Which is better—the elliptical machine or the almighty treadmill? Does a boot camp class beat a cross fit session? Dumbbells or weight machines? Yoga or Pilates? Certainly, no exercise satisfies all your needs. Exercises come in different intensities, tackle diverse energy sources and movement patterns, and vary according to every individual’s goal, fitness level, overall health and age.
While every exercise has a place in any training routine, there are some that perhaps give you more reward, such as caloric expenditure, strength, flexibility, endurance, better bone health, and even greater motivation.
So when faced with a choice between two similar exercises look at the pros and cons of each before making a decision. Bret Contreras, CSCS; Nigel Harris, senior lecturer, Sport & Exercise Science, AUT University, New Zeeland; and Kelli Calabrese, exercise expert with “Living Well with Montel,” provide their expertise and point of view when making these eight exercise comparisons.
The elliptical machine, stationary bike or treadmill?
Contreras’ pick: If you want to go all out, the bicycle would be good, as its low impact and involves a lot of quads, hamstrings, and calves. And when you sprint it’s harder.
Harris’ pick: The treadmill for the weight bearing impact. Weight bearing exercise has been linked to prevent osteoporosis—bone loss—more than any other type of exercise. Likewise, weight-bearing impact will have a higher physiological demand, thus higher energy cost.
Calabrase’s pick: Elliptical machines. They involve an upper and lower body component, are low impact, have up to 10-plus different programs, and can go up to 20 levels to keep people challenged. You also can change the focus from lower to upper body or both; it promotes good posture, is easy to perform intervals, and more comfortable than a bike seat; it involves the core and best mimics striding without the joint stress.
Free weight circuits or resistance-machine circuits?
Winner: Free Weight Circuit
All three experts agree on the free weight circuit. This is usually eight to 10 exercises performed one after another with minimal rest in between that work the major muscles. According to Calabrese, free weight circuit is ideal because they involve major stabilizers muscles, help to promote bone growth reducing osteoporosis, improve function for every day movements, are easy to progress, and allow the body to move freely in all planes of motion. On the other hand, machines isolate one or several small muscle groups, must be properly adjusted, do not fit all sizes, and you are often limited to the number of machines available.
However, don’t ditch out the machines completely. Beginners and people recovering from an injury or long rest period may be better off with machine exercises before moving to free weights.
Yoga or Pilates?
Calabrese’s pick: Pilates incorporates both mat work and apparatus for variety and progression.
Pilates was originally done on the mat before equipment and apparatus were added. Anytime you continually do an exercise, your body adapts and needs additional stress. That stress can come in the form of added resistance. When you do body weight exercises like Pilates, involving other equipment, such as cables, bands, balls, or other apparatus, is a way to add resistance and therefore progression.
Harris’s pick: Pilates is a more complex workout. In many ways floorwork is similar to yoga, but equipment-based Pilates in particular is essentially overall strength, balance, and range of motion combined. Yoga tends to be more range of motion and proprioception—body sense of space—with some core strength.
Boot camps or Crossfit?
Contrera’s pick: Crossfit has more of a system to it than boot camps. The fact they have determined the workouts of the day, set up the Crossfit games, you can have 10 people cheering you on during deadlifts. That support boosts results in two ways. 1. During the actual workouts you are on the supportive high. 2. You have an accountability—if you miss a workout, you’ll get called out.
Calabrese’s pick: Boot camp is still more appealing to the masses. The beauty of boot camp is that anything goes. Depending on the experience of the coach, the camps can include a variety of modalities from martial arts and Pilates to obstacle courses, speed, agility and quickness, strength, and more. Cross Fit is effective—it’s adapting training from existing styles, such power lifting, track and field, gymnastics, and other established disciplines. However, there is still a smaller percentage of the population that would consider a cross fit style of training. The injury rate with cross fit also may be higher compared with boot camp. This is due to repetition, the heavy use of resistance, the high volume of training, and/or the shortage of recovery time between high intensity workouts.
Zumba or aerobic-strength group classes?
Harris’s pick: Aerobic-strength group classes are more complete—they tax the cardiovascular system and add resistance to work the muscles. They attract groups that are often intimidated by resistance training, especially women. That in itself is a good as resistance training should be a fundamental part of exercise for health and wellbeing for everyone, not just young males wanting to get big. The flip side is that big class techniques can go astray, as it is sometime hard for an instructor to watch everyone. Also, people do have a tendency to just go through the motions. Of course, this is still better than inactivity, but it is not an effective way to progress unless you keep adding resistance and making sure you push yourself so every rep counts.
Calabrese’s pick: Zumba. It’s fun, high energy, heart pumping, and social, which are important factors to consider to ensure you stick with a fitness program. Traditional group strength classes have been around a long time and after time the high repetition, low weight workout becomes not as challenging. Zumba simply wins for the fun factor and it fills a void in people’s lives to dance to music, moving their bodies, and doing so in a social setting.
Planks or crunches on a physioball?
Experts like both. However, the edge went to planks because it is sometime tough to properly perform crunches—people use momentum and involve other muscles that should not be stressed (have you ended with a neck pain rather than abs sore?). “Planks improve core stability—in the front, side, abdominals, obliques, gluteus medius, quadratus—it’s a really amazing exercise,” says Contreras.
Barbell chest press or dumbbell chest press?
Winner: Dumbbell Chest Press
You can’t go wrong with the dumbbell press. “You have more freedom due to the natural movement of the press. You have to work both sides independently of each other. You also can add rotational movements for variety,” says Calabrese. Likewise, studies show that DB press allows you to put less stress over the shoulders and the wrists, and this movement freedom will guarantee you hit the muscles from every angle.
Squats or lunges (for a better butt)?
Winner: Lunge—and Neither
Calabrese’s pick: Lunges can be done in a variety of ways from stationary to dynamic. Both are highly effective for developing a firm butt. There is especially emphasis on the glutes when the weight is focused throughout the heel of the front leg versus the ball or the foot. Drive up from the front heel and you can feel the glutes engaged, especially on the front leg. You don’t need to go as heavy on lunges as you do on squats to feel the glutes work.
Contrera’s pick: Neither. You instead should do the barbell hip thrust. A hip thrust, or bridge, exercise involves extending the hips, and pulling them forward to a neutral position with the spine. This movement works your core muscles: the glutes, hamstrings, and low back and abdominal muscles. You can do hip thrust exercises on the floor, or for more of a balance challenge, on a stability ball. You can also do single leg hip thrusts. The hip thrusts also don’t stress the joints like a squat or lunge. You can add an isometric contraction at the top of the hip thrust that gives an intense gluteus maximus contraction.
Here is how to perform the barbell hip thrust: Sit on the ground with your back up against a bench, facing up, and a barbell in your lap, and your feet on the floor. Your upper back should be across the bench. Bridge upwards like you is performing a hip extension. You should be level from your shoulders to your knees. Your knees should remain bent.
Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach and master trainer, who teaches as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website, martamontenegro.com, combines fitness, nutrition and health tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.