Outside magazine, January 1998
That's right. Because aside from a recent long-term study at the University of Florida, which showed that cross-training at high intensity often causes injuries, there's the matter of practicality. If you ignore your trainer's pleas to constantly mix it up, you can do with a lot less equipment. The key is to choose a cardiovascular machine that replicates the biomechanics of your favorite sport and make it the cornerstone of a streamlined home gym. And if you're going to invest several thousand dollars, it's wise to get top-quality equipment: stationary bikes with smooth drive trains, treadmills that go at least ten mph, stair climbers with independent pedals, skiing machines that incline, and rowers that make you feel like you're sculling on the Charles.
With a little ingenuity, you can supplement your newly prized aerobic beauty with a set of dumbbells for strength training and a few other small items that together will fairly well replace a Universal Gym — and save space and money in the process. In the end, your streamlined gym will fit neatly in any corner of the house, and it will last for years to come.
When it comes to pedaling in place, look for smooth-stroking machines that allow you to gradually vary the resistance, which gives the sensation and benefit of riding up real hills. The options extend well beyond standard bikes found at the club, and the best choice depends on why you're logging miles on a stationary bike in the first place.
People who simply prefer to take their aerobic exercise sitting down on a bicycle seat will gravitate toward the stalwart Lifecycle 5500 HR
If you suffer back pain or simply want a more comfortable way to cycle, try the Schwinn Airdyne Backdraft ($799). This recumbent — you sit in a padded chair and pedal with your legs in front of you — uses a large fan for its brand of resistance. Twist a nifty shifter on the handlebar to make it harder (and louder). The display panel beams up readouts of time, distance, calories, and even watts, handy for some highly sophisticated regimens.
For a workout that more closely replicates the feel of riding your bike, you might just ride it inside. Like many such bike stands, the CycleOps Fluid+ Trainer ($290) renders any steed shod with smooth tires a stationary machine. The difference here is a thoughtful bit of technology: Instead of whirring noisily in the open air of your living room, the resistance fan is encased in a drum filled with silicon, which also results in thigh-burningly realistic resistance. Combine its five settings with all the gears on your bike, and you can select up to 120 levels of resistance, but there's no electronic feedback. For that, try CycleOps' brainy eTrainer ($1,099), which uses the Fluid+ Trainer stand and adds an electromagnetic brake, heart-rate monitor, and handlebar-mounted console. The software allows you to record your efforts on an actual ride and then put yourself through the same workout at home.
The best treadmill on the market below $2,000 is the Precor 9.2s ($1,899). The reason? Like all Precor treadmills, the 9.2s uses a microprocessor that adjusts the speed of the belt upon each stride (called integrated foot-plant technology), preventing that herky-jerky sensation typical of less powerful or sophisticated machines. It features a maximum 10 percent incline and a continuous-duty 1.5-horsepower motor, as well as a cushiony deck.
If you want a little more performance and happen to have another $900 to drop, the Landice 8700 Programmable ($2,795) will suit the most intense of runners. The deck inclines to an interval-emulating 15 percent, and the speedometer goes to 12 mph. You'll be able to keep going at this hard-charging pace for 6,000 hours, because the deck flops over once one side is worn out. The combination of the three-horsepower continuous-duty motor and the reinforced aluminum frame would allow Goliath himself — or anyone weighing up to 400 pounds — to run indoors without fear of buckling this machine.
The first rule of buying a stair climber: No matter how inexpensively enticing it looks at the garage sale, pass up the dependent-pedal variety, which pushes one foot up as you depress the other pedal. Independent climbers — similar to those escalator varieties that aren't available for home — force you to do the work, making you lift each leg and step up so you don't sink to the bottom. Chain- or cable-driven resistance machines run infinitely smoother than the alternative hydraulic versions.
Climb on the StairMaster 4400 PT ($2,295), cue up "Gonna Fly Now," and you'll know how Rocky Balboa felt atop those steps. A patented chain-driven resistance system that keeps pedal speed even throughout the stroke
If you simply can't do without the handrails, try the Tectrix CardioTouch 2000 ($3,095). A cable-driven machine, the Tectrix runs quieter than the StairMaster. Protruding below the electronic console is something unusual: a T-bar with proprietary rubber hand grips for reading your heart rate. Thanks to quicker and more sensitive sensor technology, gripping the bar while you're stepping along produces an EKG-accurate reading that you can use to program workouts within target heart-rate zones. And the CardioTouch 2000 is built to keep up with the most demanding of stair climbers, with a top pace of 200 feet per minute — more than any other home unit.
NordicTrack remains the best maker of cross-country ski trainers at any price. The new MedalistPlus ($900) one-ups the familiar Classic with refinements like fatter skis and a lower stance, which enhance overall stability — crucial, considering how awkward it is to learn any ski machine. Now
If your snow-sport interests run toward alpine adventures, whether skiing or snowboarding, no aerobic machine will do the job. The Tri-Level Wobble Board ($59) from Fitter International, however, is a low-tech toy that'll improve your balance. You stand on a saucer-shaped board that rotates and wobbles atop a dome of polyurethane anchored to the center of the board.
Why fool with perfection? With its weighted flywheel, which emulates the momentum-stifling effect of water on the hull, the Concept II Indoor Rower ($725) does an admirable job of giving you a real-world workout. Sliding back and forth on the stainless-steel and aluminum H-beam, you can vary the resistance by adjusting the air-flow in and out of the fan housing. For an extra $100 you can add a heart-rate monitor to enhance the built-in feedback, such as strokes per minute.
Photographs by Michael Llewellyn; Clay Ellis