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Are hybrid trainers good for cardio exercise? The pros and cons you should know

We examine the benefits and disadvantages of using hybrid trainers to get two workouts out of one machine

There are quite a few options to choose from when considering what type of cardio exercise machine to use at a gym or to purchase for your own home. Although every type of cardio machine will provide an aerobic workout that elevates your heart rate, strengthens your heart and lungs, and burns calories, each type of exercise machine will work slightly different muscles and provide a different set of specific benefits. For example, indoor cycling bikes predominantly work the muscles of the lower body, including the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves, with very little upper-body or core muscle involvement. 

What muscles do hybrid trainers like Bowflex MAX Trainers or elliptical bikes work? What are the benefits of hybrid trainer workout machines? Keep reading to learn more about how hybrid exercise machines work and the benefits of cardio workouts on these types of exercise machines.

What are hybrid trainers?

aerobic cardio gym equipment.

A hybrid trainer, also called a hybrid exercise machine, is a general term used to describe a piece of cardio exercise equipment that doesn’t necessarily fall into the standard fitness equipment categories. A hybrid trainer may combine two or more different types of traditional cardio exercise equipment. One example is an elliptical bike, which is a single piece of cardio equipment that has a bike component and an elliptical or stair stepper component.

Also included under the umbrella of hybrid exercise machines are those that don’t fall as neatly into one of the other normal categories of cardio equipment. Good examples of this type of hybrid cardio machine are the Bowflex MAX Trainers, such as the Bowflex M9, which combines the striding motion of an elliptical and the stair-climbing motion of a StairMaster or stair-stepper machine.

Benefits of hybrid cardio exercise machines  

Bowflex Max Trainer M9 elliptical on gray background.

The specific benefits for using and/or buying a hybrid exercise machine depend on hybrid trainer itself. Regardless, here are some of the top benefits of these types of cardio workout machines:

More economical, versatile, and compact

Hybrid trainers that combine two different types of cardio exercise into one highly versatile machine can be a more economical purchase. For example, hybrid elliptical bikes typically combine a recumbent bike and an upright elliptical into one unit. You can sit back on the seat and pedal the foot pedals as you would with a normal recumbent bike, or you can drop the foot pedals down, raise the console, and stand upright on the foot pedals to use the machine as a compact elliptical trainer. The flexibility in workout types can help prevent boredom and give you two different options for cardio workouts at home.

The more variety that you add into your typical fitness routine, the more well-rounded your strength and fitness routine will be. You can either focus on a lower-body, low-impact cycling workout, or you can engage in a total-body, low-impact elliptical workout depending on your needs and goals for the day.

Instead of spending money on two different exercise machines and finding the floor space to accommodate both, you can have a dual-purpose exercise machine at a more affordable cost.

More challenging and effective

Other types of hybrid trainers, such as the Bowflex MAX trainers, have the benefit of increasing the difficulty of a workout to maximize the efficiency, number of calories burned, muscles worked, and overall fitness and health benefits of the workout. A MAX trainer cardio workout maximizes your workout time by harnessing the most impactful aspects of each constituent form of exercise into a new unique movement pattern.

For example, stair-climbing is one of the most efficient and effective ways to strengthen the muscles of the lower body, including the glutes, hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, and calves. However, most traditional stair-stepper machines have stationary handlebars that eliminate the muscle involvement of the entire upper body and core. On the other hand, while standard elliptical trainers do have movable handlebars to provide a total body workout, the striding pattern on the elliptical has a lot of glide to it, so it is demanding on the muscles and cardiovascular system than stair-climbing. This reduces the difficulty of the workout and decreases the number of calories you burn per minute, and it does not strengthen the muscles of the lower body as appreciably.

The Bowflex MAX trainer capitalizes on the pros of each machine and eliminates the cons. You have the vigorous, high-resistance, metabolically demanding motion of climbing stairs while simultaneously pumping your arms against heavy resistance with the movable handlebars, as with an elliptical machine set at a high level of resistance. The resultant hybrid motion maximizes the efficiency and effectiveness of the workout and provides both cardio and strengthening exercise at the same time.

Low impact

Both types of hybrid trainers provide a low-impact workout. This can reduce joint stress and be more comfortable for users with arthritis. It can also reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injuries.

The MAX trainers are designed to be used for low-impact, high-intensity intervals training (HIIT). Due to the high-intensity nature of HIIT workouts, studies suggest that HIIT workouts can provide the same health and fitness benefits as, if not more than, moderate-intensity steady-state training in about 40% less time, making MAX trainer HIIT workouts an extremely efficient type of exercise. Moreover, the HIIT workouts can boost your metabolic rate for up to 14 hours after your workout, which means you’ll be burning more calories even at rest.

Downsides of hybrid exercise machines

Man picking up back of Proform Elliptical on white background.

As with most things, with the good comes a little bit of bad. There are a few potential downsides of hybrid trainers as well, including the following:

Compromised quality

The primary drawback of the first type of hybrid trainer, such as the elliptical bike previously discussed, is that most of the hybrid trainers for at-home use are budget exercise machines that try to strike a decent balance between affordability and effectiveness. The recumbent bike portion will not be as robust as a premium, standalone recumbent bike, and the same can be said for the elliptical.

Because the same flywheel and pedal stroke are used for both activities, there will be some degree of compromise in the movement pattern compared to a regular bike or elliptical trainer. For example, the recumbent bike pedal stroke on a hybrid elliptical bike is usually a bit more of a front-and-back pedaling motion than a full cyclical motion. With the elliptical, the stride length is usually more compact than larger, high-end home ellipticals. This can be uncomfortable for users with longer legs or those looking for top-of-the line performance from their exercise machine.

Less transferable to athletic performance

In terms of the Bowflex Max trainer style of hybrid cardio machines, there are few drawbacks aside from the fact that the type of movement pattern you’re performing doesn’t readily replicate a sport that you might compete in, such as running or cycling. All this means is that if you are a competitor runner trying to become a faster runner, a treadmill might be a better investment because the type of daily training you’ll be doing on there will better mimic outdoor racing than the stair-climbing elliptical motion of a MAX trainer.

However, if you’re not training for a specific athletic discipline, or if you plan to use the exercise machine for low-impact cross-training workouts to supplement your running, the Bowflex MAX trainer can be a fantastic investment and training tool for distance runners.

Should you buy a hybrid exercise machine?

Proform hybrid trainer.

Depending on your fitness goals, budget, and exercise preferences, buying a hybrid cardio trainer can be a great investment. It’s versatile and budget-friendly, and it takes up less room in the home than two separate pieces of fitness equipment.

Remember, any type of cardio exercise is beneficial for your health. Choose activities that you enjoy and that feel good for your body.

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Amber Sayer
Amber Sayer is a fitness, nutrition, and wellness writer and editor, and was previously a Fitness Editor at Byrdie. She…
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