, which puts your central nervous system (CNS) to good use,” says Valencia. “Studies have shown that intense activities that require you to use your CNS can help increase mental performance and cognitive ability.” Translation: You’re boosting your brainpower for the office, the classroom, or even your weekly trivia night by using one.

But that’s not the only benefit: Agility ladders also work different planes of motion—you can go sideways, backward, forward, and add twisting motions—to help strengthen different muscles and improve overall athleticism, says Valencia. And of course, since they’re called agility ladders, they make you more agile—quick and well-coordinated while you move—and raise your heart rate quickly when you practice drills like fast feet, lateral shuffles, or this multi-directional move.

Related: 13 Incredible Bodyweight Exercises You Can Do At Home

6. And lift heavy with a barbell.

“The barbell is one of the most under-utilized, misunderstood pieces of equipment in the gym,” says Valencia. But it’s also one of the most effective tools you can find. “Performing exercises back-to-back with it is one of the most metabolically-challenging ways to train.” That said, just because you want to speed through your routine doesn’t mean you can sacrifice form. “Barbells require technical skill to use, so people are prone to make mistakes if they’re not paying attention,” he says. So if you haven’t tried barbell moves before, check in with a trainer to go over movement patterns as well as to help determine the appropriate amount of weight to add to equipment. Beginners can always ditch the barbell but use a barbell weight plate to add extra resistance to basic strength moves—see an ultra-effective weight plate workout here.

7. Push it real good with weighted sleds.

There’s a reason pro athletes use this brutal conditioning tool: It works—fast. “All you need is open floor space and then you can push it or pull it. You can go heavy on the weight and push slowly across the room, or you can lighten up the load and zip across,” says Valencia. Proof: Here’s Hilary Duff doing the workout like a boss. Not every gym will have this equipment, but if you spot one at your local spot, it’s worth trying. “It requires every muscle to pitch in and help, so it’s great for increasing your heart rate and really working yourself out both aerobically and anaerobically,” he adds. Not to mention your explosive leg power will skyrocket once you work the sled into your regular training routine.

8. And lift, toss, and twist with sandbags.

A great tool for total-body workouts, sandbags are often referred to as “odd objects,” says Valencia, because they’re hard to handle and require a lot of effort to move (because they weigh so darn much). But that means you’re going to burn more calories. For a cardio hit, choose one that you can comfortably lift (they come in different weights, usually 10 to 80 pounds, says Valencia) and gently place on one shoulder, then quickly bust out 10 step-ups on a plyo box or stairs, he suggests. Switch the sandbag to the other shoulder and repeat. Here’s an excellent total-body sandbag routine you can try the next time you’re at the gym.

You can also use sandbags to add weight to strength exercises like squats and overhead presses, which you may prefer to, say, squatting with a kettlebell since the sand allows the weight to contour to your body so it rests more comfortably on your shoulders. Or, for a more demanding cardiovascular exercise, try a sandbag burpee…oh yeah!

Related: 10 Weird Gym Tools Explained

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